The Boys Town of Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, the Boys Town that offered haven to dirty-faced street urchins caught up in minor mischief - this Boys Town does not exist.

But yes, Newt Gingrich, there is a Boys Town.Today, Father Flanagan's dream has grown into a sprawling complex where the dormitories and mess halls have been replaced by 76 family homes for girls as well as boys. A national hotline, research hospital and parenting classes also are part of Boys Town.

Instead of pleading the case of a boy charged with stealing salami, as Spencer Tracy did in the 1938 movie "Boys Town," officials at Boys Town today are more likely pleading the case of adoption with a pregnant teenage girl or the benefits of abstinence with a drug-addicted boy.

"The general philosophy behind the movie is the same" as at Boys Town today, said Athena Gillespie, 18, who has lived at Boys Town for 31/2 years. "It's a little different today because today is a different world. We have different problems today."

Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., soon to be speaker of the House, has cited the movie "Boys Town" as evidence that orphanages are not a draconian answer to the problems of today's youth.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and others have spurned the orphanage idea as ridiculous and pure nostalgia for the days when Father Flanagan could stop a defiant child from running away by ringing the dinner bell.

The executive director of Boys Town, Father Val Peter, has waded into the fray.

He has invited Hillary Clinton and Gingrich to tour any of Boys Towns' 15 facilities around the nation, ranging from an emergency residential care center in Long Beach, Calif., to a home in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

"We have redefined `orphanage' so that in its place we have a substitute family to love and teach boys and girls what their own families could if they were not disabled in some way," Peter wrote in an opinion piece published in the Omaha World-Herald.

In the 1970s, out-of-home care for children began to change from dormitories to a family type setting. The theory was that children were better off in a nurturing environment, said Don Weber, a clinical social worker at Boys Town.

Today, each home at Boys Town houses five to eight children and a married couple. Mailboxes with family names line the streets and basketball nets adorn many driveways.

"We create a family environment and then we teach them everything they need to know, for example how to cook and shop," Weber said.

Gillespie lives in a home with seven other girls, a married couple and the couple's two children. Each morning, the girls "eat breakfast like a family," get ready for school and help clean the kitchen, she said.

After school, Gillespie works at a local Burger King restaurant, does household chores like straightening the living room or vacuuming, studies and relaxes. After dinner, she attends a "family meeting" with other members of her household.

Boys Town has changed its focus from caring for orphans or children, whose parents or guardians could no longer care for them, to troubled children, who have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused.

Youngsters stay at Boys Town for about 20 months on average; in the old days, boys stayed at the home until high school graduation. Today, Boys Town's goal is to reunite a troubled child with his family.

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"Almost all of our kids have parents somewhere. We really try to cement their relationship," Weber said.

All of this comes at a cost. Critics also argue that Gingrich's proposal would be more expensive than foster care. Indeed, Boys Town spends $40,000 per resident, per year - more than eight times the cost of foster care and 13 times the cost of welfare.

But Peter suggests that good child care comes at a price.

"Poor quality care remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten," he said.

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