PROVIDENCE — State officials have put three group homes for troubled youths on probation and removed girls from a fourth home after the state’s child advocate issued a scathing report about how the homes’ operator was treating the youths in its care.
Communities for People, the Boston nonprofit that runs five residential homes in Providence, temporarily closed two of its properties and stopped admitting youths into all of its group homes.
Craig Gordon, the nonpofit’s chief operating officer, said the agency is working with the state Department of Children, Youth, and Families and the child advocate’s office to correct problems and retrain staff.
“These kids deserve nothing but the best,” Gordon said in an interview at one of the homes. "They have been through such trauma . . . and to think that we weren’t able to give them what they deserve is very troubling for us.”
After the report was issued in January, state child advocate Jennifer Griffith said her office was following up regularly with DCYF and Communities for People to see how they addressed the concerns.
"They’ve read the report and accepted it as a blueprint of what they need to work on,” Griffith said. "They’ve been really transparent with the changes they’ve made, [such as] bringing in different employees and retraining staff. I think they’re taking it seriously.”
Communities for People runs two group homes on Washington Avenue and another on Hope Street for adolescent boys with acute emotional and behavioral disorders. The agency also runs a home on Tappan Street, where the state removed six girls, and another on Knight Street; both of those housed older adolescents with chronic or severe mental health needs.
After fielding numerous complaints from child protective services, staff members, youths, and their families, the child advocate’s office launched an investigation last August that lasted through October.
During multiple visits to the homes and interviews with staff and youths, the investigators found little to no accounting for the services that Communities for People promised.
Instead, the investigators found "incomplete and substandard” files and medication records, lack of supervision and unprofessional staff, and sexual activity and fights between youths. There wasn’t enough food at one house. At another, the investigators found a youth who wasn’t enrolled in an educational or vocational system, despite having lived at the home for a month.
“Unprofessionalism amongst staff members was prevalent not only in reports reviewed by the [Office of Child Advocate], but with conversations and interactions at all homes,” according to the report by the child advocate’s office. "Each program lacked an appropriate level of professionalism.”
The staff were condescending and treated the teens living in the homes with indifference, the investigators reported. The investigators were also concerned about a lack of boundaries in relationships and improper behavior among all levels of staff, including the program director.
Child protective services had made 19 "information referrals” to DCYF about a range of problems, from sexual activity between some of the youths, to teens disappearing without authorization and returning smelling of alcohol and marijuana. DCYF did not complete an investigation into any of those 19 cases, according to the child advocate’s report.
However, on Jan. 21, days after Griffith sent her report to Communities for People, DCYF initiated an investigation into the five homes.
"The investigation has consisted of multiple on-site visits to the group homes, a review of the reports received by our Child Protective Services division, and responses by our agency to these reports,” said DCYF spokeswoman Kerri White.
The state placed three of the homes on probation, White said.
Gordon said that Communities for People decided to temporarily close the home on Tappan Street to revamp the staffing and one of the homes on Washington Avenue to make repairs. Those teens were moved to other homes.
"Our commitment is we’re not going to open a site until we’re confident we can deliver a good program,” Gordon said. "We are not taking in more kids until we’ve completed our review, and we are absolutely confident in what we can deliver.”
Gordon said this was the most critical report that Communities for People had in his 40-some years working for the agency. He didn’t dispute the findings.
"We did know we had some serious incidents over those months, and we knew investigators were checking those things out, but we did not [know] the extent of the other issues that came to light,” Gordon said.
Why not? Gordon said that’s under review.
"As we’re really learning, there were employees at every level where it just was not safe to bring those concerns forward,” Gordon said. "Some staff had concerns about professionalism and treatment of the kids that never reached the right ears to make changes. They now are.”
Gordon said they have shaken up the leadership and staffing of its Rhode Island programs, including replacing the program director and bringing back the former director on an interim basis. He said they are retraining staff and supervisors, and inviting outside organizations to hold training sessions on professionalism and ethics.
"The agency has always had a very strong record and history working with very fragile traumatized kids. We’re never going to give that up. That’s our mission,” Gordon said. "We want to make sure our staff feels invested in that mission.”