Sooner or later, most people become orphans.
We don’t use that term for everyone, though. Yes, mortality statistics mean that many people will live to see their parents pass away before they do, but occasional uses of the phrase “adult orphan” notwithstanding, that’s not who we’re referring to when we talk about this subject. Instead we’re concerned with minor children who have lost one or (usually) both parents.
What to do in such cases has been one of the pre-eminent humanitarian questions for societies through the ages. Leaving such children to fend for themselves is the height of callousness — which isn’t to say it hasn’t happened. But most of the time there’s at least some effort, however inadequate, to find a better solution.
The ideal solution is generally to place the children with relatives. Remember what I said before, about how you can mess a kid up by failing to provide a stable source of comfort and care? When that source goes away, the next best thing is to reach out to someone else already familiar — which, especially in pre-modern times when we moved around less, will often be a relative. We also tend to feel an obligation to take care of our kin (it’s why marriage alliances are effective), so this is often the easiest and most sensible option.
This tends to work well in the kinds of societies where extended kinship networks remain in close contact. In traditional Lakota society, all one’s parallel cousins — meaning the children of one’s father’s brothers and one’s mother’s sisters — are treated as and referred to as siblings; your own children will call all those people “mother” and “father.” They all share the work of raising the children, so if the biological mother and father pass away, the fall into the safety net lasts for about three seconds.
It works much less well in societies where the nearest appropriate relative is a distant and unknown quanitity, with orphans getting shipped off to total strangers who have never met them and don’t even really want them. This can mean leaving behind one’s entire social world for parts and people unknown, even when there are less traumatic options available. But those less traumatic options, like a beloved family friend, don’t have the weight of law backing them: whether you call it a claim or a burden, that tends to go to next-of-kin first.
An unknown relative might still be better than the next set of alternatives, though. Orphanages, while often well-intentioned institutions, are rarely capable of providing the kind of one-on-one care and attention that leads to ideal psychological outcomes. Many of them wind up like those Romanian orphanages I mentioned before, where children’s basic physical needs are seen to and very little more. In the Victorian period it was even worse than that, since they often tended to double as workhouses, with the children being forced to labor for their keep.
Orphanages can also become extremely overcrowded. That was the problem in Romania, where Ceaușescu’s policies against both abortion and contraception led to a massive boom in births without any accompanying economic boom to take care of them; it can also happen when something like a war leaves a large number of children without parents at the same time. Even when there isn’t an abrupt strain on the system like that, the challenges of funding such places and the fact that the kids in them are definitionally the ones who don’t have anybody else to look out for their interests mean that the allocations for even basic physical needs might wear thin. The result tends to look more like Oliver Twist than the musical Annie.
Speaking of Oliver Twist . . . orphanages are a safety net, but they don’t catch everyone who falls. And given how abusive they can become, it gets debatable whether it’s worse or better for kids to wind up on the streets.
Certainly that latter outcome isn’t good. Surviving on the streets, especially for kids, usually means a life of abject poverty, crime, or both. We’ve already covered begging in previous essays, but children are very easy targets for Fagin-like characters who rope the children into pickpocketing, shoplifting, and other minor crimes, often as training for bigger crimes later on. Prostitution is also a horrifying possibility, catering to those whose desires are both illegal and unspeakable.
In modern times we try to do better. The foster care system is an attempt to avoid the shortcomings of orphanages, placing kids with individual families who can care for them in something like a normal manner. Though even then, we can screw it up: there was a stretch of time where we moved kids as frequently as possible between foster homes, on the belief that this would make it less traumatic to leave when the time came for adoption by another family. Instead it traumatized them more, shredding that need for stability I mentioned before.
Nowadays, the hope is to foster them in one place for as long as possible . . . but like adoption by a distant relative, this isn’t always a good situation, either. Where a person is paid to take care of one or more children, some people will see that as a chance to rake in profit, by spending as little as possible on the kids — or even by killing them and continuing to claim the income, though that’s gotten harder to pull off since the days of the Victorian baby-farmers.
Managing a well-run foster care system, with suitable training and monitoring to ensure nobody’s being abused or neglected (much less murdered), requires a very well-organized state. We can’t manage it reliably even now, though the general trend has been toward improvement. A pre-industrial society is highly unlikely to manage it, falling back instead on orphanages, kin adoption . . . or nothing at all.
And because writers tend to look for sources of conflict and trauma, that means this is fruitful territory for narrative. The desire to control the size of the cast has led to a lot of SF/F protagonists being orphans in the broad sense, their parents conveniently removed from the stage — but that’s usually a background detail, with little attention to its consequences even when the orphaning happened before adulthood. Given the effects it can have on psychology and development, though, it’s worth sometimes taking a closer look at how that might play out.