For more than 100 years, Boys Town has been a leader in helping save troubled youth, not just in Omaha, but throughout the country. This year has proven to be especially difficult for children and their families amidst a pandemic and community unrest, revealing unprecedented challenges and stressors. But just as Father Edward Flanagan did a century ago, Boys Town remains committed to its scientific model of care across all of the services it offers.
Since its inception, Boys Town’s philosophy has been to provide an inclusive, compassionate place for children of all colors, races, and creeds to grow and thrive. Flanagan worked tirelessly against systems of segregation and child reform that included 90-hour work weeks, poor nutrition, and oftentimes abuse. He advocated for a juvenile justice system that allowed children to be placed at Boys Town as an alternative sentence. He was met with so much resistance in the early years that he purchased land in the middle of a cornfield and established his own “Boys Town.”
Today, there are numerous physical reminders on Home Campus of the Boys Town philosophy. For example, National Executive Director Father Steven Boes said there are multiple places to worship for all religions, kids live in family homes with other kids of differing races and socio-economic backgrounds, and students sit with different kids each lunch period. He said the staff is also very diverse. “We’ve created a system that leads to greater equality,” Boes explained. “When you walk the halls, you won’t hear a racial slur.” Staff members are carefully trained in the Boys Town Model®, a research-proven model of care that includes measuring a child’s number of positive and negative interactions each day. The goal is for staff to have at least a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions with kids. If that ratio is less than 4:1 negative to positive, then staff members are called in to discuss. If an adult happens to have an unconscious bias and is regularly giving too much negative feedback to a child, then that is immediately pointed out and corrected.
Boes said the youth who live on Home Campus have behavioral challenges that are often the result of abuse, addiction, and other traumas. Boys Town is involved in leading research to understand how disrupted brain function can lead to emotional and behavioral disorders. The Boys Town Center for Neurobehavioral Research in ChildrenSM is a collaboration between Boys Town National Research Hospital® and Boys Town Youth Care Services. The Center uses functional MRI scans to compare thousands of children’s brain scans to examine differences real-time, which results in improved diagnostic treatment for behavioral challenges. The Hospital also specializes in serving children who are deaf or hard of hearing, suffer from cleft palate, and have other speech-related problems.
Stress, anxiety, and trauma are all challenges that can lead kids to crisis. The Boys Town National Hotline® is a critical resource that provides crisis counseling to teens and parents. It receives more than 160,000 calls and online contacts every year, and prevents 500 suicides in progress annually. Being a resource for the community is such an important focus for Boys Town, especially getting information into the hands of parents, teachers, and children. “It’s so important to have access to services online that are based on the Boys Town Model and research,” Boes said.
Another area where Boys Town is a leader in treatment and research is at its Center for Behavioral Health, which has five clinics across the Midwest. With 33 clinicians and psychotherapists—and serving as a certified doctoral internship training program—the Center has helped more than 40,000 children and adults over the past 16 years. Dr. Pat Friman, Vice President of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services, created the Center to provide families with treatments for common childhood behavioral issues such as anxiety, depression, bed wetting, school problems, and anger management using science and research to back up treatment methods. Friman explained that parents often approach their pediatrician first with a behavioral problem. “Pediatricians aren’t always trained to deal with that, yet 50 percent of all care visits to pediatricians involve a behavioral problem,” he said. “But pediatricians trust science, and we are good at providing that.”
A common problem among toddlers is not staying in bed at night. Friman said their treatment can include providing the child with a bedtime pass. The child can only use the pass once, so they have a sense of control over bedtime and being able to decide when they use it. It’s a treatment strategy that has undergone clinical trials with proven results published in multiple medical journals. Another example that experts at the Center might recommend to parents is a procedure to use when teens misbehave. Friman explained most parents use grounding based on a period of time or taking away possessions such as a cell phone. Instead, the Center experts recommend grounding based on chores. Parents determine the chore or number of chores based on the gravity of the misbehavior, and kids are grounded until all jobs are done to parent satisfaction. It again gives children control over how long they are grounded.
One important aspect of treatment is the family’s experience at the Center, which directly affects outcomes. “Science shows that if the family doesn’t feel valued, then they won’t follow the treatment,” Friman said. He’s worked with staff to ensure that clients feel valued from the first phone call they make to the Center, to how they are greeted when they arrive and how they are told good-bye. It all goes back to the original core values of inclusion and equality on which Boys Town was founded. “I’ve never seen the word ‘kindness’ embedded in a treatment protocol, but it’s my held belief that people are looking for kindness,” Friman said. “When you put kindness into the world, it will last forever.”