A persistent shortage of money has Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes to make tough choices: Two of the five campuses must end their residential programs. The TBCH facility in Bartlett, open since 1950, will close at the end of May. The Oakdale campus has already transitioned from residential care to operating as a less-costly foster home.
Facilities in Millington, Brentwood and Chattanooga will remain open. With a little expansion, the “Boys” Ranch in Millington technically won’t be only for teenage boys anymore. It will begin housing girls and younger boys as well.
TBCH President Greg McCoy said Monday that the closure decision was prayerfully made, and it was not an easy one.
“It is very painful for us to think about closing that Bartlett campus,” McCoy said. “… A lot of lives have been changed on that campus.”
McCoy said he’s heard from many people who are as saddened as he is, but most have understood the financial reality.
He wants to reassure Tennesseans: TBCH is not getting out of residential care entirely. This service is a private placement to help families before a child needs to enter the system at the Department of Children’s Services – a need that remains. Some parents are recovering from drug addictions, some are in jail or prison, and others have equally difficult situations. TBCH will still be around.
The money crunch
The problem is that, statewide, the organization was coming up short by about $1.5 million year after year, and something had to be done. Reaching financial sustainability has been a major focus for McCoy since he joined the organization three years ago.
McCoy explained, “The Lord continues to provide, but I don’t want to presume upon Him. … It boils down to being good stewards of what we do have.”
He explained the financial crunch briefly: Ten years ago, TBCH had more than $10 million in its reserve fund. When the economy tanked in 2008 and 2009, the organization tightened its belt and stopped operating some of its peripheral ministries. Then they began foster care and had to spend more to hire additional staff members.
Another financial limit is that TBCH only accepts funding that allows it to keep a Christian emphasis.
McCoy said churches across Tennessee provide about half of TBCH’s funding. For the rest, the organization relies on investments, some state funding, grants with no strings attached, and generous donors.
“We’ve got to find that other half of our operating budget each year,” he said.
They haven’t found it in full for a while. So discussions of possible solutions began in earnest last summer among TBCH’s leaders, and trustees formally adopted this streamlining plan on Dec. 5, 2017.
“All this is part of our strategic plan to stop spending much more than we take in and be better stewards of our resources that the Lord gives us,” McCoy said.
A stronger emphasis on foster care is part of that plan. Foster care is substantially less expensive than the $70,000 to $75,000 spent annually on each child in residential care, he explained. The cost is high because in addition to the room and board costs at a residential facility, TBCH must pay for two sets of house parents, a social worker and supervisor to care for one to eight children.
In contrast, TBCH doesn’t pay the Christian volunteers selected to foster children. (The families do receive a stipend from the state, but it doesn’t come from the TBCH budget.)
Some of the Bartlett children have already been placed at the Brentwood campus. Others may reunite with their families if those are good situations for them, and one is going into a foster/adoption scenario, McCoy said. About five children remain, and they will be placed over the next two months.
All of the house parents on the Bartlett campus will be relocated to another campus, but the organization is having to release a good social worker and some other staff. Dr. Darren Andrus, currently the vice president of residential care on the Bartlett campus, will transition to the same role on the Brentwood campus.
In the short term, TBCH facilities will temporarily have fewer beds available until a new cottage can be built on the Millington campus. Funds from the sale of the Bartlett property will help pay for the construction.
TBCH has had 99 children in its care across the state, and the streamlined plan still makes room for 96 beds. That number will be down to 88 until the additional group home can be built on the Millington campus.
Long term, the plan is to streamline the organization’s residential care and expand foster care in Tennessee. Since TBCH began its foster care initiative five years ago, that program has been picking up momentum. The goal is to eventually care for twice as many children, McCoy said.
TBCH also plans to start a third arm of operations, Family Support Services, to more proactively minister to families. This launches on June 1.
It’s designed to help people who are parenting traumatized children who are fostered or adopted.
Children with traumatic backgrounds may begin manifesting behaviors related to what they didn’t get when they were really young, McCoy said. Parents may need help coping even if they don’t want to place the children somewhere.
“What if we went out there and said, ‘We’ve got experts on our staff to help’?” McCoy said.
The gist of the organization’s message seems to be that closing the Bartlett campus is a different direction for the organization, not an abandonment of its mission. TBCH has been operating for 127 years and sees no end in sight.
“We’re still going to be here,” McCoy said. “We can still minister to children in crisis. And we still need people’s support. Just because the campus is going away, please don’t forget about us. We’ve still got children all across the state.”
CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.