A Refuge for Children

For more than a century St. Mary's Home for Children has been a refuge for children who have been abused physically and sexually, for those with behavioral problems and for families trying to deal with the fallout. This week Jim Hummel takes us inside a place that deals with some of  the toughest cases in the state.

SCRIPT:

Tucked away in a neighborhood just off Smith Street, chances are you might miss it driving by.

But take a closer look at St. Mary's Home for Children, and this is what you'll see - a seven-acre oasis in the heart of North Providence.

For more than a century St. Mary's has been a refuge for abused and neglected children, those with behavioral problems and families trying to care for them.

Olney-Murphy: ``We have  a lot of high-end children with aggressive behavior, with emotional problems that have been exposed to a great deal of trauma that are in need of that kind of intense treatment.''

Patty Olney-Murphy is St. Mary's clinical director and has been here more than two decades - something that's not unusual, even though the staff at St. Mary's takes on some of the toughest cases in the state.

Olney-Murphy: `Depression, anxiety, flashbacks; I think those are the most challenging cases.''

St. Mary's was founded in 1877 as an orphanage by the rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in East Providence, eventually moving to its current location in North Providence just before the Great Depression.

When you see headlines about children being abused physically or sexually,  there is a good chance they'll wind up here.

28 children currently live at St. Mary's,  enrolled in the residential program.

About a dozen come from other communities during the day for school.

The outpatient department sees nearly 200 adults and children on a weekly basis.

And more than a dozen families receive services at their homes.

St. Mary's also began a satellite operation a year ago at the Woonsocket Middle School, where it serves two classroom of nine children each.

Hummel: ``When you see the headlines on these heinous cases does it go through your mind, there's a good chance I'm going to see that person here? Does that?''

Casciano-McCann: ``Often, yes.''

Carlene Casciano-McCann has been the executive director at St. Mary's the past four years - after working here in a variety of capacities for 16 years before that.

Casciano-McCann: ``When I do see those things, either I'm thinking, perhaps we already know them or there is a chance we may see them, particularly in cases of sexual abuse, where  that's our expertise.

If  I read something in the paper where I see that, I'm actually hoping that they come to us so we can help them heal from their experiences.''

Hummel: ``Do you just ever shake your head and think how in the world couldthis ever happen?''

Cavanagh-Conti: ``Absolutely.''

Liz Cavanagh-Conti, a 17-year St. Mary's veteran, is the program coordinator for residential services.

Cavanagh-Conti: ``Some of the stories I've heard, some of our kids are really horrific.

You wouldn't even imagine treating an animal that way. Not all of our kids, but there are kids who have had some really incredible war stories and they've overcome them to the best of their ability. And we're here to help them heal from it. And help them to move on.''

Hummel: ``Do you think a lot of the issues you face were there and not being addressed 30 years ago? Or do you think there are new different and more  serious issues? Do you think a  lot of these issues we're dealing with them differently now?''

Cavanagh-Conti: ``This is just what I believe, I don't think I have anything to  back it up factually, but I think that it's always occurred, I think especially much further back in our history, it was just taboo to talk about this stuff, whether it be physical abuse sexual abuse, it was more permissive, especially with physical abuse there was different kind of cultural norms about what parents can do to their children.''

Casciano-Conti: ``What we have found with kids who have been sexually abused is sometimes they have to come back at various stages in their lives, so particularly major developmental stages in their lives, a child who may be here when they're 8 may need to come back when they're 13 or 14 because they're starting puberty and some of the issues of the sexual abuse start coming up for them and they need to come in, for lack of a better term, a tune-up.''

The children living here have rooms like this one, a common room, a place to eat and a big calendar in the hall outlining activities for the month. There is a classroom right around the corner, and a gym just down the hall.

The grounds are spacious and inviting, hidden away on the back side of the main administration building.

Gladding: ``I'm friendly, but I'm not your friend, there's a big difference.''

