The Lawrence County Sheriff picked up Russ Filbeck when he was 14. He’d already been given his last warning; he was really in trouble this time. Russ had been living on and off the street for some time. Home just wasn’t a place where he wanted to be. Russ had been stealing, and the police were looking for him. It was December, and he was cold. He’d gone into an army surplus store and lifted a heavy coat.
Russ spent the weekend alone in a windowless cell in the Lawrence County Jail in Mount Vernon. “All I remember was being quite scared,” Russ says. That, and the hot pancake breakfast. It was the first hot meal he’d had in weeks.
Teenagers, in general, are wont to act out. It’s part of their nature, part of growing up. But for Russ, it was more than the standard teen angst. His home life was becoming an increasingly toxic environment, and rebelling became Russ’s only way to cope.
From the outside, the Filbecks seemed like a normal, hardworking American family. Two boys, two girls, a mother, a father, all residing on a farm in the small town of Marionville. But behind closed doors, all was not well in the Filbeck household.
Russ was the baby of the family, and his mother became sick with cancer before he was really old enough to understand it. When she fell ill, Russ says, is when relations in the house turned sour. His father became hot-tempered and mean-spirited.
“I can remember him being so angry at her for being sick,” Russ says, staring, lost in the memory. “She got cancer and couldn’t help him, and I remember he was yelling at her, and I was just this little kid.” She passed away when he was 5 years old.
Russ’s home environment only worsened after that, as his father’s temper turned toward the children. Family members describe his father as being brilliant, but hardened. The way Russ remembers it, hardened is putting it mildly.
By the time Russ was in middle school, he was already finding trouble. His sisters had moved out, his older brother had run away, and conflicts with his father were escalating. When high school rolled around, Russ only grew angrier and increasingly rebellious.
When the sheriff met with Russ after his weekend in jail, he told Russ he had two options: The Reform School for Boys in Boonville or a newly opened group home in Brighton called the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch.
For Russ, the choice was easy. “It just struck me that ‘good’ sounded better than ‘reform,’” Russ says. About an hour later, he and the sheriff pulled up to the ranch.
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In the late 1950s, the Rev. Bob and Mary Johnson were living a good life in southwestern Missouri. They were happily married, and he was a successful pastor of Seminole Baptist Church, a growing congregation in southeast Springfield. Although the two were happy, they shared the feeling that something was missing.
After working in broken homes and visiting reformatories, jails and courtrooms, the couple saw firsthand a need they could no longer ignore: Troubled children in their own community had no one to turn to for help.
It was a void they knew they could fill. Johnson left his post at the church, and the couple decided to pour their energy into providing a safe haven for boys seeking refuge from abusive, broken or nonexistent homes. In 1959, they purchased farm property 15 miles north of Springfield and got to work. By September, the Good Samaritan Boys Ranch was open.
And today, more than 50 years later, the doors are still open.
The ranch is an alternative to foster care that prepares its residents for life on their own. At the Ranch, the boys become each other’s family. There are currently more than 900 children in foster care in Greene County alone, according to the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Missouri. Because of the shortage of foster homes in the area, however, these children are placed in 59 counties across 12 different states.
Julie Conway, director of development and public relations at the Ranch, says some of the boys are still involved with their biological families, but the majority come from situations where parental rights have been terminated or both parents have died. The ranch currently serves boys ages 12 to 18, and the average stay for a resident is 12 to 18 months, depending on how quickly they progress through the program. When they leave, the next step is to move to another agency, a new family or to live independently.
“Our goal is family reunification if that’s possible,” Conway says. “But it kind of depends, you know, maybe if they didn’t do well here in this program, they might send them to another program.”
Next week: Russ arrives on the Ranch. Like many children, he thinks about running away. So what stops him from planning his escape?