The Waco State Home was officially established in 1919 with the purchase of 95 acres of land located near what is now the business section of Waco, Texas. The Texas Legislature intended the grounds to be used as housing for a portion of the state’s children whose parents could not afford, or refused, to care for them. The home, which closed its doors in 1979, accepted only white children between the ages of four and sixteen until the 1960s when the impact of the Civil Rights Movement began to be felt. It is important to note that, as Sherry Matthews makes clear from the title of her new book, these children were not orphans; they were taken into the Waco State Home as wards of the State because their parents were not caring for them properly.
We Were Not Orphans is about the Waco State Home, those who worked at the facility and, most importantly, the children who spent formative years there. Matthews, one of whose earliest memories is that of her three brothers being carried away by strangers to live at the Waco State Home, knows first hand the impact that the Home had on thousands of Texas families. Her brothers would remain at the Home for six years; some children would spend more than a dozen years there; and others would be adopted, never to return to their parents and siblings.
In 2008, while attending a reunion at the Home with one of her brothers, Matthews floated the idea of publishing a collection of firsthand accounts of life at the facility. The response she received from other attendees was so positive that she began the work that would result in We Were Not Orphans. Matthews worked with dozens of the members of the Home’s alumni association, gathering as many of their firsthand accounts as possible, and she researched whatever public and private records to which she could gain access. There is no doubt, however, that the book’s real power and impact comes from the 54 taped interviews, divided by decade, that are transcribed in the book.
What Sherry Matthews learned was not pretty. Despite all the good that was accomplished at the Waco State Home, much damage was also done to the children who lived there. That the staff was peppered with sadists, rapists, perverts, and incompetents was a well-kept secret because those with the power to do something about the problems tended to look the other way. This often willful inattention to what was happening in the boys’ and girls’ dormitories allowed horrific child abuse to exist there for several decades. It was only in the early 1970s that any real change in that regard came to the Home – just a few years before it was closed and converted into a psychiatric residential treatment center for young people.
In the meantime, young girls became pregnant and disappeared from the school, physical discipline often resulted in bloody children or broken bones, male perverts observed little girls in their communal showers, and children were used as slave labor to run a 235-acre farm rented by the Home. Sadly, even though most of the damage was done by a limited number of child abusers, no effective effort was made to end the abuse until a Federal judge stepped in and ruled that living at the Home equated to “cruel and unusual punishment.”
No so surprisingly, however, many of those who are quoted in the book consider going to the Home to have been one of the best things that ever happened to them. This is especially true of individuals who came to the Home during the Depression era because, for many of them, it was the first time they had enough to eat. They were also blessed with a decent education, the chance to earn a little money all for themselves, scheduled outings, and a structured system that helped prepare them for life after the Waco State Home. In many ways, they were better off than the brothers and sisters they left behind.
While the reader will come away from We Were Not Orphans disgusted by how long it took officials to clean up a terrible situation at the Home, he cannot help but be heartened by the utter resilience of most of the children who passed through those doors. There is a lesson to be learned here and we can only hope, for the good of the children still living in such places, that the right people have learned it.
Rated at: 5.0
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)