The Tulsa Boys’ Home turns 100

Gregg Conway, Tulsa Boys' Home executive director

For over 100 years, Tulsa Boys’ Home has provided over 13,000 boys a place to get help. Many of them have seen the worst in humanity and been through the worst scenarios imaginable.

In 2018, I spent time at TBH to write about the first century of the nonprofit organization, and then again as part of a feature on Tulsa Police Department’s community policing efforts that included officers volunteering at TBH.

The nonprofit has a tremendous track record of success, but two recent tragic deaths have TBH along with state and local officials re-evaluating operations across the board.

In March 2020, a boy left TBH and was then killed while walking on Oklahoma 51. In December, a boy drowned in the Arkansas River after leaving the nonprofit with a group of boys. Under current guidelines, TBH is an open campus and staff is not allowed to physically stop a boy from leaving. When they leave they are "missing from care."

In an April 29 Zoom conversation, TulsaPeople checked in with Tulsa Boys’ Home Executive Director Gregg Conway to see how the boys and staff are doing a year into the pandemic and how TBH is responding to the recent deaths.

Let's start with COVID-19 and how Tulsa Boys’ Home residents and staff have fared during the pandemic over the past year.

We've had a few cases of COVID on our campus where we had to quarantine a lodge of 10 to 12 boys a couple of different times. Luckily, we've been able to keep the proverbial curve flattened for the entire year so far so that we can remain operational. What that means is that we have enough staff to cover all the bases to take care of the boys without people having to quarantine at home because of either exposure or actually getting the virus.

Our staff has done an amazing job of staying safe and healthy when they're off duty, so that they can come back and forth and take care of the boys. The downside has really been the lack of the support from all of our volunteers. During any given month approximately 200 volunteers descend on the Boys’ Home during the course of a month.... Some of those volunteers become mentors, so they're working with boys one on one, kind of like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, so we have our own little mentor program and also tutors. Because we've been on lockdown they've not been able to come out and interact with the boys either.

COVID has made a big dent in our operations. We haven't missed a beat on the one hand, but on the other hand, we sure do miss that support of our volunteers. That's the biggest piece that we have noticed that's been missing. When we get past this COVID, we're going to bring everybody back to business as usual.

On the upside in spite of the pandemic, we are graduating three boys from Charles Page High School through our on-campus alternative school this year. Three of our boys are going to put on their cap and gown, and these are boys who if you would ask them, they would probably tell you they had lost all hope of ever being able to graduate from high school. We are super proud.

I'll tell you another really amazing story. One of our boys that actually left the Boys’ Home a year and a half or two years ago, he was 17 when he left, but he transitioned into an independent living program. This kid living by himself in his own apartment was able to catch up on his credits and graduate from high school on his own this past spring. This kid did it without any family support, which was a pretty incredible feat. We're getting ready to give him a car that was given to us, specifically to give to a boy that was deserving that needed some good transportation. He's also getting ready to ship off to the Marine Corps sometime either late this summer or early in the fall. He told me that he'll probably be the only kid in boot camp that has a car that's paid off already.

How many boys are there today?

We pretty much stay full at our capacity of 64 boys. We have boys coming and going during the course of a given month, but we pretty much are always bumping up against that maximum capacity of 64 boys. The way that breaks down is 40 of our boys are wards of the state, they come through the child welfare division of the Department of Human Services.

The reason they come through the child welfare division is because they have been taken away from their biological family of origin due to the neglect and oftentimes awful, horrific abuse. These are the kids we heard and read about and see on TV that when they were like little guys 2,3,4 years old and now fast forward they're 12 through 17, and they've been in the system since they were three or four. Because of their behavior, before we get them it's not uncommon that they have been in 15 to 20 or up to 30-40 failed foster homes, hospitals, group homes, shelter stays, before we get them. So they not only have the trauma from the reason when they were taken away, but now they got all these rejection notches on their belt of all of these homes, and even sometimes adoptive homes, where they turn them back to DHS because the kids behavior is so out of control or negative that they just can't handle it. It's a tough crowd showing up on our doorstep in recent times.

What has been the attitude of the boys with all that’s gone on with the pandemic and the lack of volunteer and tutor support that some of them maybe grew accustomed to or have needed during this time?

