No child left behind 

Casey Family Program leaves Montana

Dale and Delvene Otto aren’t complaining; they have faith everything will work out.

For the past eight years, the Missoula couple have been foster parents to 15-year-old Rebecca McBride through Casey Family Programs, a privately funded foster-care foundation, established in 1966 by the late United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey, that has made the remarkable commitment to find permanent foster families for 4,478 “Casey kids’” in 20 U.S. cities thus far, and to support each of those children out of Casey’s own deep pockets.

Over the years, the Ottos have relied on their Casey social workers to provide Rebecca with everything from summer camps to therapists to personalized guidance finding employment through Casey’s work study program. So when Casey announced, in January 2003, that it was going to close its Missoula and Helena offices and gradually transfer its 100-child Montana caseload to Missoula Youth Homes (MYH), the Ottos remained grateful for what Casey had already given them—but they were surprised by the change they hadn’t seen coming.

“[Casey] had this beautiful building [in Missoula],” says Dale, sitting beside Delvene in their living room, “and you think, look at this, Casey is really investing in Western Montana, and then so that was a shock,” he says, when Casey decided to leave.

“We didn’t believe it,” says Delvene, who is also quick to say that their experience with MYH has so far been positive. Still, though, changes such as being assigned a new MYH social worker after developing a years-long relationship with their Casey social worker isn’t easy on anyone, least of all Rebecca.

“You know how it is,” says Dale, “whenever someone is making choices that affect you, and you don’t have the power to do anything about it. That’s hard to take. It is hard to take that they could just do this, and move out, and you just have to take it. But we understand it’s their money,” he says, “and it’s their program, and we’ve benefited from it, and we still are, and we’re thankful for that. We’ll just have to accept the fact that they have the right to make these decisions.”

What Casey’s decisions mean in Montana is that the foundation will accept no more children here (or in any of the other eight offices it closed nationally), but it will continue to support the Casey kids already in the program by contracting Missoula Youth Homes to do the work.

MYH Executive Director Geoff Birnbaum says the toughest part of the transition has been doing justice to the Montana Casey families’ injured feelings. As a three-time Casey foster parent himself, he says, “I think I understand this sense of loss, this sense of abandonment—at least the sense that somebody changed their mind about what they wanted to do, and it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I think that’s been hard, to honor that at the same time that we join with [Casey] to meet the needs of these kids, and to be excited for the opportunity it presents Missoula Youth Homes.”

Indeed, this is an exciting time for Missoula Youth Homes. While Casey’s restructure has led it to lay off about 35 percent of its staff and 10 offices nationwide (from 720 employees nationally to about 400 today), the Casey contract has given MYH a chance to become a presence in Helena, where it had not had offices before, and to hire four new people in Missoula. Birnbaum says the new staff represents “tremendous talent” and commends Program Director Erin Williams of MYH’s Dan Fox Homes for Kids for her work making the transition as seamless as possible.

The families’ biggest concerns, says Williams, are “about Casey’s long-term commitment to their youth…[Casey has] said they aren’t going to downsize,” she says, “so we just have to believe it.”

In his living room, Dale Otto clasps his hands and says the same: “There’s no reason right now to be too concerned,” he says. “You just have to take their word for it that they’ll keep providing the services.”

Casey’s Missoula and Helena closures will have an effect beyond Montana—and that’s the idea, says Seattle-based Casey Communications Specialist Alice Skipton. She says that while Casey’s first 30 years were focused on providing direct service care to families, the past 10 years, during which Casey’s foster-care load has doubled, have made Casey start trying to “broaden our scope to have more impact on the numbers [of children] who are going through foster care.”

Essentially, that broadening reflects Casey’s desire to shift some of its resources to involvement with policy decisions rather than just direct service, with the thought that influencing policies that affect foster care could ultimately benefit more of the 500,000 foster children nationally than could Casey’s direct services.

To that end, Casey has established a new branch called Systems Improvement, which devotes resources to, say, convening a higher education summit between education groups and child welfare groups, and working with judges to improve youth procedures in court.

In choosing which offices to close, Casey used some criteria that also focused on helping the greatest number of children. For example, says Skipton, Casey kept its three California offices open because California’s foster care population is more than 100,000—a population far denser than Montana’s. Helena’s Casey Director of Field Office Operations Phil Hernandez says that another objective was to eliminate offices serving fewer than 1,200 children a year. There are only about 1,200 kids in Montana’s whole foster-care system, he says, so keeping offices open here would have meant servicing every foster child in the state.

In a rural state where travel distances are great and towns’ resources not always plentiful, one could reason that such a commitment might be less cost effective than servicing a high-density urban population.

Skipton, though, says that Casey has kept a balance of rural and urban offices open, citing an open Wyoming office. Casey’s Hawaii office, however, is expensive to run, she says, and so Casey is currently helping it transition from a Casey office to operating as its own nonprofit.

Skipton says the decision to close offices “had to do with the economy and our portfolio. Like everybody, we were seeing losses. And then it was also coupled with this growing desire…to broaden that focus and do more with less, so really the economy sped up that change process we were already in.”

Birnbaum agrees that Casey has “been up front, whether we like it or not, that they want to change direction from becoming a care giver to becoming an agent for change.

“And I can honor the notion that they want to change the world,” he says, “but those of us who want to do it one kid at a time feel sort of left behind.”

rtroy@missoulanews.com

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