The Orphan Chronicles

From 1998 until this year when both of my parents died of old age and natural causes, I knew Lois Lillico only from an arm's length as the stern night nurse at the health-care unit of Presbyterian Village North, the retirement community on Forest Lane near Greenville Avenue where they lived their final years.

She was stern. I assumed she was probably a nice person, just very professional. But...I was afraid of her. She had this look. Kind of like, "Do you have business with me, sir? Serious business?" I found that I seldom did have business with her.

Then one evening she lifted away that mask of frosty professionalism and told me, pretty much out of the blue I thought at the time, that she was an old-fashioned orphan, a Little Orphan Annie who grew up at the Buckner Orphans Home near Urbandale in what is now Southeast Dallas. I'm slow on the emotional uptake. Later I realized her reaching out to me had not been out of the blue at all: She knew that my father was within days of his death. He did die. Suddenly, something I had never foreseen, expected or thought about happened to me.

I was an orphan.

By then, because of Lois Lillico, I had this new band of friends, people I had met through her, all of whom had been orphaned the hard way, not in their 50s like me but when they were children. I found that many of them were like Lillico, armored on the outside but with big hearts inside, instinctively aware of others who have been left alone somehow in the world, not just by families but by politics, race, money, health, anything and everything that can orphan a human being.

During my father's final weeks, Lillico brought me artifacts of her childhood, a yearbook from the orphanage, alumni newsletters and finally a wonderful book of reminiscences published by the Buckner alumni association called The Orphan Chronicles. I was fascinated by these touching personal sagas and by the idea that here in our midst--people we see and deal with every day--is a tribe of Texas Oliver Twists. I even looked up my own favorite scene in Dickens' novel: "He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity: 'Please, sir, I want some more.'"

Think about it. When was the last time you even heard children here referred to as orphans? Orphans are in China. Not Dallas.

I asked former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson and Juvenile District Court Judge Hal Gaither, two people with vast experience in the warding of children, neither of whom tilts a centimeter toward political correctness, and both of them agreed: It just isn't said.

"We don't use the word 'orphan' in social services," Jackson told me.

Children are "in placement." They are "in foster-care support services." They're something, but they're not orphans.

Whatever they are called, they are many. According to the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS), there are more than 10,000 children in the Dallas region who are not able to live with their parents, either because the parents are dead or because something else is wrong with the family.

Each of those 10,000 children has been placed somewhere by the courts, in temporary custody or in a foster home or with adoptive parents, but never in an Oliver Twist orphanage. It would seem self-evident that the modern system, with its emphasis on keeping kids in family-like settings, is more humane than the way children lived at Buckner in the old days. The scenes the Buckner orphans painted for me often seemed unbearably sad. Heartbreaking.

Tourists sat in a balcony over the huge dining hall, eating their own picnic meals of fried chicken, a delicacy never on the orphan menu. They looked down with tears in their eyes while 800 children marched into the hall single file and silent, ate by bells and whistles, scrubbed their own dishes and marched away. A woman who grew up at Buckner told me, "We would giggle and say, 'They're watching the poor orphans eat.'"

But I'm not sure we can leap to the assumption that the modern system of temporary placements and foster homes is superior or even kinder. For one thing, when children were walked through the huge manned gates of the Buckner orphanage they tended to stay put. Even though the system today has made a valiant effort to achieve what it calls "permanency" for wards of the court, the fact remains that these children move a lot. In the Dallas area, according to TDPRS, barely 4 percent of the children who are removed from their homes wind up being legally adopted. The ones who are never adopted live in an average of six different "placements" before they "age out" of the system at 18.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

Latest Stories