Presentations and Publications
Paper presented at the SHA Conference in
Debra A. DiScuillo
Two years ago, I had heard that Rhode Island College's east campus had once been the location of the O'Rourke Children Center formally known as the State Home and School. My curiosity caused me to wander RIC's east campus where I began looking for identifying buildings. To my surprise, I recognized a bit more than I expected. I returned a couple of days later, because I wanted to take photographs of these buildings, particularly, the cottage that I once lived in. I thought this would be a unique opportunity to capture on film what was only a memory. I wanted to memorialize the significance of these buildings. I could see that there were a lot of changes. The cottage that I once slept in had become an office for the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF). I was a little disheartened to see that time had recycled most of the buildings expunging the trace of children leaving only our recollections. I walked away thinking no one will ever know about the children who once laughed, cried, played, and just merely existed. I thought that there would never be a time to talk about what it was like to be at the home. I walked away hoping and wanting to know how it all began. Last January, I made my first inquiry with DCYF and was referred to Richard Hillman. That was the beginning of my involvement with the State Home and School Project. After learning a little history from Richard, I immediately felt a connection with some of the children who came to the home long before me. We had something in common we needed a home, a family, and most of all to be loved.
I was placed in the home in the early 70's, twice actually. I was around 4 or 5 the first time and was eight or nine years old during the second time. I have some idea as to why I was placed there. I don't remember putting up much of a fuss it was as though I understood. My stays were never too long but it was long enough to feel sad, scared and humiliated. I can recall the first night I arrived, there were two housemothers sitting in front of the television along with some children. They seemed pleasant as they began passing out candy. After the other girls had gone to bed, they told me it was time for me to take a bath. One of the housemother's had drawn my bath water and made it just a little too hot. I didn't think twice about adding some cold water well, not until the housemother came storming in and with her scorned face began yelling at me saying that I was dirty and that I needed to take a bath. I began to cry and I wanted to go home. I felt scared and very much alone. There were many instances like this one during my stay. I didn't like being the center of attention in school, different milk containers, wearing the same clothes for three days in row, having an announcement made that the Children's Center bus had arrived. Everyone knew where I was from. I wanted to be like everyone else. I didn't like feeling different. As a child, I didn't question why I was being treated this way. As an adult, I know that this was not the way to treat children who were there because they were disadvantaged and/or dependent.
In the 70's, we were doing pretty much what they did since the beginning, we earned our keeps, learned to be productive. We cleaned toilets, buffed floors, washed dishes, and brought some pots back to the big kitchen down the road. In the 1800's,the Providence Journal had a quote that said, "Forsaken Children Taught to Earn An Honest Living". I think throughout the years the home did provide the children with the necessities such as clothing, food, a place to sleep, and an education. Many children learned how to work the farm, wax the floors, and how to make a bed. I guess no one thought it would be valuable to teach a child how to feel good about his or her selves. No one reassured us that we were with moral character despite our disadvantages. I remember one housemother telling me not to beg, after she learned that a mother visiting her daughter brought some shoes that didn't fit her, the mother was kind enough to give them to me. I was so excited; I thought they were so pretty; I never had a pair of saddle shoes. I was so embarrassed by the thought of the housemother thinking I would beg a stranger for shoes. I can't say that all house parents were bad. There were some very lovely ladies. I do, however, question the training and education of the house parents. I also wonder what kind of policies were in place? One thing I could not understand was why I was not able to spend time with my brother who was there as well. The only time I saw him was on the school bus in the morning. I wanted desperately to be with him. One day, while I was sitting in the gymnasium, I looked down past a few benches; I could not take my eyes off a boy who reminded me of my brother. I got up enough courage to run towards him, give him a stick of gum and a kiss on his cheek. I ran so fast that the poor kid probably didn't know what hit him. I have spoken with some former residents of the State Home & School and some of the experiences differ from mine, many of them who are older describe a very positive experience. I would probably attribute that to the difference in generations. Many former residents describe being grateful for a place to sleep and food on their plates and although I was grateful for these things, I still felt humiliated. Life at home was dysfunctional but at least it was something I was familiar with.
I don't pretend to know all the answers as far as the way the child welfare system functioned, I do know how beautiful a child is because I have three of my own. I know that we must try to preserve their innocence as much as possible. I hope that future children who are dependent upon foster care, group homes, or any type of institution can benefit from the voices of the past.