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Amid mental health crisis, R.I. program helps youth turn the corner

On the Rhode Island Report podcast, the Rev. Lauri Smalls talks about the pandemic’s toll and calls for more state funding for residential programs that keep youth in Rhode Island

The Rev. Lauri Smalls, right, executive director of the Turning the Corner, a residential program for youth in state Department of Children Youth and Families custody, talks to Kiara Butler, host of "Generation Rising" on Rhode Island PBS.Rhode Island PBS

PROVIDENCE — In its 2023 trends report, the American Psychological Association warned that “Kids’ mental health is in crisis.”

And the Rev. Lauri Smalls, executive director of Turning the Corner, is seeing signs of that crisis in the programs she runs, providing residential care to youth in state Department of Children Youth and Families custody. She said the pandemic made matters much worse for many youth as they watched loved ones die from COVID-19 and their schooling was interrupted.

“COVID was really traumatic, right?” Smalls said. “Their whole life was turned upside down in an instant and then turned back around. That swing is hard for adults, but for youth whose brains are still developing, they were immediately cut off from their peers.”


Turning the Corner provides six programs for juvenile males and females who need temporary or long-term placement. Kiara Butler, host of “Generation Rising” on Rhode Island PBS, joined Smalls for a tour of the hospital diversion program for young women.

During that tour, Smalls explained the significance of the pink lions that are part of a fireplace mantel. “When you see a lion, you always think of strength,” she said. “So we can let these young women know that you have strength, you have courage, you can overcome anything.” The message is: “You may have had setbacks, you may have had difficulties, but you still have this inner strength. You have courage to face you, right? Because we recognize we can’t change anybody else. We can change ourselves.”

The Rev. Lauri Smalls, executive director of Turning the Corner, a residential program for youth in state Department of Children, Youth and Families custody, appeared on the Rhode Island Report podcast.Edward Fitzpatrick

During the podcast, Smalls called for more funding to provide care for youth in crisis.

“We need to actually resource the sector to be able to provide care for the youth and have what is considered a continuum of care,” she said. “There are still many youth who unfortunately, because Rhode Island does not have that cohort of services available, that are placed out of state. If you’re placed out of state, you’re disconnected from your community, you’re disconnected from your family, your friends.”


Smalls said youth are ending up placed in hospitals for their safety. “But no youth should grow up in a hospital,” she said. “A hospital really should be for high-crisis resources. But unfortunately, because our sector has been chronically underfunded, there are not what they call available placements.”

Smalls also urged state government to do more to boost the pay of workers at residential programs for youth. She said many people only work in that sector for five years because of high burnout rates and low pay rates.

“In order for us to attract and retain clinicians, clinical staff, and direct care staff, we really do need to have it funded in a way that helps people not have to work two and three jobs just to do this work,” she said. “So people who come to this work, working with other people’s children, they’re angels, right? And they do it because they really want to make a difference. But we need to be able to compensate them so that they can live on the salary.”

To get the latest episode each week, follow Rhode Island Report podcast on Apple Podcasts and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player above.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.