CASE STUDY 5: Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, Boys Town, Nebraska

Originally established in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan as a home for orphaned and abandoned boys, Boys Town today directly cares for more than 27,000 boys and girls annually in fourteen states and the District of Columbia.56 Boys Town programs include education, residential homes, emergency shelters, foster-care, family counseling, and a medical research hospital. At the 900-acre home campus in Boys Town, Nebraska, 550 girls and boys in grades 3-12 live and attend school.

The typical Boys Town youth has been placed in two to three foster homes or group homes before coming to Boys Town, has a history of juvenile delinquency, and tests two to three years below grade level in school.57 Most have been neglected and abused by their families. Eighty percent of Boys Town children come from single-parent homes. Over half of all girls and 30 percent of the boys have been sexually abused. One in five have considered suicide; 63 percent have mental health problems severe enough to be diagnosable.58

Despite the considerable challenges these youth present, Boys Town has been successful in turning their young lives around. An eight-year study by Boys Town researchers found that 83 percent of all Boys Town residents graduate from high school or earn a GED. That compares to a 69 percent graduation rate for youth referred to Boys Town but served by other non-Boys Town programs, and a 55 percent graduation rate for children placed in foster care nationally.59

Boys Town continues to monitor the progress of its alumni after graduation. Twenty-five percent enroll in higher education; another twenty-five percent enroll in employment training programs. In total, over 92 percent of Boys Town graduates are enrolled in school or employed two to three years later.60

In keeping with its famous motto: "He ain’t heavy, Father . . . he’s my brother," Boys Town stresses cooperation, a family-oriented philosophy, and responsibility for self and others. Children live on the Boys Town campus in family-style cottages, each headed by a Boys Town trained married couple who serve as surrogate parents, role models, teachers, and counselors.

Boys Town runs an elementary and a secondary school on campus attended by all residents. Both schools are accredited and provide comprehensive academic and vocational classes. The high school is organized around a seven-period day without study halls. Academics, social skills, and employability skills are emphasized, with students offered vocational training in over a dozen career areas. Boys Town also has its own sports teams, band, choir, student newspaper, and student government.

Although Boys Town is a secular, nonprofit organization, spirituality is an important component of Boys Town life. Depending on the religious preference of the child (or his biological family), he or she must attend church or synagogue once a week. Father Flanagan once said, "Every boy must learn to pray. How he prays is up to him." Religious instruction is also part of the school curriculum.

The residential and educational cost per child at Boys Town is $49,000 per year. Of that, two-thirds is privately supported through donations and a trust fund established by Father Flanagan in 1941; the remainder is funded by social service, juvenile justice, and education agencies.

Noting the inconsistency of public funding among different states and different programs, Dr. Daniel L. Daly, director of planning and research at Boys Town, says the private-sector’s role is essential to making sure children receive the services they need. "Happily, we are an organization that’s able to subsidize care for kids so the [placement] label [which partially determines public funding] doesn’t make a difference to us. . . . I don’t think public funding comes near enough to covering what these kids need."

Daly believes both the public and private sector, working separately or in partnership, are needed to serve neglected and abused children. When evaluating a program, he advises policy makers to "stick with outcomes—kid outcomes, not system outcomes." Graduation rates, employment rates, and success in school will show whether or not a particular program is helping students, he says. "Programs should be results, not process, oriented."

Daly says that by asking, "‘What actually benefits kids?’ it becomes a little clearer what has to be done."