The status of children in North Carolina is “worse and getting worse” than at any time in the 26-year tenure of Baptist Children’s Homes of N.C. president Michael C. Blackwell.
“Because the mental health system is in such a disastrous collapse in North Carolina it’s caused reassessment for everyone,” said Blackwell, who leads North Carolina Baptists’ 124-year-old ministry to hurting children and broken families. A recession pushes 2009-10 state budget cuts even deeper.
In the midst of deteriorating conditions for children in dysfunctional families, county departments of social services which are responsible for child welfare consider placing children in the care of residential facilities like BCH only as a last option, after in-home supervision; placement with relatives or foster care.
Blackwell was told by child welfare visionary Alan Keith-Lucas when he came to BCH in 1983 that he would have to battle a coming “anti-institutional wave.”
That tidal wave has washed over not only BCH, but all of the at least 40 accredited residential child facilities in North Carolina.
In North Carolina “residential” is defined as having a facility in which children stay. Many organizations, including BCH, offer services to children and families that are not residential.
Services such as in-home counseling to help a family stay together through conflict are valid and important, according to Kevin Kelley, assistant section chief for family support and child welfare services in the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Social Services, who affirms such a role for faith based groups. He is not, however, a fan of residential care.
Blackwell laments that government decision makers like Kelley do not see the bread and butter image for children’s homes of 8-10 residents living as “family” in a cottage with resident counselors or “house parents” as a “normal” situation for the children.
Consequently, county social workers try first to keep a child who is at risk for abuse or neglect at home by working with the family members to overcome the issues at root of dysfunction.
Failing that, the child or children are placed with family members who will take them. If no suitable family members step forward, foster homes are the next option.
Siblings are often separated in both family placement and foster home placement.
Because children removed from their home – even for their own safety – often are angry and belligerent, they can wear out their welcomes quickly. They learn they can change their circumstance by acting out negatively so the foster family asks that they be moved. It is not unusual for children “in the system” to have been in 12 or more foster homes when they arrive “as a last resort” at a residential home that was well equipped to provide proper care and stability from the beginning.
Living, breathing organism
Residential care is not a dinosaur, Blackwell said, but a “living, breathing organism.”
He encourages those in charge of placing children to visit the modern cottages, built and furnished as a home environment with private bedrooms, and family living spaces.
“We are a family environment,” he said. “We are ‘BCH family.’”
Karen McLeod, president/CEO of the Children and Family Services Association-NC, said North Carolina needs “a continuum of care to protect our children.” While everyone’s preference would be for each child to live in a highly functioning family, “that is not reality.”
Her client agencies, including BCH, want children who cannot remain in the home, “to be placed in the highest quality service possible.” Because member organizations, which all are accredited by national standards, “strive to meet children’s needs in as homelike a setting as possible to make the children feel cared for and loved,” children “tend to stabilize there.”
Blackwell said he would not still be president of the organization he’s led since 1983 “to preside over a funeral.” He said BCH services are “still leading edge.”
“Come see us. Come eat with us,” he encourages doubters. “Visit with children in our care or with our alumni. Are the children saying they don’t like congregate care? Do you hear them saying, ‘I want to go back with my abusive family?’”
Blackwell gets irked when those who make decisions for children’s care never set foot on a residential campus to see, hear and absorb the atmosphere.
“That really gets to me,” he said. “It always has. People who have no clue and no idea about the productive citizens we turn out in this place can make the statement that we don’t provide the care that the government thinks we should be providing.”
The needs of families “are absolutely more critical than at any time since I’ve been here,” Blackwell said. “Family dysfunction is greater than at any time I’ve seen it.”
Best trained staff
BCH cottage staff, trained and licensed case managers, social work staff and administrators are able to care for children in safe, secure, loving settings. Belligerence is understood and a child doesn’t control his or her own placement by acting out. Staff works with the child and involved family members as the anger dissipates over time.
In 1983 60 percent of the children in BCH care were in the custody of a department of social services, Blackwell said.
Today just 20 percent are in such custody. Other residents are private placements, meaning the family recognizes it needs help and has turned to BCH to care for their child while the dysfunction can be resolved.
Private clients contribute toward the cost of care as they are able. County departments of social services pay a daily board rate determined by the state for the children in their custody, a rate that is high for counties that have no money, but a rate that does not begin to cover the cost of care that BCH provides.
Individual donors and gifts from Baptist churches, the Cooperative Program and Thanksgiving Offering make up the difference in BCH’s $17 million annual budget. “These donors are more important to us now than ever,” Blackwell said.
BCH operates 15 facilities across the state, including four major campuses and Cameron Boys Camp, a wilderness facility where boys live outside year round in shelters they build themselves. A girls wilderness camp will open within six months.
With residential care at the bottom of the totem pole for government custodians, BCH has diversified with special services. It is remodeling three cottages and opening them as transitional living homes for post high school students to master independent living skills while they work or attend community college. Moody Home in Franklin has been re-tasked for that purpose.
BCH also is renovating a cottage at Mills Home in Thomasville where volunteers can stay when they come to work on campus.
Diversification is one reason BCH accepted the responsibility for adult developmentally disabled care, and for North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministries.
BCH, which was an early advocate of foster care and trained families to provide foster care, is getting back into foster care. It will develop a system to identify and train foster families and is ready for Baptist families that are interested to contact them. To explore the possibilities, call Vicki Buckner at (828) 627-9254.
The family needs “a proven reputation as a family unit” and must be willing to be trained.
“We are getting into it and if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right,” Blackwell said.
Jennifer Shore’s blogs:
More stories to come