How this Oklahoma ranch is using nuclear families to upend the foster care system
Most often sibling groups are either separated or tend to languish in foster care. Peppers Ranch is changing that
Desie’s eyes grow wide as she looks over the menu at Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, a popular destination with tourists, local families and even cowboys in the Stockyards area outside of Oklahoma City. The 8-year-old Desie does not get to go out for dinner often — the nine other children in her family make that logistically and financially challenging — but that does not stop this soon-to-be third grader from sharing her adventurous tastes.
“I’m going to start with the shrimp cocktail,” she announces to the half of our group of 14 sitting at one table. Desie came to stay with Ashlee and Matt Terry when she was 8 days old. It was part of a “Home for the Holidays” emergency placement. Desie came to the Terrys right after Thanksgiving in 2012 while child welfare services figured out what to do with her; she never left.
Desie was actually the fourth child placed with the Terrys. Their first placements were in 2011 — sisters Evie and Piper — and then their biological sister Bella a few months later. In 2014, with four daughters, three bedrooms and only one shower, they decided they did not have the space for more. Ashlee recalls: “I said that when God provided more bathrooms, we would reopen our home.”
God seemed to answer their prayer when they were offered a spot at Peppers Ranch, a community in Guthrie, about 30 minutes from Oklahoma City. The ranch harnesses an old-fashioned understanding of family, neighborhood and community to solve the problems of a new generation of displaced children.
Opened in 2002, with the donation of 160 acres of land, Peppers Ranch was originally a residential facility for abused and neglected boys. The donor, Hal French, a local oil and gas entrepreneur, had grown up near a boys home and often played with the children there, and wanted to create a similar opportunity for more kids. After a few years, things seemed to be going OK for the boys who came to Peppers Ranch. But their sisters were just being dropped off at a local shelter. The girls had no equivalent and, more importantly, the siblings were losing their connection to one another. Which got French and the other folks at Peppers Ranch to thinking.
According to research from Casey Family Programs, “approximately two-thirds of children in foster care have a sibling in care, and yet — despite the benefits of joint sibling placements — it is estimated that more than 70% of children with siblings are separated from one or more of their siblings while in care.” Benefits of placing siblings together include lower incidence of behavioral problems and a higher chance they will both like and adapt to their foster homes and have better academic performance.
But finding foster or adoptive families that have the capacity to take in sibling groups is hard. Even if parents have an extra bed in their home or are willing to take in two siblings, what are the chances they have the space (let alone the time and energy) to take in three or four? The result is that sibling groups are either separated or tend to languish in foster care for longer.
And so Peppers Ranch tried something different. In 2009, after extensive studies, the leadership decided to move to a family model, offering couples who were already licensed to do foster care in Oklahoma the opportunity to move to Peppers Ranch. There they could live in one of the newly built houses, paying only a couple of hundred dollars in rent and receiving a small stipend in addition to what the state offered for foster care, if they were willing to open their home to at least five foster children. Today, there are 16 homes on the property (with plans to build a few more over the next few years), all more than 3,000 square feet. The typical home has four bedrooms, a large living area and an industrial-size kitchen and pantry. The more recent homes even have hookups for two washers and dryers as well as larger garages in which families can park their super-size vans. The entire community has an annual budget of about $1.5 million, all from private donations. In addition to money, locals also donate furniture, clothing and other necessities. Hundreds of volunteers help maintain the grounds and run programs for the kids.
Set amid farmlands at the end of a dirt road which is prone to flooding, the community may seem inconvenient to some, but for the families at Peppers Ranch, it offers everything they need. The landscape feels a little sparse — not enough time has passed for many trees to mature on the land. Each family has a backyard, equipped with all the trampolines and play structures you would find in a typical suburban neighborhood. There is also a community basketball court and soccer field, a playground and pool complex, a pond where the kids can fish, and a barn with 17 horses. The horses, many of which are older and have been donated in their retirement, are used for equestrian therapy. They are gentle and the kids enjoy helping to care for them. Indeed, one of the Peppers Ranch mothers told me how excited her 6-year-old adoptive son was when he was given his very own pooper scooper for the horses. “They need my help,” he would tell his mother before running over to the barn. Each family also has to help with chores around the community — including feeding the horses over a weekend when the trainer is not around.
