Kansans hope to reshape foster care with rural village. But neighbors don’t want it

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add more context to neighbor Terry Sines’ concerns about the project.

Justin Oberndorfer likened the state of the Kansas foster care system to a raging river.

“It’s a flood of kids,” he said.

With 7,400 Kansas kids in foster care, the problem is too overwhelming for small solutions. That’s part of the reason he and his wife have proposed an ambitious project that would upend the traditional foster care model. Their nonprofit, Joy Meadows, wants to build a village of foster care homes in rural Leavenworth County that could house a community of families and support services. They want to build up to 10 houses on a 23-acre site north of DeSoto.

By building large, single-family homes they hope to tackle some of the chronic challenges in foster care: burnout among foster parents, the constant moving of children between homes and the practice of splitting up sets of siblings too large to house under one roof.

Aside from the residential development, the organization’s programs work to better support foster care families. Collectively, organizers aim at helping foster children thrive during their time in care — not just survive it. But that’s not how the system works now, said Sarah Oberndorfer, chair of the Joy Meadows board.

“If anything it inflicts harm,” she said. “We want to bring purpose to that time.”

Their proposal comes during a time of upheaval for the state’s foster care system.

A federal class action lawsuit filed last year alleged that Kansas foster care children are shuffled between homes so often that youth can be rendered “homeless while in state custody.” Attorneys amended the suit this month insisting even more vulnerable kids in the state are being harmed.

Foster care advocates say grouping foster care families together has proven successful elsewhere. And if the project works as planned it could build much needed capacity in the state.

But the plan is not universally beloved.

During a recent Leavenworth County zoning meeting, the Oberndorfers insisted that Joy Meadows would not build an orphanage or group homes. But that pledge didn’t stop neighbors from shaking their heads in disgust, whispering complaints about the project and mocking its chief advocates from the audience.

No neighbors spoke in favor of the development, but many stood up and shared their problems with it.

Several lauded the work of Joy Meadows, but said it just needed to find another place to do it.

“They have a lot of support,” said Terry Sines, “but everybody that supports it lives somewhere else.”

He said he’s lived at the end of a dead-end road near the proposed site for 26 years. He described Joy Meadows as a “can of worms” and told the planning commission he had liability concerns because he has cattle next to the site.

“It’s nice and quiet and peaceful and we would really like to keep it that way,” he said.

Sarah Oberndorfer told the crowd that foster children already live among them. She urged neighbors to set aside perceptions and try to think of foster children as victims, not perpetrators.

Even with push back from neighbors, she said she’s received “overwhelming support” from other community members. She tried contacting area residents to discuss details of the project one-on-one and still wants to have those discussions. But she wasn’t surprised by the opposition.

“That was kind of what we are expecting, actually,” she said in an interview. “Anytime you’re doing something new there’s some opposition.”

A different model of foster care

This all started a decade ago when Sarah and Justin Oberndorfer began working with homeless teens through a church program in Oklahoma.

“We just got to know the kids and their needs and our hearts were kind of broken for them,” Sarah Oberndorfer said.

The Oberndorfers initially thought about adoption, but quickly saw an even greater need in the world of foster care. For the last five years, the Basehor couple has taken foster children into their home. They launched the faith-based nonprofit Joy Meadows in 2017.

Justin Oberndorfer is a pastor at Gracepoint Church in Shawnee and the nonprofit is guided by a statement of faith.

In their home, the couple has experienced the whiplash of children moving in and out frequently. One of their foster children was separated from his sibling, requiring weekly visits to western Kansas.

They believe Joy Meadows would bring stability to children. The current site includes one 4,600-square-foot home. The organization plans to add new homes over time as funds are raised. The nonprofit would own the properties and rent them to current foster families below market rates.

They specifically looked for a rural site, believing nature, animals and quiet would bring a much needed calm to children whose lives are often reigned by chaos.

Therapists and case workers could visit kids at a common space on the property and siblings could avoid long car rides visiting each other. Each home would be built large enough to take in larger numbers of kids, freeing up capacity elsewhere.

“Right now, kids are moved around so much that their needs can’t be met,” Sarah Oberndorfer said.

The Joy Meadows project would represent a new model of care in Kansas.

Tanya Keys is deputy secretary at the Kansas Department for Children and Families and oversees the state’s 2,800 licensed foster homes. She said the state routinely grants exceptions to its capacity limits to keep siblings together. But large groups of brothers and sisters do complicate placements. Aside from increasing capacity, she said Joy Meadows looks promising because it could help foster parents by providing support and respite on site.

“We have a lot of learning to do,” Keys said. “And we’re excited to learn more about the innovation.”

Before planning the residential development, the nonprofit group researched similar programs across the nation. Those include Peppers Ranch in Oklahoma and Drumm Farm in Independence. Originally founded as the Andrew Drumm Institute in 1919, it began as a working farm for orphaned and impoverished boys. Since then, the organization transitioned into a foster care community.

Those community foster care models have proven successful over the years, said Lori Ross, founder and president of FosterAdopt Connect, a nonprofit social service organization that supports foster and adoptive kids in Kansas and Missouri.

“Anything that provides families with an increased level of support as they do the work of caring for children who have histories of trauma is beneficial,” she said. “When my husband and I were fostering actively, I would have very much loved to be part of a community like that.”

Foster kids are ‘normal children’

Ross said the Joy Meadows project will help alleviate the need for foster homes in Kansas and the lack of homes large enough to house larger sibling sets.

Still, such residential developments are primed for controversy.

Ross said that’s because many people harbor unfair stereotypes about foster children.

“Those kids are already going to school with your kids. They’re already playing in your neighborhood. They’re already participating in your kids’ sports league,” she said. “They’re normal children. There’s not a reason anybody should assume they’re going to be dangerous or detrimental.”

She’s not surprised that so many neighbors object. But she’s mystified at the logic.

“It’s mind boggling to me that people will fund services for animals who are abused and neglected and then get up and protest when someone wants to do something for abused and neglected children,” she said. “Shame on them.”

At the Leavenworth County meeting on Sept. 11, neighbors repeatedly said they harbored no ill sentiments toward foster care children.

Victoria Holloway told the planning commission that residents were “gravely opposed” to the project.

“We’re not gravely opposed to foster children,” she said. “We all love children. That’s not the issue.”

The issue, she said, is that the project would bring too much density in homes and people to that patch of rural Leavenworth County. The current roads and water infrastructure cannot support so many people, she said. Holloway said there were plenty sites more appropriate in Basehor, Leavenworth County and Wyandotte County.

“We’re quiet, we’re peaceful, we’re out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “Why out in our area?”

The county’s planning commission voted 4-2 to deny a request to rezone the land with a Planned Unit Development. That body only makes recommendations and the Leavenworth County Commission is expected to make a final decision on the request on Oct. 2.

In discussing the Joy Meadows development, Sarah Oberndorfer told the planning commission that the group would not take in children with the highest needs, including those who have been in trouble with the law. She also pointed out that the program would only allow experienced foster care families. Those families are already subject to background checks and financial screening from the Kansas Department for Children and Families, she said.

“I think foster care can seem scary to people,” she said in an interview, ”which is probably why we have a crisis in our state right now.”

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Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas