SALEM — In 1837, a time when Salem sea captains led daring voyages across the globe, a group of women quietly met in the vestry of the Tabernacle Church, a grand, stone edifice near the gritty waterfront.
They worried about wives and widows, orphans and poor children left adrift, while their men spent long months at sea or never returned home.
The women — many of them married to wealthy ship owners — decided to become friends to hard-luck children and families. They sewed clothes and collected eggs, fish, and other food to deliver to people’s homes. They opened a home for seamen’s orphans, which later also welcomed children whose fathers fought in the Civil War.
“They were coming from a place of compassion,” said Bonnie Hurd Smith, a historian who lives in Ipswich. “They were addressing a problem at the same time.”
Today, 175 years later, Children’s Friend and Family Services is one of the oldest nonprofit providers of mental health services in Massachusetts. A staff of 150 psychologists, social workers, and other behavioral specialists counsels some 3,000 youths in Essex County.
Many struggle with poverty, violence, trauma, and other issues. Children’s Friend also staffs a child care center at Salem High School, enabling teen mothers to earn a diploma.
It also staffs a court clinic that provides professional advice to judges, lawyers, probation officers, and other personnel who work in the state’s juvenile courts.
“I call them the heart and soul of the juvenile courts,” said Judge Sally F. Padden, first justice of Essex County Juvenile Court. “We have a lot of children who come before us with significant mental health challenges. What’s really important is to identify what a child’s challenges are.”
Psychologists and social workers evaluate children brought before the court, then make recommendations for treatment. Their work is an important component to juvenile justice, Padden said.
“Without them, we’re really nothing,” she said. “We want to get kids out of court, so they don’t come back. If the kid gets the right treatment, then the community is safe. It’s a win-win. Their good work not only helps the youth, it promotes a safe community.”
Carla Saccone, chief executive officer of Children’s Friend, said the agency takes pride in its historical mission.
“We might be 175 years old, but we stay current,” said Saccone, who has led the organization for nearly four years. “We’re not this stodgy, old organization. We’re enthusiastic, vibrant, and moving fast.”
Along with its Salem headquarters, Children’s Friend has offices in Gloucester, Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lynn.
About 60 percent of the cases are referred from the state Department of Children and Families. Other referrals come from school counselors, pediatricians, and youth organizations.
“We’re known as the place to go if there is a child in need,” Saccone said.
The agency has a $10 million operating budget. Payments from MassHealth, the state’s health insurance for low-income families, account for 90 percent of that budget. The other 10 percent comes from state contracts, such as the juvenile court clinic, and grants, Saccone said.
“We’re always trying to identify needs where we can aid a family,” she said. “We meet a lot of different needs.”
Mental health counseling is offered in many forms. Appointments are held at each of the agency’s four offices. But services, such as therapeutic mentoring and family counseling, also are offered in homes and in schools.
The move toward community-based services stems from an overhaul of the state’s delivery of mental health services to children. In 2001, a lawsuit alleged the state was not doing enough to screen for mental health issues in children, or offer enough home-based services for lower-income families.
In 2006, a federal judge ordered the state to expand services. Children’s Friend was one of 32 agencies statewide chosen to provide in-home therapy, leading to an expansion of services in Lawrence and Lynn, Saccone said.
“There is a very high need in those areas. We continue to staff up to meet the need,” she said.
Military families are another area of increasing need. Children’s Friend is working with Massachusetts General Hospital to train clinicians to help military personnel, many of whom suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, transition to a healthy family life.
“How a soldier deals with that stress can really impact a family,” she said.
“It can have an impact on the emotional well-being of children. We have a natural role to play, working with those families.”
Saccone has spent much of the last year sharing the agency’s long history with the public, and potential donors. A gala celebration at Hamilton Hall in Salem drew hundreds of new and old “friends.”
A 175th Capital Campaign aimed to raise $175,000. But Children’s Friend learned it could count on many friends: The appeal ended up raising $250,000.
The money will be used to fund youth mentoring, an electronic medical records project, and general services.
“We’re so grateful for the support,” Saccone said. “We have stayed true to our mission.”