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An “Experimental Station” - Youth Care Research at Boys Town

September 13, 2022     By Boys Town Contributor

Child Development, Saving Children, Village of Boys Town

This year the Boys Town Child and Family Translational Research Center (TRC) is celebrating 30 years of Youth Care research publications with our 2021 Applied Research Bibliography. The bibliography contains 566 citations and abstracts of published Youth Care research which includes peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and book chapters. This anniversary provided us an opportunity to reflect on the history and heritage of Youth Care research at Boys Town.

The spirt of research at Boys Town goes all the way back to our founder, Father Edward J. Flanagan. In 1939, Fr. Flanagan said, “I like to think of Boys Town as an experimental station in youth work – a starting point from which we adults may gain a better and a finer knowledge of the problems of youth and the treatment of unusual cases that may arise”. Fr. Flanagan learned from the boys he cared for and then applied this knowledge to inform the rest of society on how to improve care for vulnerable children. This approach was later referred to as participatory action research. Today, we continue this approach at the TRC as we partner with children, families, and our practitioners to use research to improve the quality of child and family services and help us address the complex problems that we now face in society.

Youth Care research at Boys Town has evolved over several decades. In the 1970s, Boys Town was a replication site for a research-based model of residential care called the Teaching-Family Model, that was developed at the University of Kansas. This later became the Boys Town Family Home Program that exists today. One of the visionaries at that time, Dr. Dan Daly, realized that a formal research institute was needed to continue to support Boys Town’s Youth Care programs into the future. When asked why Youth Care research was started at Boys Town, he said, “First, we wanted to assess the long-term effectiveness of the Boys Town program. Second, we wanted to understand which elements of the program were most responsible for its success. Such understanding allowed us to successfully replicate effective programs across the country. Third, the changing needs of children and families dictated that we continue to develop and innovate. Research helped us both in program development and in testing the effectiveness of innovations.”

As a result, many research studies and partnerships followed, resulting in several of the other services Boys Town has today such as Common Sense Parenting®, In-Home Family Services®, Well-Managed Schools®, and the Residential Treatment Center. In addition to developing new programs, Youth Care research also helped to create and refine the systems of administration, training, consultation, and evaluation that are involved in routine monitoring and scaling up programs across the country. Today, this practice-research partnership is a key ingredient of making sure Boys Town programs are effective and replicable.

Boys Town’s On the Way Home® (OTWH) aftercare program is one example of how Boys Town has used research to evolve and meet the needs of children and families. The need for aftercare was discovered via routine follow-up surveys administered to caregivers of children who resided in our Family Home Program. Caregivers shared with us that they recognized the tremendous progress their children made at Boys Town, but the transitions back home and to school for their children were difficult. They told us they weren’t prepared to provide the same level of support the children had received at Boys Town and needed aftercare supports to help.

This valuable information inspired a partnership between Boys Town and Drs. Alex Trout and Mike Esptein at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to design and test an aftercare intervention with a research project that was funded by the United States Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences (Grants # R324A12060, R324B070031). Ideas were collected from youth, caregivers, and teachers which resulted in the creation of the OTWH® Consultant position -- an individual who is trained to provide family, school, and homework aftercare support. Evaluations of OTWH® showed it was effective in helping children remain at home with their family and in school after they departed residential programs.

Currently, OTWH® is on two national clearinghouses, the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare (CEBC) and the Title IV-E Prevention Services Clearinghouse (PSC). These clearinghouses are resources that provide the public and state agencies with a way to find effective programs for children and families. Additionally, states can access federal dollars for using programs that are on the PSC. The recent addition of OTWH® on the PSC will improve access to a quality aftercare service for children and families because we listened to caregivers who shared their valuable experiences and input through research. For more information about OTWH® please visit: cebc4cw.org/program/on-the-way-home-otwh/ and preventionservices.acf.hhs.gov/programs/398/show.

The current evidence-based status for other Boys Town programs can be found here: boystownhospital.org/research/translational-research/evidence-based-registry-status.

OTWH® is just one example of the many research products that have been created over the years to improve the quality of services for children and families. To learn more about current TRC projects go to: boystownhospital.org/research/translational-research/current-studies.

As we move forward, the TRC will continue to partner with children, families, practitioners, researchers, and other professionals to help identify solutions to today’s complex problems in this “experimental station” we call Boys Town. We hope you will take some time to view our Publications page where you will find our 2021 Applied Research Bibliography and other research materials that may be of interest (boystownhospital.org/research/translational-research/publications).

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