The logistics of being a foster parent, especially with multiple children in the home, can be overwhelming. Multiple therapy appointments a week, in addition to arranging visitation with biological parents, meetings with social workers and court dates can make even the most organized person’s head spin. But Peppers Ranch brings at least some of those services to the community. There is a learning center where children can receive after-school tutoring. The ranch also offers art therapy, dance therapy, a swim team and a variety of other extracurricular activities. Parents pay a small fee for these out of the stipends they receive.
The community requires at least one parent to work full time. But the subsidized housing at Peppers Ranch means one parent can stay home full time — and most of the time they do. With so many kids, especially ones who have behavioral and emotional challenges, it is hard to outsource child care. But the state stipends do not allow a typical middle-class foster family to give up one income. In families with older kids, mothers sometimes have part-time jobs they can do from home during school hours. Mostly it’s the mothers at home but in at least one case it’s the father who cares for the children while the mother works as a hospital nurse.
Whoever stays home, the arrangement is a relief for parents. Dustin Burpo, a family pastor at a nearby church and a parent at Peppers Ranch, tells me that he and his wife recently looked at their budget. “We’ve got a house to stay in, a nice house that has plenty of space for our large capacity living” — the Burpos have eight children — “It truly gives you that peace of mind. It’s a weight off my shoulders, knowing that I’ve got a place for my kids.”
But it’s not just the homes. It’s the community. Most of the families give their kids freedom to roam. Matt Terry says that’s one of the things he likes about Peppers Ranch, that it feels like a more old-fashioned neighborhood. It’s certainly true that it’s small enough for everyone to know everyone else. Shelly Blankenship, who has been at Peppers Ranch since 2011 and fostered around 80 children here, compares it to when she grew up across the street from her grandmother and down the street from her aunt. “You couldn’t get away with anything.” When she sees kids misbehaving at Peppers Ranch, she will say, “I don’t think you need to be doing that.” They will ask if she is going to tell their mother. Her response? “Do I need to tell her? If you’re going to quit and act right, then I don’t have to tell her anything. We’ve already taken care of it.”
Even if they lived in such a neighborhood today, though, parents of foster children and children adopted out of foster care often have a much more difficult calculation about giving their children freedom. Should you let a kid wander around a neighborhood knowing that they have been traumatized by other adults? Are there psychological and behavioral problems that could pop up if something scares them or surprises them? How will other adults respond? Will their fellow parents blame them if something goes wrong?
And this is really the genius of Peppers Ranch. It is a supportive community filled with other children who have gone through similar things and other adults who are trying to help those children. While many of the families at Peppers Ranch have found some level of support for their foster care efforts among friends and family, they often felt isolated before they came here. “You have behaviors for a child and you think that something is wrong with me as a parent,” says Kristin Burpo, Dustin’s wife. “You just feel judged, even in a church community,” she tells me.
At Peppers Ranch, veteran parents often serve as mentors to the newer ones. The mothers meet at least once a month to talk about the issues that they are facing with their children, where to find resources to help, how to deal with the emotional toll that fostering is taking on them, their marriages, and even their other children. Most research shows that about half of all foster parents quit within their first year.
Kristin Martinez understands why. Martinez, who has one biological child and seven adopted children, remembers the day she took in a 16-year-old girl. “I never had a teenager before. I could immediately go to other neighbors and they were able to provide me with great information and great resources.”
Her children are playing in the backyard when I arrive, but then come in and sit down with us, periodically asking when it will be time to go get snow cones. She also describes the other trials of being a foster parent, including the “heartbreak” of having a child leave after a long time to go back to their biological family. She asks me to imagine having a child live with you for a year or more, having him or her become part of your children’s lives and then never seeing them again. Or what about “when you’re going through the heartbreak of going to all the court dates”? Martinez recalls “the heartbreak of the biological parents never getting it together. Witnessing the heartbreak that happens to your child. It’s a very emotional roller coaster, this life.” A couple of her older kids nod in agreement.
She finds it reassuring that “there’s somebody here to understand that. When you’re having a really hard day and you’re in tears because it’s so hard,” she says, it means so much to her “to have people that literally understand exactly what you’re going through. … To have people that you can do this life with is pretty special.”
There is also a network of support for children who live at Peppers Ranch and did not come from foster care. Few people can understand the journey of biological children whose parents keep bringing new children into the home. As Shelly Blankenship acknowledges, “My kids weren’t from trauma, but I put trauma in their lives.” But being at Peppers Ranch has helped her children process that. Rather than putting all this emotional chaos behind her, her daughter, who is now 25, has guardianship over a 17-year-old in the system.
