Everyone gets their own special cupcake: "Would you like chocolate or vanilla?" the adults ask. In short time, faces are coated in neon shades of pink, blue, green and yellow. There's lots of love and laughter and snuggles.
The party breaks up. This child has an appointment with her therapist; that one needs to meet with her caseworker; and that one over there is badly in need of a nap. All told, 45 children are living here in the Broyhill Homes, a sprawling compound of homey bungalows, a gymnasium, swimming pool and fishing pond. In the world of foster care, it is what is known as a group home. Back in the day, they called it an orphanage.
Tucked in the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, Broyhill is one of 25 group homes operated by the Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina, one of the largest such companies in the state. But now, a landmark federal law aiming to revamp the foster care system will make it much harder for group homes like this one to exist. (States can delay implementation of the law up to two years, but that means forgoing funding for prevention services.)
The law, called the Family First Prevention Services Act, goes into effect this fall. Starting in October, the federal government won't pay for more than two weeks' stay for a child in a group home, with a few exceptions for children who need extra care.
Baptist Children's Homes fought hard to stop the federal legislation — so hard, in fact, that it took years for Family First to get through Congress, in part because of the company's opposition. Baptist Children's Homes was able to enlist the help of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, who blocked the bill in 2016.
To the dismay of Baptist Children's Homes officials, though, the law passed in 2018 as part of a massive spending bill.
The law had overwhelming support from nearly every state and the U.S. Congress. Many child welfare experts say that group homes, even the homiest among them, are far from an ideal place for a child to grow up. Research shows that foster kids in group homes face worse outcomes, from lower educational attainment to increased rates of homelessness and criminal justice involvement.
And so the lobbying effort drew national attention in child welfare circles.
"Baptist Children's Homes almost single-handedly killed the Family First Act," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a child welfare advocacy group based out of Alexandria, Virginia.
"They were prepared to derail even a minimal effort to provide more options for children," Wexler said, "in order to protect their own institution."
On any given day, Baptist Children's Homes houses 180 of the state's children in group homes and manages cases for 30 kids who are placed with foster families, according to J. Keith Henry, Baptist Children's Homes' chief operating officer. To be sure, the organization may lose much of the money it receives from contracts with the state of North Carolina.
(Company officials said it's too soon to know how much and that the state does not tell them which children are eligible for federal funding. But another group home company, Black Mountain Home, told Stateline it could lose up to 40% of its funding.)
Baptist Children's Homes leaders say they provide a needed service when other options aren't available.
"There's not enough foster homes out there," said Linda Morgan, Broyhill's director. "Where would these kids go? Don't just move them around because some law says so."
The company invited Stateline to visit one of its communities, to watch the children interact and attend their events. A Stateline reporter underwent a background check before the visit and agreed not to reveal children's identities and to speak to them only with a staffer present.
After the birthday party, everyone troops back to their respective Broyhill cottages. There are five houses here, each with up to nine kids ranging in age from toddler to young adult. (In North Carolina, like many states, foster care has been extended to age 21 to ease the path to adulthood.)
Most of the children here have siblings, though not all live together at Broyhill. That's because it's much harder to place kids in foster homes when they come with a passel of brothers and sisters.
As an example, there's Martin, an 8-year-old with a world-weary air. He's got seven brothers and sisters, but only his baby brother, 5-year-old Owen, lives with him here at Broyhill. Others are scattered throughout the state.
Martin has bounced through several foster homes and is ready to stay put.
"I've been in seven," Martin says. "Or eight. Or nine."
Was it hard?
Martin looks down at his hands, silent. Then he nods.
The buildings look like a typical suburban home: big kitchen, living room with leather sectional and flat-screen TV, toys scattered everywhere. Signs all over the cottages proclaim, "You Are So Loved," while religious crosses and pictures of Jesus attest to Baptist Children's Homes' roots.
The kids typically bunk two to a room, decorated in gender-specific themes: princess canopies for the girls; some version of blue and trucks for the boys. Each bedroom has its own bathroom.
In the kitchen, house mother Sonya Dalke, 59, stands at the large island rolling chicken cutlets into breadcrumbs. She stops to give a hug to Owen, freed from a timeout after throwing a chair at his teacher. "I love you," the preschooler says.
"I tell them, 'I'm not here to be your mama,'" Dalke said. "'I'm here to show you how a mama's supposed to act.'"
The goal is to provide kids with a close approximation of home while their caseworkers scramble to find a permanent living solution. Sometimes that means reuniting children with their parents once they stabilize. Or it could mean placing them with extended family members. (Sometimes that can be heartbreaking. One teenage girl was bereft after her sister left to go live with their aunt. But the aunt didn't want to take on two.)
A handful of children are there at their parents' request, in what's called a "private placement," according to Morgan, because either their parents are having trouble managing them or because their parents are incarcerated.
Children typically stay between about six and nine months, according to Morgan.
That's a big change from when Morgan first started working at Broyhill, back in 1973. Then, she said, the place felt more "institutional" and kids could count on spending their childhood there.
"Now," Morgan said, "we're just trying to get them through the crisis."
