From Group Home to Foster Care Community, Oklahoma Agency Adapts to Trends

In 1952, the Oklahoma Lions Boys Ranch (OLBR) opened as a family-style group home to serve young men in trouble. The ranch evolved to serve boys who could not be maintained in a foster home because of their behavior. Two ranch homes housed six boys each, with a married couple serving as houseparents in each home. Many boys grew up in this setting until they graduated from high school.

Everything changed when the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS) laid out its Pinnacle Plan as part of the settlement of a class action lawsuit. A child had to have severe behavior, such as violence or sexual acting out, to be placed in a group home. And any child placed in a group home would have to leave within a few months of behavioral stabilization, rather than staying until adulthood.

Traditionally, OLBR served boys who had been kicked out of 10 to 15 foster homes because of behavior. Now, the only children that DHS would send them, explained Executive Director Bryan Larison, were those whose behaviors were so severe that they could not be served in a family-style home. Survival as a group home was no longer possible.

In 2010, OLBR chose to add a foster care community to its campus, and raised enough money to build three new foster homes. With the advent of the Pinnacle Plan, OLBR decided to discontinue its group homes entirely. They converted one of the group homes to a foster home, and opened all four homes to foster families in August 2015 as the Meadows of Hope (MOH) foster care community. The four homes currently serve a total of 19 foster children. A donor has pledged to match $125,000 to build a fifth home.

Foster care communities offer many advantages, as I described in a previous article. Foster parents can assist each other with babysitting and friendship. Volunteers frequently visit the campus to help with events and activities. Activities are provided for all the children and families. Eventually, MOH will have a community center where activities can be offered to children and foster parents.

There is a foster care shortage around the nation, but MOH had no trouble recruiting foster parents. This is not surprising. The foster parents receive rent-free housing and a monthly stipend of $850 per child, of which $600 is paid by DHS and $250 is added on by MOH to bring the stipend up to a more reasonable level.

In return for these benefits, each foster family must have two parents, one of whom has to refrain from paid employment.

A strong base of private donors makes MOH possible. For every state dollar spent, MOH spends two dollars in private funds. Financially, the change has worked out well. Instead of having to pay salary and benefits to its house parents, MOH pays only its share of the foster parent stipend. As a group home, OLBR served 12 children for a total of $700,000 per year. MOH can serve 19 children at an annual cost of $400,000.

MOH offers an important lesson for child welfare systems nationwide. To solve the critical shortage of foster parents, we need to offer them enough financial support so one member of a couple can stay home – as well as the emotional and moral support that comes from being part of a community. Moreover, the larger homes can take groups of up to four siblings, who are often separated.

The downside of this evolution, sadly, is the loss of a placement option for older boys who may not function well in a foster home. Larison would like to see MOH foster parents taking in the same clients who lived at the ranch. One of the homes does serve four teenagers, and gets additional help from the program. But in order to serve that same clientele in all of the homes, each foster home would need more support.

The irony is that an MOH foster home looks very similar to an OLBR group home, as Larison acknowledges. The main differences are the nature of the clients, the ways the parents are compensated and the existence of additional staff at OLBR.

To DHS, a group home could not provide a family environment. So a program providing a loving family life was forced to abandon a population that needed it badly. So where are the boys going who used to go to OLBR? My guess is that they are cycling through an endless stream of foster homes, until they end up in prison or age out of the system with poor prospects for the future.

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