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Sunday, January 23, 2000

Ex-orphan wants state to apologize

Says pair made him a servant

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        UNION — The man was thin and unkempt, with penetrating brown eyes and a kind expression.

        He needed a boy, he said. He had heard the Kentucky Children's Home could get him one.

        The year was 1948. Within two months, the man had what he wanted from the orphanage: a 10-year-old to work on his farm.

        That child's name was Charles Collins.

        He grew up to be a tormented man.

        Now 61, Mr. Collins lives alone in a small house near Union. He has received psychiatric care for his shaky nerves. After 35 years of earning paychecks, he can no longer work. When he talks about his childhood, he pulls out a handkerchief and dabs at his eyes.

        Mr. Collins has never forgotten the day he was delivered from the Louisville orphanage to the truck of a stranger.

        He has never forgotten the six years that followed — years in which he slept on a dirty pallet, worked like an indentured servant and sometimes staved off hunger by stealing bananas from his teacher's lunchbox.

        State officials gave him to “the most mean and illiterate people they could,” he says, and they never checked on him again.

        “If I can get this story so even somebody knows about it, it'll help me a little bit,” Mr. Collins says. “I just want people to know how sorry the state of Kentucky did me.”

        He also wants an apology.

A Dickens-like era
        When Mr. Collins brought his story to the Enquirer, he started on a difficult journey.

        Case files on orphans are available from the state. In these files, Mr. Collins read for the first time the official account of his boyhood.

        The records offer a rare look at a Dickens-like period in child welfare. Today, conditions have improved but the discussion goes on: What should society do when children need a home?

        “"What you've stumbled onto is an ongoing debate in American society,” says David Richart, a scholar and long-time child advocate.

        He's fascinated by Mr. Collins' story, because voices like his are rarely heard.

        In the 1940s, many abandoned children lived in orphanages. Others were sent to families offering “free homes,” meaning they boarded children free of charge.

        The government didn't track these youngsters through adulthood, but some have come forward with fond memories of that time. Such accounts dominate public perception, says Mr. Richart, an associate professor at Spalding University in Louisville.

        Mr. Collins' story offers another view — one that shows the lingering effect of psychological trauma, which can be worse than physical abuse.

        There's no telling how many others are like him, Mr. Richart says. He knows of one man, Danny Okes, who lived in the same orphanage in the late '50s. As an adult, Mr. Okes launched a crusade, speaking publicly about the trauma of moving from one foster home to another.

        He never escaped his own demons. A chronic alcoholic, Mr. Okes died at 37, Mr. Richart says.

Saga starts at 3
        From the state files, Charles Collins learned his parents died when he was 3. It's not clear whether cancer or tuberculosis was the cause.

        For six years, young Charles lived at the Kentucky Children's Home, one of two state-run orphanages. Then, when he was 10, the farmer showed up looking for a boy.

        Around this time, state officials were pushing for change — better, more permanent foster homes, fewer kids stuck in institutions.

        They recognized the obstacles. As early as 1938, for example, a state report lamented the prevailing attitude:

        “The public had to become gradually accustomed to the newly adopted policy of placement, that is, children were not allowed to be exploited for their work,” the report said.

        Herbert Beasley arrived on Nov. 22, 1948. He was from Casey County, about three hours away, and he wanted a boy.

        “He had been told to come here and we could "get him one,'” a caseworker wrote. “I told him we would be glad to help him if we could.”

        Mr. Beasley explained that he had been ill. “He and his wife decided that they could use a boy to help with the milking, feeding etc. Then, too, they thought a child would be good company for them.”

        State employees visited the Beasley home and interviewed neighbors. The reports weren't glowing, but they were good enough.

        Charles would be leaving the orphanage at last.

A fateful day
        On Jan. 21, 1949, his caseworker arrived to take him away. Charles was waiting eagerly. His cottage mates came out to say goodbye.

        “Well Charles, do you think you'll like a new home?” the caseworker asked, according to her notes.

