Residential Schools: A Promising Alternative to Foster and Group Homes

In her book, Garbage Bag Suitcase, former foster youth Shenandoah Chefalo describes her childhood of abuse, followed by three years in foster care with a family that was more stable, but no more caring or supportive, than her birth family.

In her final chapter, she suggests an alternative to the standard model of foster care that is failing so many young people: boarding schools for foster youth. As an example, she cites the Crossnore School, a nonprofit residential foster care home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina that was founded in 1913.

Crossnore supports children from the ages of one to 21, and is known for accepting large sibling groups. Currently, 83 children live in 11 cottages, each supervised by professional “cottage parents,” and three new cottages are under construction, which will bring the capacity up to 110. This new “Young Children’s Village” will include a ropes-based adventure playground, which will provide a full-body workout while kids are having fun.

Crossnore residents attend the public charter school on campus along with students from the community. All students receive therapy and medical care on site. Many students receive tutoring as well. In the summer, there is a full slate of activities, including day trips, special classes like hiking and baking, and a one-week beach trip.

The school offers 19 kinds of therapy, including Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, play therapy, family therapy, group therapy and equine-assisted therapy. Each cottage has a dog, so residents can experience the therapeutic effects of nurturing a pet. A case manager for each student serves as the hub of her team, mediating between the many adults involved with the child, taking her to appointments and supervising visits with birth families.

In 2014, Crossnore adopted the Sanctuary Model, and became one of 100 certified Sanctuary Organizations worldwide. The Sanctuary Model certification process is designed to “strengthen an organization’s commitment to the maintenance of a trauma-informed culture.”

Crossnore’s quality program pays off. Nearly all of its seniors graduate every year. Of last year’s nine graduates, three are working, four are in community college and two are in four-year college.

Crossnore is not the only residential school that also serves as a foster care placement, but there aren’t many. The Children’s Home in Winston Salem provides a similar program, and recently merged with Crossnore. The Boys and Girls Home of North Carolina is another residential school and foster placement. California’s San Pascual Academy is a residential campus for foster teens with a capacity to serve 184 youths.

The economics of Crossnore explain why there are not many more such programs. The program spent about $5.5 million in fiscal year 2015, of which only about $3.5 million came from government payments. Private donations covered the rest.

A residential school like Crossnore has multiple advantages over a foster home. Professional house parents combined with case managers give children the support they need. The size of the cottages allows large sibling groups to be placed together. Coordination between home, school and mental health services is assured. Rather than the poor schools and mental health providers that are often their lot, foster kids receive quality services tailored to their needs.

We need more programs like Crossnore, but the current climate in most states and at the federal level is not friendly to residential schools. The bias against residential placements (which provides a convenient excuse for spending less) is getting stronger and may soon be enshrined in federal law.

The current focus on preventing the need for foster care, while extremely important, has been diverting attention from the need for healing placements for those who must be removed.

The expense of these programs is another barrier. Yet the savings from increased educational attainment and decreases in crime probably far outweigh the increased cost. It is my hope that governments and private funders will see the need for and lifesaving potential of these programs and will choose to invest in starting new ones.

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