In spite of it all they've been responding for the most part pretty darn well. Now during the year of 2020, I think the boys were starting to get a little rambunctious, which is why we've we had maybe a higher number of boys going AWOL or what we call “missing from care” during 2020 than we ever had. That was really the combination of two things: I think it was a perfect storm of they were sending us some boys who had a propensity to go AWOL before we even got them. That was kind of part of their M.O. and DHS really didn't have any other places to put them other than Tulsa Boys’ Home. We kind of have this reputation of being able to turn around really tough boys that have been rejected over and over again and have some pretty substantial mental health issues.

That's another thing we're seeing more and more that's noteworthy for the community to know is that with the closure of most of the mental health facilities for teenagers and the Tulsa metropolitan area, we are seeing boys being placed here that have some pretty serious mental health issues, more than we've ever seen before, and the reason is because DHS doesn't have these other mental health facilities as options anymore because they've shuttered the last one. Shadow Mountain Institute had been a bastion of mental health services for the Tulsa community for many, many years going back to the late 1970s when it was established by Jerry Dillon. When they folded their tent and headed on into the sunset that was a big loss for the Tulsa community, and we feel it here at the Boys’ Home.

There's one counselor for every 10 to 12 boys, and that's how many boys live in each one of our six lodges. Every group of 10 boys has their own masters level counselor that does the individual and group therapy with them every week. And then the lodge manager and the direct care staff are taking care of them 24/7 and making sure they're doing what they're supposed to be doing. You could certainly say that all of our staff that worked directly with the boys are our kind of counselors in a sense, but in the strict sense of the word, we have master's level licensed therapists that are doing the individual and group therapy with the guys.

I think having really challenging boys coupled with the restrictions that COVID created for us, that's why we saw the highest number of boys going missing from care, and the highest number of boys that were getting into fights with other boys and staff, again, just because of being on lockdown and just being tougher kids to deal with to begin with. So, the combination of the two was kind of like the perfect storm.

In the last year there have been two tragic deaths of boys under the care of Tulsa Boys' Home. I understand the approach Tulsa Boys' Home has traditionally taken is a compassionate care open campus approach. There are no walls with barbed wire, no guard towers, etc. After those two tragic deaths and the rise in mental health challenges you said you’re seeing, are you re-evaluating how you conduct operations?

Yeah, there's two things that are occurring right now in direct response to the issue of these cases just getting tougher and tougher. There really isn't another facility like Tulsa Boys' Home in Oklahoma. We have been told by other entities outside of our organization that we set the bar for residential treatment for the kind of care that we provide. We are nationally accredited every four years, so for 16 years now we've been nationally re-accredited, and every time we get reaccredited, we score typically either 100% or 99.6%, and we're benchmarked against 585 standards, which are the best practice standards of our field worldwide.

We pretty much knock it out of the park, operationally. The impact that the Boys’ Home makes on these boys is just incredible.

The answer to your question is that we have hired two additional supervisory staff to work evenings and weekends to do more crisis intervention when we see boys that are kind of amping up, and maybe it's all about making preemptive strikes. So, we have doubled down and increased our supervisory staff on evenings and weekends by two.

We've had two meetings, I call them task force meetings with DHS. We had the second one [April 28], and these meetings are with DHS, the juvenile justice system in Oklahoma and within Tulsa County specifically. It involves legislators, Tulsa County Sheriff's Department, Sand Springs Police Department, child welfare (a division of DHS) that are all coming together and focusing on what are we all going to do about this issue? We can't be placing kids in programs or in facilities where they have the propensity to go missing from care and then while they're missing from care get themselves into some serious trouble by either pillaging and plundering the community, breaking and entering and stealing people's stuff, or by getting themselves seriously hurt or even killed. We just can't have that.

From a systemic standpoint, so what is it that we need to do as a system to meet the needs of these super troubled kids moving forward? Because what we've been doing obviously isn't working. In spite of all of our best efforts boys have died. Kids have gotten killed, so what is the deal? What do we need to do differently? We can't keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, that's not going to work. So, we're doing what we can do on our end on the back end.

On the front end of the system there are efforts being made that they're putting in place as we speak to identify more appropriate placements for the kids that don't really fit in the existing facilities that we have across the state of Oklahoma. That might mean we need to create some sort of a hybrid type of a program that is kind of strategic alliance with the Office of Juvenile Affairs, so we don't have to reinvent the wheel. If boys are crossing the line into the juvenile delinquents' space based on their actions, then they need to have consequences that are consistent with that type of behavior.

