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Boys Town Becomes National Advocate for Residential Care

Tessa laughs with Family-Teachers Jaclyn and Andrew as they cook dinner at their home. (Photo: Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register)

This ​article is written by Lee Rood of the Des Moines Register. It was posted on on March 14, 2016.

In May, Jaclyn and Andrew Taylor will watch five of the eight young women who live in their home here graduate from high school and strike out on their own.

Like the youths who attended Midwest Academy, the young women all grew up with serious obstacles that pose risks to their future once they leave.

“When I came here a year and a half ago, there was a lot of hurt,” said Tessa Miller, a 17-year-old from south Omaha who will leave the Taylor house after a year and a half on the campus. “I think everybody needs more than a year in a program like this. It’s like if you’ve ever heard that saying: It takes 40 days to build a new habit.”

There are stark differences between this place and Midwest Academy, the for-profit Keokuk boarding school ordered shut in January amid allegations of fraud, child pornography, and sexual and physical abuse of children.

For one thing, Boys Town, near west Omaha, is licensed and overseen by the state of  Nebraska.

“The research shows punishment doesn’t work. Punishment scares kids.”

All of the 360 students, ages 8 to 18, receive state-accredited schooling, access to sports, ROTC and other activities. About one-fourth will undergo therapy from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist on staff because of past abuse or ongoing mental health problems.

Most importantly, the students are mentored by people like the Taylors, who are trained extensively in teaching healthy and appropriate behavior, not coercing youths through punishment and isolation.

“The research shows punishment doesn’t work. Punishment scares kids,” said Dan Daly, director of youth care and a doctor of clinical psychology. “We try to use every waking moment of this environment to teach skills to kids.”

Midwest Academy owner Ben Trane has declined comment on the allegations leveled against his facility and its methods.

Long one of the largest and oldest providers of residential care for troubled youths in the country, Boys Town has found itself opposite powerful groups at times in a tough national battle over the future availability of government-funded residential care.

“In the 40 years I’ve been in this business, the last five years have been the most challenging. We haven’t built any new homes in that time,” Daly says.

Liberals, Daly says, have lined up against group homes, believing that the least restrictive environment for troubled youths is always best. And for conservatives, he said, "It’s all about money.”

But after years of building up community-based programs that cut costs and proved effective, Daly now believes that the U.S. has too few residential foster programs for severely troubled children.

“The (current) policy doesn’t really work on the toughest kids,” he said. “But it’s being applied to them.”

Boys Town residents have typically failed in multiple foster care placements or were sent to the campus by judges after arrests, he said. Some are private clients whose families pay on a sliding scale. State child welfare funding or gifts from the nonprofit's endowment also help cover the cost of care.

To underscore the import of what time in such a supportive, skill-building environment can do, Daly points to follow-up research that suggests that 80 percent of Boys Town youth care residents will go on to graduate from high school after at least one year in the program.

For other youths in foster care programs, the figure is 50 percent, he said.

State human service workers often want to pull funding within six months, but some youths need much more time, he says.

Boys Town, which served 32,226 children in youth care last year in seven states, actively lobbied Washington against past proposals backed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and others that would put limits on residential care in favor of more services for youths at home.

Daly says the toughest cases require more time and more help.

“Every kid at Boys Town, we would love to have a stable family and love for them not to be here. But, in fact, some kids can’t get in their homes or their community what they are getting here.”

But Boys Town supported new bipartisan legislation underway, the Family First Act, which provides funding only for therapeutic, short-term care in residential settings when it is deemed clinically necessary. That legislation would shift federal funding away from nontherapeutic group homes and toward more support services for families for up to a year.

What Miller says she and her housemates are getting most at Boys Town is guidance, reinforcement and time to work on what makes trusting, loving relationships. As they proceed, the girls' own families are enlisted to help build on those teachings, and they are making visits home.

"At six months, you're just beginning to break the seal," said Andrew Taylor, whose father once worked at Boys Town. "But right around the one-year mark, you'll start to hear them say, 'I don't want to leave.'"

Taylor says the five girls leaving his family in May, some after more than two years, will do fine.

"We truly believe in this model and this teaching, because we've seen it work," he said. "After they leave, the walls are going to come down. And they're going to have the whole world at their feet."