        “Yes,” he said. “You promised you'd find me a home, didn't you?”

        They met Mr. Beasley in south-central Kentucky. He pronounced Charles a “fine-looking boy.”

        Charles looked embarrassed. He had never seen this man before.

        “I've always wanted a boy just like him,” Mr. Beasley said. “We'll get along just fine.”

        As they left, Mr. Beasley invited the caseworker to visit anytime, but not to take Charles away.

        The files contain one update from a month later. A field worker reported that “Charles is happy in his foster home.”

        Then, for the next five years, the record is silent. Those five years were devastating, Mr. Collins says.

        Soon enough, he discovered the Beasleys only wanted a worker.

Woman tells side
        Herbert Beasley died in 1973. His wife, Elsie, lives three doors down from the old farm.

        She is 84 — a tiny woman in a housecoat and knit cap. She dotes on a fat Chihuahua named Mickey.

        With assistance from another neighbor, Michael Rogers, I asked Mrs. Beasley about Charles.

        “Charles worked good,” she said. “He's a good worker.”

        She denied mistreating him. She also insisted it was her husband's idea, not hers, to get a boy from the orphanage.

        “When Herbert went to get him, he said, "Well, he'll be a help to carry in firewood.' And I said, "Maybe he will, and maybe he won't.'”

        Neither she nor her husband cared about children, she said. Nevertheless, Mr. Beasley was good to Charles, she said. “He had plenty to eat here, anything he wanted.”

Childhood recalled
        Mr. Collins has a different recollection. Neighbors back up his account.

        He worked every day of the week, even when sick. With Mr. Beasley, he cleared the tobacco field, baled hay, milked 15 cows and ran a feed mill. He went to school but never to church, which was the center of community life at the time.

        He wasn't paid for his work or taken on outings. His bedsheets were never changed. At night, Mr. Beasley would curse him.

        “She's my cousin, but I'll just tell it like it is — they just used him,” says Paul Roberts, a relative who lives nearby.

        All children did chores back then, but people knew Charles was doing more, says another neighbor, Mary Emerson.

        “I think they worked the child too hard,” says Maxine Wilson, who went to school with him. “He had a hard life.”

        In 1954, when Charles was 16, he wrote a letter that found its way to the orphanage.

        “Dear friend,” it begins. “I am writing you to tell you I want you to come after me. I don't want to stay any longer. I don't like this place at all. The man mistreats me.”

        Although he doesn't remember writing it, Mr. Collins is certain the letter got no response. At 17, he finally left the Beasleys on his own.

        Two years later, a state employee wrote:

        “There was no contact with Charles after he was placed in the foster home in 1949 until the summer of 1954, when a letter was received from him stating that he was unhappy and mistreated. His letter was referred to the local child welfare worker. No report was ever received here from her.”

"I survived it'
        Mr. Collins ended up in Cincinnati. At 21, he married a 43-year-old co-worker, and they were together 37 years. His wife died in 1997. The couple had no children.

        After years of manual labor, Mr. Collins had to quit working in 1989. He receives disability benefits because of emotional problems, he says.

        In some ways, this journey through the past has made him stronger. “I can hold my head up high and say I survived it,” he says.

        He has written a letter to Elsie Beasley, expressing his feelings to her for the first time.

        From the state files, he knows he was once considered “a most winsome little boy with big brown, wistful eyes and a sweet-melting smile.”

        “You can see a nice person in the making,” Mr. Collins says.

        Still, the older he gets, the closer the bad years seem to come.

        He is often awake in the middle of the night. He has trouble sitting down to dinner with decent people, because he feels like he doesn't belong.

        “It'll always be with me in the back of my mind, that the state threw me to the wolves,” Mr. Collins says.

        An apology won't change everything. But it would be a start.

        Karen Samples is Kentucky columnist for the Enquirer. Her column appears Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at 578-5584, or by e-mail at ksamples@yahoo.com.


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