The kids in the child welfare system, in my view, have been sort of like a protected class over the years in that we don't want to treat them like juvenile delinquents, even when they commit juvenile delinquent acts, because they are in the system through no fault of their own. They didn't run away from home when they were eight years old, or 12, and get themselves in lots of trouble and they came from good upstanding families in the community. We're not talking about kids like that. We're talking about boys who were deeply wounded boys that were hurt by the adults in their life that was supposed to protect them, and because of that trauma, they're not right, so they act out in these negative ways.

So yeah, on the one hand it's they’re in the system through no fault of their own, but if their behavior related to their early childhood trauma is such that it is creating problems for themselves in the community, I mean serious ones, then we need to come up with different solutions. That's the bottom line.

There is an initiative, or an effort in place with those groups that I just mentioned, that are trying to figure out what are we going to do differently moving forward to take care of these kids.

I will say that our relationship with DHS is a partnership, and it's a very positive, strong partnership. The child welfare division of DHS has the responsibility of taking these kids who have been really broken and hurt and taking care of them so their back is against the wall. They're like, “Greg, you have a bed open at the Boys’ Home. We have this kid, and we got to get him into a bed. We can't just have them languishing on the street or hanging out in a hospital. We need to get them into a treatment program and get him help that he needs.” Sometimes it's like, “You're all we've got, man.” So now their back is against the wall. Now we have this kid that is really beyond the scope of what we're really set up to deal with.

That means they need to be in a facility where they can't leave. In other words, it's got to be a lockdown type of a facility like hospitals or like DOJ facilities that exist. There are two two programs in the state of Oklahoma for delinquent kids where they are locked down.

Can you share what some of the ideas or concepts that are coming out of these meetings as you try to address these issues?

The first time we got together two weeks ago it was to crisply and clearly identify what is the problem that we are faced with. What's the challenge? We identified kids going missing from care from out of home placements and getting themselves into trouble out in the community is the problem. OK. So, then the second step was what are we going to do about it?

A lot of discussion [April 28] was related to the front end of what are we going to do to identify these kids and identify what their needs are. Then figure out if we've got kids that their needs can't be met at Tulsa Boys Home because it's too risky? Then what type of facility do we need to what exists that can meet this kid's needs? If what his needs are that need to be met can't be met with existing types of programs, what are we got to do about that? What are we going to create? They do have a new assessment tool that they're rolling out where each kid is going to be assessed for what his basic needs are. These are kids that are in the foster care system. Last count I saw was there was somewhere about 6,500 kids in the foster care system on any given day in Oklahoma.

These kids that we're talking about that don't fit well and go AWOL from places like Tulsa Boys’ Home, they're just a drop in the bucket. Those are the outliers. These really tough kids. DHS has all these thousands of kids that they are keeping tabs on that are in the foster homes all over the state, you know, adoptive homes and other group homes. They are definitely trying to do a better job of identifying these at-risk behaviors that these kids have and get them into a program that's more appropriate to meet their needs.

So with all that said, if you could have your way how should the system change for the better to get these boys the help they need?

What I think needs to happen if I were king? I wouldn't reinvent the wheel. I would develop some sort of a strategic alliance with the Office of Juvenile affairs, which deals with the delinquent kids in the state of Oklahoma. We need to build a wing on to one of the existing facilities for the kids that are coming through the child welfare system, that we need to keep in a lockdown facility not even for a long time, but at least to get them stabilized and keep them from hurting themselves or people out in the community.

Sometimes when these guys go missing from care, they break into small businesses, convenience stores, people's garages, they've stolen people's vehicles. There's a boat repair shop right down the street, and I wrote the guy big check for the damages that the boys did last summer. None of that is good. It doesn't help the kids, and especially when there's no apparent consequences, either.

That's the other piece of that. They'll pick these kids up and just bring them right back to the Tulsa Boys Home, and there's virtually no consequence. Again, because they're viewed as this sort of protected class. So it's like how many felonies Do you have to commit to be put into detention center? I mean they’re committing crimes, but when you commit a crime, and cross that line and commit a crime, there needs to be a consequence.

If I open that door and a bucket of water falls on my head every time I open that door, how many times does that have to happen for me to learn, "Whoa, wait a minute, if I turn this handle and open that door, a bucket of water falls on my head?" I'm gonna probably stop opening that door. So it's kind of like that it's not punishment, it's just a natural or logical consequence. When the other boys see that these boys can go missing from care and come back, and hey, nothing happens. What that triggers? So here we go. It's kind of like monkey see, monkey do kind of a deal.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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