Tom Gladding is the new kid on the block, with five years at St. Mary's, where he came after working with mentally-challenged adults. His title is behavior supervisor.

Translation: the enforcer.

Hummel: ``Not everybody is cut out to do this work? What is it  that draws you to doing this kind of work?''

Gladding: ``Well my past I've gone down the road some of these kids have, so to me it's like giving back. I've been in a lot of situations just like these children - when there seems like no hope or  maybe  they can't do  it, it's nice to be  that role model for them.  There's something good in every child. I try to pull it out of  them.''

Hummel: ``Are  there times  when you think, 'I just don't know about this one kid. This is a tough nut to crack.' Do you have those days?"

Gladding: ``Everyone has those days but with child it's different. And I look at it like, I like that challenge. Some of the harder to deal with kids here have been my favorites.

Because we see them leave and they're doing better. They'll see me in the street and `Hey Mr. G.!' And I'm like: `What are you doing?'"

Gladding admits, though, some cases are a lot tougher than others.

Gladding: ``Children who just like kind of didn't have any hope or just like, I just want to end it. And really meant it, that kind of blew me back because I have  children - I couldn't imagine my child feeling  that way. Wrapping my head around that and thinking about the issues - find out the issues this child had, reasons why they want to do this was the biggest thing I could deal with. Okay, what really is bothering a child to that point where they'd want to take their own lives. They're only 10 years old, life hasn't even begun.''

Everyone we spoke with insists there is hope for every child who comes to St. Mary's - no matter how bad the circumstances.

Hummel: ``Does there come a point where a child is irreparably harmed?"

Casciano-McCann: ``I don't feel like I've seen that but I think because we primarily treat children we're not at  a point of thinking that a child is so irreparably harmed that they're not going to make it in life. But you do see that some kids  are so terribly damaged that it's going  to take a much longer-term view on helping them heal and move on to the next stage in their lives."

Hummel:  ``Is the thought always we can rehabilitate this child?"

Olney-Murphy: ``Yes."

Hummel: ``We can save this child or are there ever any cases that come across your radar screen and you think `I don't know about this one.'"?

Olney-Murphy: ``We believe in the model we use we believe all kids are still in development - we've learned that the brain is plastic and kids can make changes over time with the right treatment. I don't think there's been one child we haven't thought that we could help.''

Cavanagh-Conti: ``Sometimes it can be surprising even to us. Look at how far they've come. Maybe they came in and they were incredible shy, but more than just shy they looked damaged. And now here they are with their head held high."

Like many agencies that rely on state funding,  the landscape has changed dramatically for St. Mary's in the past five years with deep cutbacks - forcing everyone here to do more with less.

The budget has gone from $11 million five years ago.

To $6 million now.

Over that same period that staff has been cut in half.

From 260 employees to 130.

And it means the number of children in the residential program has gone from 60 to 30.

And because much of its funding comes from the state  Department of Children Youth and Families, St. Mary's can't really lobby directly for itself at the State House.

Hummel: ``Is that the new reality, then, for you - you're going to have to do more with less, or do you have hope at some point, whenever things pick up here that the trickle down will trickle down?"

Casciano-McCann: ``My feeling is this is reality going forward. I don't see a lot of change. We've had to learn to do more with less."

Even still it is a resilient staff that remains.

Casciano-McCann: ``People are here for a long time, not because they get paid well to be here, but because they have a passion for the work that they're doing  and it shows."

Hummel: ``What do you think it is that draws people here and keeps them here?"

Gladding: ``I think it's probably the staffing and honestly just the love of working  with children, you have to have that."

Hummel: ``Do you feel overwhelmed at times?"

Cavanagh-Conti: ``At times it can be quite daunting because to battle against some of the obstacles and trauma that our kids have already experienced it can be quite daunting."

Gladding: ``You had a rough day today? Guess what, you get a fresh start tomorrow and I'll be here tomorrow and the day after and they day after and they know I won't give up on them. It's a great feeling."

In North Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.

 

 

 

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