A new children and adult social services complex is being planned for Blount County that would put three area agencies adjacent to one another in what supporters are calling a “one-stop shop” for social services.
The proposed plan would pair Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center on county-owned property adjacent to land now owned and occupied by the Blount County Children’s Home on McCammon Avenue in Maryville.
One element in the plan would include a property swap between the county and the children’s home. The children’s home sits on 9.10 acres, which is surrounded by 10.66 acres of county-owned property.
In November, the Blount County commission gave County Mayor Jerry Cunningham authority to negotiate leases with New Hope and McNabb and facilitate the land swap with the children’s home board.
The county mayor and officials with McNabb and New Hope say the campus concept could save money for all three agencies, avoid duplicating services and make them all more attractive to foundations and agencies handing out grant dollars.
However, not everyone seems convinced the idea is workable. Officials with Blount County Children’s Home have responded coolly to the idea, citing a breakdown in communications and a lack of a clear plan as to how their programs would collaborate with the other two.
Mayor Cunningham said he was approached by New Hope’s Tracy Hughes and Helen Ross McNabb executive director Jerry Vagnier three-to-four months ago asking if the county had any property for this type of campus. Cunningham said the idea for the land next to the Blount County Children’s Home “was a natural.”
New Hope is Blount County’s facility for children who have been victimized by physical, mental, emotional or sexual abuse. The facility offers physical examinations for the child in a home-like setting and a place for law enforcement personnel to conduct questioning in a non-threatening environment.
Helen Ross McNabb came into Blount County a couple of years ago to provide mental health services to children up to age 18.
“We’re serving between 160 and 200 children, all Blount County residents,” said Vagnier. “We’re continuing to provide services within the three school systems within Blount County. Those cases are case management services and mental health services to students who have special education needs,” Vagnier said.
The Blount County Children’s Home is 114 years old. In the beginning, it was an orphanage and later, a group home for children sent by the state. The home lost the residential component in 2003 when the state changed policies in dealing with children in social services. In response to a lawsuit known as Brian A. vs. Sundquist, children all over Tennessee were removed from group residential facilities and placed in foster care. The state of Tennessee now prefers to direct at-risk children primarily to foster care, or, on occasion, to small group homes. That left BCCH with the goal of redefining their mission and role in the social and chidren’s services business.
Executive Director Rod Jackson said the Blount County Children’s Home has continued its mission to strengthen families and help children and young adults reach full potential. One service the home provides is visitation for non-custodial parents in the Gardner Place portion of the Children’s Home facility. They also have Operation Success, where caseworkers go into homes to help resolve issues that may be leading to situations that would mean removing the children. The effort also helps reunify families and provides supportive services to foster families.
BCCH board chairman Terry Elmore said that once they were no longer a residential group, BCCH suffered from some public misconceptions and had a reputation of not really doing a whole lot.
“Kids weren’t up there, and there were a lot of problems,” said Elmore. “But since Rod Jackson came on board, financially the children’s home is the best it has been in the last few years, and we’re running in the black.”
Fresh on the minds of some is the effort it took to get the land the children’s home occupies deeded to them from county commission. In the end, the county gave BCCH a deed to the 9.1 acres it sits on with the agreement that it would retain it as long as it operates as a “child welfare agency.” If that role ever changes, ownership of the entire tract reverts back to the county.
Jackson said part of the issues they have with the children’s campus is that the children’s home has ideas of its own for growth and providing needed services. Jackson said he envisions a new building for the Gardner Center where families can have supervised visits with children and non-custodial parents. He also wants to use the current 24-bed facility to create a place where teens who have “aged out” of custody at 18 can live while going to college. Jackson also envisioned a facility on property where those young adults can study culinary arts or construction trades.
Elmore said a new building to house teen boys from Sevierville’s Smoky Mountain Children’s Home who are in need of alcohol and drug treatment will soon be completed. “We’ve been working on getting children back at the center, and we expect to have children on site when we get the new house open in March,” he said. “We just have been looking at other options as well, working with other local organizations and agencies that address our mission of meeting unmet needs in the county.”
Ready to break ground
While the Blount County Children’s Home is still unsure of the viability of the project for their organization, the other two groups have moved on. Helen Ross McNabb has already completed a large part of their fund-raising to put toward the project. Hughes said the next step is to get leases signed with the county government. “McNabb is close to having their capital campaign completed, and they’ll build first,” she said.
Hughes said New Hope would like to do some preliminary site work in the spring with McNabb out of convenience and then break ground and begin work in earnest later. Hughes said it would probably take the rest of the year and the beginning of next year to finish fund raising. “I would love to say ground breaking in ’09 and occupy it in ’10,” she said.
Vagnier said McNabb has raised 76 to 80 percent of funds they would need to build and begin operations. The goal is $1.8 million with $800,000 for the building, $400,000 donated by the Clayton Foundation for school-based services and the remainder for ChildNet mental health or casework service for children 18 and younger who don’t have insurance, he said.
Jackson said the children’s home will continue to provide services to children and families. “We’ve developed over the last 114 years with a tremendous amount of community support and developed quality service,” he said. “Our motto is building better futures one child at a time.”
Vagnier said creating the community campus for social services to children and adults only makes good sense. “People in our community will be served better because we’re doing this together rather than apart,” he said.
