A second family

Charleston Orphan House was built in 1792-1794, and additions were made in 1855. This photo was taken in 1900.

In her tender 20 years of life, Abriana Titus has lived in 14 foster homes. From her birth in Baltimore to a drug-addicted young mother, to her adoption at 6 into an unprepared family in Charleston, and nearly a decade spent in and out of strangers’ foster homes, her life has been punctuated by abusive situations in every shade of bad.

Some of her foster parents were kind and embracing, and indeed she considers two of them well enough to call them “moms.” She laughs, her voice warmed by gratitude.

But interspersed in her memories are patches of brighter sunlight, and those are the nearly three years she spent in total at the group home at the Carolina Youth Development Center, an outgrowth of what for 160 years long ago was known as the Charleston Orphan House.

“It completely altered the path I was on: my schooling, everything. I realized there what I am capable of as a person,” said Abriana, whose face lights up when she talks about the CYDC. “The group home gave me the extra push, the confidence, the self-assurance and the support that I needed. A second kind of family, really.”

The CYDC, located on a sprawling campus in North Charleston, provides a place of sanctuary within a larger child welfare system that, with the Department of Social Services and foster care families, tries to weave together a normal life for children who are physically abused, abandoned or neglected. And, those lives are anything but normal.

Though it is no longer an orphanage, the center affords temporary shelter and a number of support services to children in the foster care system.

In that regard, it continues the well-established mission of the Charleston Orphan House that next week marks 225 years of continuous service to children.

A special fundraising gala will be held at Memminger Auditorium. More than 300 people are expected to attend, including local mayors.

The focus of the night will be the same: children who need an anchor.

“What business, nonprofit or company, do you know that has been in business for 225 years and that is serving children? That has never changed,” said CYDC CEO Barbara Kelley-Duncan. “Our focus has transitioned ... but the mission has never changed, and that is due to the vision of a board that through the years has valued children and works to make a difference in their lives.”

Most of the children and teens who come to the CYDC as residents are removed from their homes because of physical abuse or neglect and they are cared for there while in the process of reverting to their families, when appropriate and possible, or, most often, of becoming foster children.

They also retreat to the CYDC when the foster family match or experience doesn’t work out and they have nowhere else to go.

In total, some 200 or so children and youths live at the CYDC each year, in its group home or in one of its two emergency shelters, most for an average of six months, but many for much longer.

The center also provides some 2,000 children in the foster system support services and outreach programs. Among them are a career center that pairs youth with companies for internships, mentorships, and sometimes even part-time jobs.

There also is a Big Brother Big Sister program (which it almost lost for lack of funding); an intensive summer reading program called Freedom Schools; a leadership program that includes academic tutoring and life skills and job readiness support; a program that teaches skills to transition to independent living; and a support services program to strengthen at-risk families.

“The CYDC is a place of refuge where children can be children again or, if they are older, they can focus on what they must do or want to do to become adults who can live independently, or inter-dependently,” said Kelley-Duncan.

Volunteers and donors ensure that children at the center receive comfort and reassurance in addition to abundant Christmas, school supplies and clothes equal to all other children at the area schools they attend.

“You would never have known we were foster children there,” said Abriana.

When she first got to CYDC at 14 years old, “I was taken aback by the friendliness. We were really well provided for.”

The stay at CYDC and the services Abriana received there provided her the encouragement and gumption to transform her love for drawing and painting into an application and successful admission to Charleston School of the Arts. She graduated and is now a rising college junior studying social work and art therapy.

From something devastating and uprooting, her life was renewed, filled with value, purpose, sense of belonging and self, and the exhilaration of living.

“I see no loss. Nothing negative came from there,” she said.

The old Charleston Orphan House, which, until 1951, occupied an imposing, rather beautiful building on Calhoun Street that has since been demolished, also provided children an education and trades to learn. It sent children out into the community equipped with skills to earn a living and rebuild from a broken life.

“I consider it a blessing in disguise that I was sent there,” said Gene McKnight, who entered the Orphan House in 1947 and left after it had moved to the current North Charleston property, in 1953. “My mother had nothing. The orphanage freed her up to be able to at least take care of herself ... and we got a good education there. We had to study and do our homework; we went to chapel. ... It was a good upbringing, and the alternative might have been roaming the streets.”

The patterns of familial rupture have changed through time, as has the world of child welfare.

Reflecting on the CYDC’s work over the course of two centuries, Kelley-Duncan said, “We have come full circle.” The CYDC’s motto, she points out, is “Protecting childhood. Preparing for adulthood.”

“Children should not be afraid. They should live with complete abandon to enjoy themselves, and here they have that,” said Kelley-Duncan. “But this is more than a safe haven. Here they know that we invest in them and they begin to have the confidence in themselves to begin their journey. Those are the things that we provide: safety, the knowledge that there is enough food, that they have everything they need and people who care about them and who will help them achieve what they can achieve.”

In a perfect world, with enough qualified foster care parents and timely, functional placements in foster care, group homes would no longer be necessary, said Dr. Elizabeth Wallis, medical director of MUSC’s Foster Care Support Clinic.

The clinic is a primary care facility that addresses the medical needs of children in foster care here and works routinely with the CYDC.

But in the imperfection of the existing child welfare system, she said, “CYDC provides a huge safety net. ... They know that they cannot replace a home, but they have thought about the services they provide and they do a good job of making sure that the children’s needs are met.”

Daniel Holmes, 21, said CYDC was there for him when the dysfunctional seesaw of the foster care system failed him more than 15 times.

He had finished high school but realized he was unprepared to go out into the world. He ended up living at CYDC’s group home for two years, from the age of 19 to earlier this year, of his own will, learning job preparedness skills and working on cars through a motor sports program sponsored by Cummins Turbo Technologies. In the end, he became good enough to be hired as an assembler for Cummins, a career he plans to stick to.

The totality of the CYDC experience worked much better for him, ultimately, than foster care.

“I have a definite improvement in my life, by any comparison,” he said.

Perhaps that is why young people continue to come back to CYDC, to call back, Kelley-Duncan said. They visit and they call it home.

Abriana considers everyone there another “mom.” She extols staff and says she plans to thread back there as a social worker, to teach art therapy and, who knows, maybe one day to help run it.

Her optimism pushes forward, past the tortuous path that life handed her to start.

“I made the most of it, and the group home helped me make the most of it,” she said. “It helped me find the best of me, and gave it to me.”