Fostering on the Farm
There are upwards of 437,000 children in the foster care system in the U.S., according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, a project of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Kids can end up in foster care for a variety of reasons, whether they’ve been abused or neglected, or their parents can no longer care for them. No matter the reason, the children have suffered trauma.
While some parts of the country are actually experiencing a decline in the number of children entering into the foster care system, others are seeing rapid increases. In Alaska, Georgia, Minnesota, Indiana, Montana, and New Hampshire, the foster care population increased more than 50% between 2012 and 2016.
Those areas with the biggest jumps are also areas that have been hit hardest by opioid and methamphetamine abuse. The HHS estimates that for the average American county, a 10% increase in the overdose death rate translates to a 4.4% increase in the foster care entry rate.
In Montana, for example, the state’s Division of Child and Family Services reports that between 2008 and 2017 the percentage of child abuse and neglect cases where methamphetamine use was a factor went from 26% to 52%. Over the same time period, the number of children in foster care in the state more than doubled, from 1,408 to 3,172.
When rural kids are placed into the foster care system, they are at a disadvantage when it comes to available homes. Since the population is smaller, there are fewer families available to foster. This means rural children are often sent to group facilities or to families who are hundreds of miles away from their home, school, and friends.
Rural families who are interested in fostering also must overcome challenges. Generally, the families are responsible for getting children to and from specialist appointments. Since many children in the system require mental health care, and since mental health professionals are few and far between in rural areas, that often means lengthy drives to appointments.
A Community of Fostering
When rural kids are placed with rural foster families, they don’t have to give up the benefits that come with growing up on a farm. At the Drumm Farm Center for Children in the heart of Kansas City, Missouri, urban kids in the system are able to reap those same rewards.
For 100 years, Drumm Farm has been helping children build successful lives. The center was established in 1919 by businessman Major Andrew Drumm and originally served as a home and working farm for orphaned and impoverished boys. A statue of Drumm on campus features this quote from him: “A rough life, if you can stand up under it and keep it from making your character rough, gives you a constitution that will last a lifetime.”
In the 1980s, Drumm Farm transitioned from an orphanage to a foster care group home. Kids lived in a house with foster parents who stayed several days at a time, alternating with other adults. While the children benefitted from living at Drumm, the inconsistency of group home adults wasn’t ideal.
A few decades later, Brad Smith was hired by Drumm Farm to do consulting and training for the board of directors. He had been a child abuse investigator for the state of Missouri and a school administrator. Smith was hired as executive director in 2011 and set to work reshaping Drumm.
“We came up with a model that’s taking off throughout the country,” Smith says. “It’s about kids being part of a family setting in the truest sense. We got away from the group home and residential care model because the outcomes aren’t great over the long term. Kids in these facilities are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be homeless.”
Eight single-family homes make up a neighborhood of foster families on the Drumm campus. The parents live with the children full time, and the houses allow large sibling groups to stay together. “On Thanksgiving and Christmas, rather than the community becoming a ghost town, the parents invite extended families to come to their houses to celebrate,” Smith says. “That’s how we know we’re now a community of fostering rather than a group home.”
Smith says kids do best in a family-like setting. “It helps them heal and gives them a clear vision of what parenting looks like and what a family setting looks like,” he says.
Unfortunately, Smith says, there are not enough foster homes in urban and rural areas to meet the need. “States are trying to move kids from group homes into foster care, but there aren’t enough homes available,” he says. “If group homes aren’t the answer, how do you provide enough foster homes? One way is to create these neighborhoods. I think models like Drumm Farm are where the system will need to go.”
Drumm Farm also features apartments for young people over 18 who have aged out of the foster care system and provides an outreach program for homeless youth in Kansas City.
Farm in the City
Since its inception, the professionals at the Drumm Center have used the on-site farm to teach children important life skills and provide them with a connection to nature. When Smith took over the reins, however, the farm needed work. “We had a few chickens and some crops, but we decided as a board and staff to really put energy into the farm,” he says. “There are therapeutic benefits to caring for animals, planting and seeing things grow, and creating fencing and trails.”
Today, the farm has 4½ acres of fields, two greenhouses, a year-round high tunnel, 100 sheep and goats, and 20 hogs. “The farm offers an education because it provides experiences that many urban kids don’t otherwise receive,” Smith says. “They’re learning to work.”
Kids on the farm are paid for working part time during the summer doing age-appropriate chores. Some older kids work full time in the summer and part time while going to junior college. “They show up on time, take breaks, take instruction, and learn responsibility,” Smith says.
Youth can also work at Drumm’s farmers market, held on Saturdays. It features fruits, vegetables, flowers, baked goods, and meat from the farm’s livestock. “The kids learn to work the cash register and develop customer service abilities and all the basic skills you’d want anyone to have in a work environment,” Smith says. “Giving them this skill set will give them every opportunity to succeed in their lives.”
Besides the farm, Drumm offers its resident children personalized educational support from certified teachers and counseling services. “Our kids come here having experienced significant trauma in their lives,” Smith says. “At its core, Drumm Farm is a place of healing.”
Drumm Farm | 816/373-3434 | drummforkids.org
National Foster Parent Association | 800/557-5238 | nfpaonline.org