Sitting at the apex of the whole plan is Blount County. The key to the proposed community complex would be a land swap where the county gives the children’s home property in exchange for land near McCammon Avenue where the Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center need parking.
Elmore said children’s board members and officials met with Cunningham and officials with New Hope and McNabb before Christmas to discuss a land swap. “We’re looking at options right now. Our board will be meeting later this month and look at making a decision and a counter offer,” he said. “Nothing is 100 percent set in concrete. We’ve not come to a decision based on the information.”
Jackson said he has seen the plans for Helen Ross McNabb and the advocacy center. “They’re good plans to meet their needs,” he said. “I think it helps the community more than it directly helps the children’s home. Programmatically, we haven’t really talked in great detail about the types of programs we can work together on.”
Blount County Commissioner Gary Farmer is on the board of the children’s home and said the vision of the proposed community campus is to benefit Blount County and its youth.
“My main point is this,” said Farmer. “We need to benefit Blount County and its youth. We need to cooperate, and we need to collaborate. Programmatic matches will be great if possible but not a mandatory part of it,” he said. “The most important thing we can do is serve the children of Blount County and protect their rights.”
Advantages of a campus
Hughes said if the three agencies combined their efforts with other non-profits, they could help thousands of children a year. “We could be more effective by sharing resources. We could look at ways to fund raise together. Not only could we operate a better organization as a campus but we could serve children and families better if they needed three or four agencies,” she said.
Hughes said a lot of challenges can be addressed by co-locating on a community campus. “By having them on a community campus, we can walk them agency to agency and building to building instead of saying ‘Drive three and half miles and ask for this person for this reason’ and hopefully they do it,’” she said.
Vagnier said from a financial perspective the agencies could share operating costs. “Non-profit budgets are always tight. Raising funds for capital site made more sense to do it collectively,” he said. “The other thing people seemed to get excited about is with this collaboration you seek funding for services. More foundations, more corporations and state officials seem to be interested in collaboration and showing no duplication of services.”
Hughes said that often private industry is more interested in helping agencies that are working together to be efficient and pool resources. “The biggest thing is a real commitment by agencies that joining together that we’re going to look closely at how we do business and ensure we don’t duplicate services,” she said. “Whether you’re thinking with your head or your heart it makes sense.”
Hughes said that once the campus became operational, the three agencies could work together to deal with any differences as they go along. “We’re not always going to agree but if you have a mechanism in place to sit down at the table to talk about what is at issue and how you avoid having an issue. Putting that mechanism in place will make us all better stewards of the community campus,” she said.
Vagnier said the Helen Ross Mc-Nabb facility would be 5,000 to 7,000 square feet while Hughes said the New Hope Children’s Advocacy facility would be about 10,000 square feet, although about 2,500 square feet of that would be open for other non-profit agencies use. Cunningham also was interested in seeing expansion sites so more non-profits could enter the campus.
Vagnier said Johnson Architects donated time to create conceptual drawings of what the three agencies’ buildings could look like when the new campus was complete.
“Our interest is to use the same architecture and aesthetics so everyone looks right together on campus,” Vagnier said.
Vagnier said that while Helen Ross McNabb officials looked at other properties, the land adjacent to the children’s home was most attractive because is was centrally located near downtown and easily accessible to people the agency could jointly serve with other organizations.
A question of partnerships
Regarding partnerships, Vagnier said there are a number of children’s issues in the community all three agencies could collectively try to address through identifying gaps in services.
“From a programming perspective I know (the children’s home) is looking forward to having children housed on campus again and a number of children will need mental health or substance abuse services.”
Vagnier said Blount County Children’s Home could refer children to Helen Ross McNabb if they wished. “We have a partnership with Smoky Mountain Children’s Home in Sevierville, and we could provide for that facility as well. They are very similar agencies.”
Jackson said he thought there had been a breakdown in communications since the process to develop the community complex began. “I think there has been a breakdown of communications beginning with the initial contact. The children’s home was, at that point, seeking a new executive director and focusing on what our future was going to be.”
When Jackson became the executive director, he said he was aware of the perception by some that the children’s home was not a viable agency since it didn’t have children living on property. “That was an incorrect perception and assumption. Our history has shown that we will continue to evolve to be a strong agency and a great provider of services to children and families of this area,” he said.
The mayor said he and the officials of Helen Ross McNabb and New Hope have been very careful through this process to respect the mission of the children’s home and the property the county deeded to the children’s home.
“In turn, in my meetings, I was of the impression the board of the children’s home had reciprocated in their respect for the mission of Helen Ross McNabb and the children’s advocacy center, and I saw absolutely no reason that we couldn’t all work together serving needs of children and adults in Blount County,” Cunningham said.
The mayor said a community campus is the highest and best use of the property. “It’s a wonderful thing. It’s going to happen, and I expect the cooperation of the children’s home board as well as the cooperation of Helen Ross McNabb and the children’s advocacy center,” Cunningham said. “The commission expects the same, in as much as the land usage for the children’s home flows from the commission, and the land usage for Helen Ross McNabb and the children’s advocacy center will flow from the commission. When you look at the mission of all three, they absolutely compliment one another.”