Kristin Burpo appreciates that her children see “unconditional love” in her home and in the other homes at Peppers Ranch. “This is always my prayer, that they would see my heart in all of it. And no matter the child that comes in my home, they’re my child when they’re in my home.”
During COVID-19, the community created its own bubble. The kids would still play with each other, going on field trips to state parks some days. The moms would get together, pick up some food and sit in one of their vans to get a break from the kids. “We did that once a week just to try to keep our sanity,” Kristin recalls.
The Burpos had two biological children when they took in Shaniya, their first foster child from a family that her husband’s brother (a pastor) knew from his church. Even in a community that was welcoming, she worried that their children might stick out. “Our daughter is black and we are white. It was a little bit awkward” in the small town they lived in before Peppers Ranch. “Coming out here, we know that Shanaya would grow up not feeling odd. Coming to a community where everybody was accepted the way they were because it was just normal. … That was really big for us.”
Since moving to Peppers Ranch, they have adopted two sets of siblings: Shecotah, 8, Skye, 7, and Trinity, 6; and Jaycee, 4, and Kaysha, 3. When I visit their house the chaos is controlled. Kristin is folding laundry. The older kids have helped the younger kids get their sandwiches for lunch and they are passing around the largest container of cheese balls I have ever seen. Three of the younger kids go to watch cartoons when they are done.
The family has just come back from a vacation Bible school camp and they are trying to get back into a routine. Dustin, their father, is a pastor at a church about 40 minutes away. Peppers Ranch is not a faith-based organization but every one of the families there is guided in some way by their religious beliefs. Ashley Hahn, the director of the ranch, says they have all “felt called through faith to this walk.” She tells me, “I’m a person of faith. I don’t know how you could do it without knowing the Lord is on your side.”
Most of the Burpo kids ignore me, but one of the girls takes me on a grand tour of the house, showing me what’s inside of each of the closets, introducing me to the cat. She seems to crave attention in a way that would be typical for an outgoing 7-year-old. And she clearly enjoys showing off for guests. But then she starts taking watermelon rinds out of the garbage and chewing on them. When Dustin notices, he is calm but firm, asking her to stop. After she does it again, he takes her aside, offering a sterner but still completely calm warning. The kids, as Kristin explains to me over the third basket of laundry, have all manner of diagnoses. A number were born with drugs in their systems. Others watched their parents physically abuse each other and experienced severe neglect as they were shuttled back and forth among parents too strung out to care for them and grandparents who were overwhelmed.
Providing a stable environment with love and clear boundaries is important, but the Burpos have tried to consider in other ways how they parent. Almost everyone at Peppers Ranch has been through training in how to deal with kids who have experienced trauma. Dustin also says he talks to other fathers at the ranch about their unique role. Many of the kids have no responsible adult male in their lives. “We are fathers to the fatherless.” Dustin, who counts himself lucky for growing up with a father and a stepfather, says he fears for these kids, many of whom “don’t know who their biological father is and they probably never will know. I get to fill that role. And it’s very humbling and scary at the same time.”
Peppers Ranch families think about the building blocks of a normal family and how to re-create them for kids who have come out of dysfunctional homes. Kristin has seen up close how vital it is for sibling groups to stay together. It’s difficult for younger kids because they want to have at least one of the older people they look up to present in their lives. But “when it’s an older child taking care of a younger child and then they are split, … the older child was the caretaker and then they have no purpose.”
Ashlee and Matt met doing a training offered by the Oklahoma Department of Health Services. She was training to be a caseworker, helping foster children find permanency. He was training to be a child abuse investigator. It wasn’t long before they were married and began taking in foster children themselves. Matt says that Ashlee is the one in charge of all the logistics of the family and making sure everything works, but it’s clear that his experience working with this population of children has driven him here as well. In his first few months on the job, he discovered three dead children. It was during the rise of meth labs in the area a few years ago. “We didn’t know what we were stepping into.”
At dinner with the Terry family at Cattlemen’s, the dynamics of the siblings seems both happy and familiar. Their oldest son, Jose, who is 18 and just finished high school, took his younger brother to the bathroom more than once during dinner and helped him order food. In addition to Desie, the Terrys have adopted one set of three sisters and another set of five brothers and sisters and are fostering the nephew of the five, born to an older sister who is an adult. Jose is living at home while he is enrolled in local vocational training program. He says he wants to become and electrician and move to Las Vegas. Ashlee, who took him to Vegas for his 18th birthday and celebrated with him by getting tattoos together, jokes that with all those lights there should plenty for him to do. His next youngest sister listens excitedly and talks about her plans for the future, too. She has multiple babysitting jobs and likes caring for children but is also thinking about cosmetology.