Sometimes foster youth stay much longer. Usually, they're teens who've been in multiple foster homes and just want to stay in one place.
"This place helped me a lot," said Eva, 16. "When I first got here, I didn't sleep at all because I was afraid I was going to be abused — because that's what happened to me before."
Baptist Children's Homes operates mainly on donations and supplements with a combination of federal, state and local funding. (Everyone in town here seems familiar with their fundraising fish-fries.)
It costs about $5,000 a month to care for each child, Henry said. About 62% of that goes to salaries and benefits, 12% to building maintenance, 9% to food and clothing, 8% to the administrative costs, 7% to education, transportation and recreation, and 2% to medical and counseling costs.
Like many states, the opioid crisis has hit North Carolina hard, and over the past six years the number of kids in the foster care system has jumped from 8,908 in 2013 to 9,763 as of May.
Family First promises to further strain the system. Child welfare providers in the state are worried that children would get slapped with a mental health diagnosis "just so they'd have a place to go and federal and state dollars would pay for it," said Karen McLeod, executive director of Benchmarks, an alliance of statewide child welfare agencies based out of Raleigh.
But other advocates argue Family First provides a necessary reboot of the nation's foster care system.
Jeremy Kohomban, president and CEO of the Children's Village, which includes various group homes in the New York City area, has been on board with Family First from the beginning, even testifying before Congress in 2015 about its benefits. Institutional care, he says, is ultimately "damaging and a fundamental social injustice" because poor kids and poor kids of color are often the ones who end up in it.
"We want to create a new system," Kohomban said. "And we are willing to have a sacrifice. It will mean diminished revenue, but that's fine. It's the right thing to do."
"If we don't take advantage of Family First, then shame on us," said Phillip Redmond Jr., director of Child Care for the Duke Endowment, a private foundation that provides grants to child welfare organizations, including the Baptist Children's Homes.
As Congress considered the Family First Act, the Baptist Children's Homes of North Carolina in 2016 published a blog post encouraging locals to call Washington and pray.
"Please implore them to drop the restrictions for placing children in residential care (also known as congregate care). Let them know we must not introduce legislation that prevents a child from receiving the type of care that best suits his or her needs."
In North Carolina, group homes have been an entrenched part of the culture dating back to the 1870s, when religious leaders opened 16 orphanages around the state in what was called "the golden age of the orphanage movement." Often, children couldn't be admitted without a referral from a local pastor.
Today, 97 group homes are licensed in North Carolina. Most appear, according to state data, to be run by churches or religious organizations.
The percentage of kids living in group homes in the state hasn't changed much over the past decade. In 2007, 86% of the children were living with families; in 2017, 87% were living with families, according to an April report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Other states, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, have managed to cut the percentage of kids in group care by as much as 20 points in the past decade. But North Carolina's rates have stayed about the same.
"That means their group home industry is too powerful," Wexler said about the North Carolina group homes.
But McLeod of Benchmarks scoffs at the notion of an organized group home lobby in the state. "There's not a group home lobby," McLeod said. "It doesn't exist."
Anyone who pushed back on the Family First bill, she said, was instantly labeled as someone who was just trying to make money on the backs of children. "And that is really offensive."
Group homes in the state don't break even, and fundraise to make up for the shortfall, which will grow under Family First, she said. She hopes lawmakers will earmark extra state funding. Some group homes may end up closing.
And group homes were concerned about the time frame to implement the law, she said, fearing the two-week time limit would end up displacing children.
It can take at least that long for children to have their first family court appearance after being removed from their home, Morgan said.
At the same time Family First is rolling out, North Carolina is in the midst of transforming its child welfare system, said Sarah Vidrine of NC Child, a child welfare advocacy group based out of Raleigh. In 2017, lawmakers passed Rylan's Law, which requires caseworkers to take extra measures to ensure foster children aren't returned to their parents prematurely.
North Carolina's group homes, including Baptist Children's Homes and Black Mountain Home, sent letters to every legislator in North Carolina, particularly Burr in the U.S. Senate, urging them to vote against Family First. And they encouraged their supporters and donors to do the same, said Sarah Thomas, director of development for Black Mountain Home.
Burr's office did not respond to Stateline requests for an interview.
Group homes were "getting an unfair shake," Henry said. "We realize there are bad places out there. Let's not paint with a brush the whole continuum of care."
At Broyhill, it's bedtime for the littles at the boys-only cottage. Six-year-olds in pajamas bounce around the living room, while the older boys hang out in their jeans and sweats, nudging each other and cracking jokes. Next week, they will go on a family style trip to the beach. For most, it will be their first time seeing the ocean.
Meanwhile, they talk to a visitor about how they came to be here. There are parents who are struggling, moms who disappear for reasons they don't quite understand, dads who are in prison, grandparents who work too many shifts to care for them, family feuds. They all miss home.
Gary, a 6-year-old with a worried look on his face, says he's just here because "my dad is working."
"He's coming to get me soon," the boy says. "And when he does, I'm not coming back."
And that's just fine, house parents say. "We are overjoyed when they are reunited with their families," Dalke said.