It’s been a century since a young Irish priest named Father Edward Flanagan welcomed homeless boys into a run-down Victorian mansion in downtown Omaha.
But as Boys Town celebrates its centennial, the organization is lessening its focus on the kind of residential care model that made it famous.
The latest wave came in June, as Boys Town announced the shuttering of sites in New York, Texas and California, including one residential care site in Orange County.
That leaves nine Boys Town sites in six states and the District of Columbia.
In 2000 under the Rev. Val Peter, then its executive director, the organization had 16 sites — though some were shelters without residential care.
The Rev. Steven Boes, current president and national executive director, insists the Flanagan mission of caring for American families and children remains, despite what he called some tough decisions to close sites.
A growing body of research suggests that many children do best when they remain in their own homes and communities. Regulatory hurdles also have hampered Boys Town’s ability to offer residential care in some states.
While Boys Town leaders continue to advocate for the residential care model in certain circumstances, they also are investing in alternatives, including in-home family consulting.
“We are serving more and more kids, mostly in their own homes,” Boes said.
Last year Boys Town helped nearly 9,000 children nationwide by bringing family consultants to the children’s homes.
That’s compared with 1,100 children in the residential care “Family Home” model.
That model involves placing groups of six to eight children with emotional and behavioral issues in single-family homes with married couples. These children, ages 10 to 18, often have serious emotional or behavioral problems. The average stay is 12 to 18 months, with the goal of returning the children to their families or transitioning them to live on their own.
As Boys Town prepares to roll out its five-year strategic plan next month, the organization still has a “fire in its belly” to fight for its “Family Home” model.
Flanagan’s dream began in 1917 within the walls of a rented Omaha home and quickly moved to a sprawling campus near 139th Street and West Dodge Road. That will “forever be in the DNA of Boys Town,” Boes said.
It just might look a little different as a shift away from residential care continues nationally and at Boys Town. More than 95 percent of youths are now served through in-home or community support services, including school-based programs and the national hotline.
Boys Town decided to shutter its 80-acre residential site in Trabuco Canyon and two family homes in Tustin, California, after years of advocating for regulatory changes in that state. At the time of the June announcement, those homes housed 28 children.
The Trabuco Canyon site was one of 14 Boys Town residential care facilities opened in the 1980s and ’90s as Peter worked to spread the model to larger metro areas around the nation.
Since then, changing state regulations have made it more difficult to implement the Boys Town model in many of those areas, said Bob Pick, executive vice president of youth care.
“We opened those sites 20 or 30 years ago, and it was an exciting time,” Pick said. “But times change, contracts change and we have to serve kids with the highest quality. We just couldn’t do that in some locations.”
When the Trabuco Canyon facility opened, youths stayed for up to two years, Pick said, adding that Boys Town’s own research shows that the minimum stay should be about six months and a yearlong stay is ideal.
Because of contractual rules including mandated length of stays in California, “we couldn’t get kids to stay longer than two or three months,” Pick said. “That’s just not quality care.”
Closing those sites frees up $3.7 million that had been devoted to operating costs. That money will be reinvested in the organization’s neurobehavioral research, which uses brain imaging to study the effectiveness of treatments. Those dollars also will support current residential programs in Florida, Louisiana and Washington, D.C. — places without limiting regulations, Pick said.
“We are essentially looking at less (residential) sites but bigger sites serving more kids,” Boes said.
As the new strategic plan is implemented, Pick said Boys Town will look at adding new residential care facilities in “pro-residential” states such as Florida.
Boys Town may be one of the few still committed to that, said Polina Makievsky, with the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Strong Families and Communities.
Over the past 20 years, nonprofits have abandoned residential care facilities in favor of in-home and community-based service models for at-risk youths and their families, Makievsky said.
“Evidence is pointing to the fact that young people do best when they have permanency and are cared for in a family setting,” she said.
Still, Makievsky said residential care is the “best solution and a critical solution” in certain situations.
“We do caution against the pendulum swinging too far away from residential care,” she said.
Since 2014 the alliance has offered nonprofits guidance on making the transition away from or downsizing residential care facilities. The Omaha Home for Boys participated last year and since 2011 has closed half of its residential care cottages.
Jeff Moran, president and CEO of the Omaha Home for Boys, said the decision was financial and followed the national trend. The reimbursement rate for residential services was 30 cents for every dollar, Moran said.
“We just couldn’t afford to supplement that difference without impacting our long-term sustainability,” Moran said. “This is just a part of adapting to what’s going on in the realm of social services. This is the reality.”
Omaha Home for Boys began as an orphanage in 1920, just a few years after Boys Town.
“You can’t have that kind of history if you aren’t willing to adapt to changes within the service industry,” Moran said. “Like Boys Town, we, too, are looking to be here another 100 years. But that means we have to keep up with what’s changing.”
The changes at Boys Town haven’t come without criticism.
The Rev. Peter worries that the closing of Boys Town sites and focus on research runs afoul of Flanagan’s mission. “I gave my whole life to this — to Flanagan’s dream,” Peter, 83, said. “This is called God’s dream. Times change, but God’s dream doesn’t.”
Boes is quick to say that Flanagan would support the focus on research and the direction of Boys Town.
“I believe if Father Peter was sitting in my chair, he’d have to make the same hard decisions,” Boes said. “But, ultimately, we have the same mission. Just how we do it has changed.”