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Bureaucracy should step aside in favor of troubled kids

John L. Smith

Lake Mead shines Columbia blue in the distance from the grounds of St. Jude’s Ranch for Children in Boulder City. On a day when the sky is an endless blue dome and the Mojave air is clean, you’d almost bet you could see forever.

With its Mission architecture, cactus-lined buildings, stunning chapel, and nearly four-decade history of taking in abandoned and disadvantaged youth in Southern Nevada, St. Jude’s is an oasis in the desert.

Although many locals have long taken it for granted, its mission is more important than ever. With county youth services facilities bursting and little relief in sight, the ranch stands as a last haven of hope for young people in desperate need of a break and a clean, safe place in the sun.

Just last week, six small boys made the move from Child Haven to St. Jude’s as part of a shelter placement. Although their stay will be temporary and last up to a couple months, they’re making the most of their time at the sanctuary.

“When they came here, they immediately wanted to ride their bikes,” St. Jude’s Vice President of Community Relations Eryn Rice says. “I’ve seen kids on bikes the last few days. I think it gives them a sense of freedom. They were excited to be here.”

Three of the new boys were brothers, and keeping siblings together in a temporary or foster setting can be difficult. The campus, with its group home design, is ideally suited for that challenge.

Few children find themselves at St. Jude’s undamaged. Parent-teachers live full time at the ranch and work with the kids on everything from their math homework to their manners. In short, they get the attention that children lucky enough to have caring parents take for granted.

“We offer a very structured program for youth,” St. Jude’s social worker Casie Raymond says. “Many of these youth have issues. Whether they lack social skills, have education deficits, or need help with peer relationships, we try to help them. And we monitor them 24 hours a day.”

That comprehensive structure has helped approximately 1,000 children since St. Jude’s first opened in 1967. Although the facility receives some funding from government sources, it relies heavily on private donations from individuals and foundations.

“Some foster homes are absolutely fabulous,” Rice says. “Other times, they might go from one home to another. We just try to give them stability.”

A lot has changed in Southern Nevada in the nearly four decades since St. Jude’s opened its doors. But its admirable mission has remained constant.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed is our care for youth,” campus director David Carr says.

If you’ve learned anything about St. Jude’s over the years, you probably know about its long track record of success.

What you might not know is that it has room for more kids. What it has lacked since January is approval from Medicaid to help with the partial funding of more children. Medicaid funds the county, which is responsible for placement. That approval will open the door to hiring more parent-teachers.

St. Jude’s officials haven’t lost hope. (A hopeful heart must be a prerequisite for employment there.) In fact, they anticipate their phone will ring any day now with the good news. Medicaid won’t cover the full costs related to housing more young people, but that’s the nature of the foster care system.

With increased funding and placement, they can make long-term homes for up to three-dozen children. Rice says ranch officials are ready to interview prospective teaching parents for expected openings.

St. Jude’s also has an independent living unit to assist those up to age 21 in making the transition from the ranch to the work force or college. At present, only five are in the unit, which can hold up to a dozen.

That’s the irony. In a community that is overwhelmed by the need for more room for its disadvantaged and abandoned youth, there are beds waiting in Boulder City.

It’s time those bureaucratic wheels turned. Each day that passes is another lost opportunity to save a troubled kid.

From this oasis, you can see beyond the lake all the way to a brighter future for some very deserving young people.

— John L. Smith’s column appears Thursdays in the Nevada Appeal. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.