Early into children's services, Baptists trying to keep pace with changes - Word&Way

Early into children’s services, Baptists trying to keep pace with changes

In the first decades following the Civil War when poverty shadowed widows and children of fallen soldiers in a dramatically disrupted South, Baptists and other Christian denominations started orphanages to care for them.

Today, the South is dotted with campuses created to meet the needs of orphans—a need that barely exists now.

Instead of parentless children orphaned by war, industrial accidents or disease, young people who need to live outside their homes most often are victims of abuse and neglect. Often, that neglect is prompted by destructive behaviors and habits of their parents—the very ones charged with loving and nurturing them to adulthood.

What to do with those children to keep them safe and on track educationally is a constant debate in the social services field.

The board of the Coalition for Residential Education inludes actress Sela Ward (fourth from left), founder of Hope House in Meridian, Miss., and Kelly Mills (third from right), representing Happy Hill Farm in Granbury.

While some saw a stigma attached to being an "orphanage kid," such residents often were better clothed, housed and fed through the generosity of Christian churches than were poor children in the general population during the Great Depression and in other periods.

But a debate over the benefits or disadvantages of keeping children in institutions jeopardizes the future of hundreds of group homes, orphanages, children's homes and other congregate care facilities.

Broadly speaking, all out-of-home placements are considered foster care, but for this discussion, foster care is defined as placement into a nonrelative's family home. Congre-gate care—a term residential education supporters deplore—is thought of as a group home or institution.

Progressive congregate care pro-viders focus services around education, both in formal schools—often on campus—and in work and off-campus travel and educational opportunities.

They refer to the service they provide as "residential education," and their association is the Coalition for Residential Education with headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Examples of such residential education providers considered by professionals to be among the best are Crossnore School in North Carolina, Milton Hershey Home in Pennsylvania and The SEED School of Maryland.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates 424,000 children were in foster care at the end of 2009, about one-fourth of them in relative's homes and one-half of them in nonrelative's foster family homes.

CORE representatives spoke before a House panel earlier this year in Washington, D.C., to state their position against a staff-prepared white paper that recommends foster care as the only acceptable out-of-home placement for children.

Actress Sela Ward testified before a House panel about the benefits of residential education programs.

Actress Sela Ward is an advocate for residential education and addressed the panel. She and her husband, Howard Sherman, founded Hope House in Meridian, Miss., Ward's hometown.

To eliminate residential education as a caring option "would be a crime," she asserted in testimony before the House panel.

A recently published federal guideline says children removed from their homes must be served within their school district, or at least transported each day to the school they left.

Such a ruling often is impractical and burdensome to care providers, said Keith Henry, executive vice president for programs and services for Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina, and it mitigates against services offered on centrally located campuses intended to serve a large area.

Henry believes the trend is to what he calls "way too much emphasis on foster care."

"It's a great thing for the right kids," he said. "But like any program, if you decide it's the end-all and be-all, it's not going to work."

The push to pull children from residential facilities and place them into foster care families threatens to "overload the system," Henry said.  Substantiated claims of abuse in foster care settings are on the rise, he maintained. Still, Henry is recruiting Christian foster parents to serve within the BCH system.

Although some denominational children's homes have been sold, with proceeds going toward in-home and consultative services, most Baptist groups are adjusting their programs to meet current needs and to remain eligible for financial support from departments of social services that follows the children.

More than simply a safe place that offers three meals, a good bed and a dry roof under the auspices of caring house parents, many Baptist facilities offer a "continuum of care."

That includes services such as emergency care, values clarification, transitional living, stepping stones between emancipation and college graduation, a home for teen mothers and their babies, therapeutic wilderness camping, large animal therapy and even day care.