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State agency stops placements in Tenn. Baptist Children’s Home

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. (BP)–Despite a state Department of Children’s Services decision to stop placing children in its care, the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home intends to continue its 113-year history of successfully meeting the needs of children in crisis.

The DCS complained that the TBCH requires children in its care to attend church. But the TBCH is not backing down.

“We believe a child needs to be in church,” Millsaps said. “We believe a child needs to know the Bible. The decision that any child or young adult would make about whether or not they would become a professing Christian is their decision. It’s not ours.”

Millsaps said he has empirical data, including a study done for the National Commission on Children at Risk by the Dartmouth Medical School, to prove children are better off in authoritative, structured communities such as the TBCH.

“They say the children who are in residential care who have the highest probability of long-term life success — breaking the cycle of violence, the cycle of poverty, the cycle of ignorance — are those children in residential care that provides them with faith-related and moral teachings,” he said.

On the other hand, Millsaps said, DCS has presented no data to support its claims that residential, faith-based care is less beneficial.

The state government reviews the TBCH each year and renews its operating license.

“Their own licensing reports say that no one does it any better than we do,” Millsaps said. “A couple years back, a report on [the Brentwood campus] said that the most fortunate children in residential care in the state are those who live at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home. That’s the state’s own records, not ours.”

DCS has said it will resume placement of children in TBCH care if the home will change its requirement that children attend church, but Millsaps said he believes the home should have the liberty to address the moral and spiritual needs of every child it encounters.

“I really believe if the Muslims in a community decided they wanted to underwrite a residential care program, and people placed children there and were told on the front end that if you come here, you come here understanding that you’re going to be at the mosque at the appointed time, and if you can’t embrace that you really need to go someplace else, I think the Muslims ought to have the right to set that as a condition. I would think any faith-based organization should,” he said.

The functional problem that arises with the DCS decision is that the number of children at risk greatly exceeds the number of available foster homes, making residential care a necessity either way.

“The Department of Children’s Services is scrambling all over the state and appealing to churches of all denominations to provide foster homes, which is kind of interesting,” Millsaps said. “They’re requesting for pastors in communities to try to enlist foster families. The very people they know are going to respond to them, on one hand they turn around and say you can’t require them to attend church. And that’s one of the reasons why so many people in the family of faith, regardless of what church they attend, are reluctant to step up.”

At the same time, Tennessee Baptists have been faithful for 113 years to provide residential care for needy children through their giving to the Cooperative Program and other donations. They were in the faith-based initiative business long before it was fashionable to talk about it, Millsaps told Baptist Press.

Also at issue is a mistaken assumption that all residential care is inferior to foster care, a notion that prompted DCS to make various policy changes stemming from a federal lawsuit nearly three years ago, said Bryant Millsaps, president of the TBCH. The implications of that policy have only recently made headlines, causing many to fear the TBCH would be closing its doors.

Millsaps made clear to Baptist Press that because it receives no money from the state and is completely funded by private donations, the TBCH is in no danger of ceasing operations even in light of the DCS decision.

“Placement of a child in the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home doesn’t impact our budget one bit,” Millsaps, a former Tennessee secretary of state, said. “That means we don’t have to go out and get children to operate, nor do we have to keep them to operate. We have the liberty of being able to place the best interest of the child in front of everything else.”

Currently, the TBCH has 108 children in its care. Its capacity of 139 indicates about 31 beds have been left empty by the loss of DCS referrals.

Even so, with more than 10,000 children at risk in Tennessee, the TBCH expects always to have referrals of children in need from pastors, private organizations, law enforcement and juvenile judges.

“We’ve always done it this way,” he said. “In 1970, we quit having dormitories,” he noted. “We left the institutional age of residential childcare 35 years ago, and for some reason the Department of Children’s Services has yet to understand that they’re not taking us out of that era. We have been out of that era, and we’ve gone on.”

Children under TBCH care live in cottages with house parents in a setting that resembles a common nuclear family. The children attend public schools and participate in school and church activities just like other children.

The state of Tennessee spends $193 million on children in crisis each year, and of all the places the state has ever placed children, the one they’ve never had a problem with is the TBCH. Moreover, the Baptist organization pays college tuition for every young adult in TBCH custody — including 21 in the past two years — and it doesn’t take a cent of state money.

“All we’re saying is, if in fact we have this crisis in the lives of children at risk in Tennessee at the monumental proportions that everyone says we do — and we do — why would you not want to take advantage of every resource available to you, especially if people of faith will say we will help you and not charge you anything?” Millsaps said.

The root of the problem, Millsaps explained, is what he calls a deeply ingrained attitude within the DCS that makes it difficult for them to understand faith-based ministries such as TBCH.

“When that attitude gets so deeply ingrained that it can no longer be challenged, it takes on a life of its own,” he said. “And because so many people express the attitude, it has begun to be presented as factual. But there is no credible empirical data that will support the assertion that a child is worse off here than they would be in a foster home.”

Millsaps said by definition foster homes are not bad, and the thing that can make foster home experiences bad is the same thing that can make residential care experiences bad: people who don’t do what they’re supposed to do.

“But in and of itself the foster experience is not bad. We’re not suggesting that the state not place children in foster care,” he said. “What we’re suggesting is that they consider all the resources available to them, whether it be foster care, adoptive homes or residential care, and take advantage of those to be sure all the critical needs of the over 10,000 children at risk in Tennessee are addressed.”

Millsaps said he will continue to raise awareness among Tennessee Baptists that their children’s home is not in danger, continue to have discussions with DCS leadership, and continue to respond to inquiries from the Tennessee General Assembly. He will also do a lot of praying, he said, noting the TBCH employees would rather spend their energy doing their job than explaining what they do.

“We’re going to be sure that we’re obedient to the call of Scripture on our ministry,” he said. “We’re going to be obedient to the investment that Tennessee Baptists have made in this ministry for 113 years, and we believe God will honor our faithfulness and that the children who need our care will make their way here.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: PEOPLE WHO CARE, STRUCTURED HOME, CATCHING THE BUS, NOT AN ORPHANAGE and CARING FOR CHILDREN.

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  • Erin Curry