When we sit down, the kids divide themselves more by age than by their families of origin. But the fact that they are with the people they grew up with seems to set them at ease. Certainly dinner with 10 kids turns out to be much more serene than you might expect. Despite having to wait over an hour for a table — by which point my own children would be losing their minds — these children were patient and kind, asking their parents polite questions and making conversation with me and DaNysha Wright, the programs and outreach director for Peppers Ranch. When 17-year-old Aurelia asks DaNysha whether she would ever foster or adopt herself, she looks around the table smiling. Desie takes advantage of her moment of hesitation to explain, “I think you need to find a man first!”
In some ways, Peppers Ranch has a sort of artificial feel. The current families have to meet with potential new families and decide whether they should be able to move in. Families can only stay in the community as long as their homes are open to foster children, even if only on a temporary basis. A number of families have ended their foster care “journeys” after a few years and children from other homes talk about missing their friends. Of course, this could happen in any neighborhood.
Peppers Ranch does try to provide continuity for kids in other ways. They have a “Grandma” program, in which older people who have either moved on from fostering or who simply want to help out, can live in one of a few small apartments in the community. They form their own relationships with the kids, inviting them over to bake cookies or help with homework. They host playdates for the little ones to give the moms a break and organize art projects for the older kids.
One of the new grandmas, Kim Magallanes, moved here from California after her son and daughter-in-law came a few years ago. She is retired but filled with energy and has started to build relationships with the kids. She also has experience with horses and plans to help out in the barn as well. She keeps a stash of carrots in her refrigerator in case one of the kids comes by and wants to go feed them. Kim remembers when she was a child “going to my grandparents’ house, things that I now realize were chores, were fun. Hanging clothes on the line and picking berries and learning how to bake.” Being a grandmother at Peppers Ranch is “just being another person these kids can hang out with.” She’s taking a group of the teenagers on a trip to a camp a few hours away a couple of days after we meet.
Other communities have attempted to harness the power and time of an older generation to build connections with foster children. In an article called “It Takes a Multigenerational Village to Raise Foster Kids” the authors who work at an organization called Hope Meadows describe how they have created communities in which foster families live in close proximity to older adults. The programs, which are funded in part with public dollars, offer “intergenerational art and other classes, weekly community dinners, and a community garden, where young and older residents can meet and strengthen ties.”
Indeed, such communities are part of a larger conversation we seem to be having in this country about the need for more communal support to raise all children. Last year, David Brooks penned an article for The Atlantic arguing that the nuclear family had failed us. He bemoaned the loss of extended families and tightly-connected neighborhoods, suggesting that “forged families” are the future, people who may not be related by blood, but have chosen to live in community.
A New Yorker article on communal living among adults focuses on arrangements like Treehouse Hollywood, which author Nathan Heller describes as “a space for community living, where people of many ages and from many walks of life eat together, spend time together, and conduct their lives largely in common view.” At least one young single mother who was interviewed says she found support for her child rearing with the other adults there.
As Brooks writes: “Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families, in ways that are new and ancient at the same time. This is a significant opportunity, a chance to thicken and broaden family relationships, a chance to allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms.”
There are certainly a dozen arms waiting to catch the kids at Peppers Ranch, but they are primarily being cared for by nuclear families. Each couple makes decisions about bringing children into their family — each contracts with the state of Oklahoma separately to care for these kids. They have different rules for their children make different decisions about where to send their children to school and how much to involve themselves with other families in the community. They take different vacations and attend different camps. Each couple is guided by their own faith and attend a variety of churches.
These children have often come from environments where there were a dozen pairs of arms — parents, grandmothers, aunts, neighbors — but none of them were responsible or capable enough to be the children’s primary caretakers, which is how they ended up in foster care in the first place. Peppers Ranch is built on a different notion — that children need two parents, including in most cases one who works and one who is at home, and the presence of their biological siblings if possible. These family units can certainly stand to benefit from the support of others in the community — the grandmothers, the other fathers and mothers in the same position, the counselors and therapists and learning specialists — but the family is the thing.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”
Correction: A previous version misspelled a number of the Burpo family names. They are Shaniya, not Shanaya; Kaysha, not Keisha; Jaycee, not JC; Shecotah, not Shakotah; and Skye, not Sky.