NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — After a spokesman for the R.I. Senate said the state had halted an $11 million project at St. Mary’s Home for Children, the Rhode Island Department of Youth, Families, and Children told the Globe that plans to build and operate an expanded 12-bed psychiatric treatment facility for girls at the facility are going forward.
A spokesman for the R.I. Senate told the Globe that the project was halted after an eight-month investigation by the R.I. Office of the Child Advocate found abuse, neglect, understaffing, and a biker organization doing security at the campus.
But DCYF Director Ashley Deckert later told the Globe that while they hadn’t broken ground on the project, it was because soil remediation needed to be done, not because of the child advocate office’s investigation. Deckert said construction at St. Mary’s is set to begin in March and is expected to be completed in a year. The expansion will also be run by St. Mary’s.
“The success of St. Mary’s is really important,” Deckert said, adding that DCYF has had regular biweekly meetings to review the status of the construction progress. “We are working collaboratively with the new CEO and their staff … as such DCYF is proceeding with the plan to expand the services.”
Senate spokesman Greg Pare acknowledged later that he had misspoken. The Senate staff was under the impression that construction was halted because of the child advocate’s report, he said.
The child advocate’s office released the report to the public on Thursday, a few weeks before oversight hearings are expected to begin at the state House and Senate. The Boston Globe reported on the findings last week.
The explosive findings prompted the sudden retirement of the longtime executive director, Carlene Casciano-McCann, a day after the news broke about the child advocate’s eight-month investigation.
According to the report, the DCYF stopped sending children to St. Mary’s last fall. Seventeen youths remain at the facility, and DCYF spokeswoman Damaris Teixeira said Thursday there are no plans to remove them as a result of the invesitgation.
“The Department has implemented various intensive monitoring strategies aimed at addressing concerns,” Teixeria said. That includes “daily announced and unannounced visits to St. Mary’s by the DCYF Licensing and Children’s Services and Behavioral Health teams,” she said.
Pare said the Senate is looking at next steps, including legislative remedies through the oversight process. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio wants to see the issues at St. Mary’s Home remedied quickly and for construction to begin.
“Creating an in-state residential treatment facility for Rhode Island’s most at-risk girls has been an urgent priority for the Senate,” Ruggerio said in a statement to the Globe. “Protecting our most vulnerable children, and ensuring they have access to essential treatment and services in our state, remains an absolute top priority for me and the entire Senate.”
The expansion at St. Mary’s Home is a potential stop-gap solution to the crisis of too-few beds for girls needing psychiatric care — until the state can construct its own facility.
This has been an issue in Rhode Island for years. Jennifer Griffith, who served as the state’s independent Child Advocate from 2016 to 2022, warned legislators multiple times about the lack of placements for children with serious psychiatric needs.
At a Senate oversight committee hearing in December 2021, Griffith implored the senators that DCYF had reached a crisis point. “I am telling you that we are at an extreme level of desperation,” she said.
Dozens of youths were being placed at out-of-state facilities, cutting them off from their ties to their communities in Rhode Island and costing about $9 million a year. Yet referrals were also being denied because facilities have inadequate staffing levels and capacity, she said.
“We have families in Rhode Island that need mental health care that aren’t able to access it,” Senator Alana M. DiMario, a licensed mental health counselor, told the Globe this week. “There are kids who need a more intensive level of care, but the waiting lists are so long they are being referred to counselors once a week. We have kids stuck in ERs waiting for a level of care. If you are a parent who has a child who has a severe psychiatric need, the pathway is very unclear to access services.”
In 2022, the Senate organized a bus trip for senators and representatives to visit Glenhaven Academy, in Marlborough, Mass., as a potential model for a future psychiatric facility for girls in Rhode Island. Some Rhode Island youths were being sent there for treatment.
DiMario said that she was impressed with Glenhaven, which provided wrap-around services for its youths in a dormlike setting, instead of appearing like a jail or psychiatric hospital. “It is a place that does not seem restrictive, while being a secure facility,” she said.
The General Assembly passed the state’s 2023 fiscal year budget with $12 million to expand the in-state capacity for psychiatric treatment for girls at private facilities, and to design a new facility. The legislators committed $45 million over three years from Capital Plan funds to build the new facility.
Since 2019, the R.I. Department of Children, Youth, and Families had contracted with St. Mary’s Home to provide psychiatric residential treatment services to children in state care.
The nonprofit, which was founded in 1877 as an orphanage within the Episcopal diocese, offers residential services at its campus in North Providence, along with outpatient services for children, adults, and families impacted by sexual abuse and exploitation, and a residential and day school for children with various learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
So, in February 2023, after months of negotiations, Governor Daniel McKee announced that DCYF and St. Mary’s had an agreement to build and operate a 12-bed psychiatric residential treatment facility for girls. The state was using $11 million allocated from pandemic relief funds for the design, construction, and operation of this facility.
The expansion was supposed to be finished in November 2024, with an anticipated opening in spring 2025, buying some time until the state’s own facility could be built.
In April, the child advocate’s office and DCYF learned about a child who nearly died of a drug overdose in a bathroom in St. Mary’s Home. That launched separate investigations into how the home was being run.
Among its many findings, the child advocate’s office said it couldn’t confirm that St. Mary’s met all the requirements of a psychiatric residential treatment facility, and found that DCYF had allowed a modification so St. Mary’s could use that label. The investigators also found that DCYF had been referring all youths to St. Mary’s, regardless of whether the program was appropriate.
There was also “evidence of countless violations of state law, licensing regulations and internal policies by St. Mary’s,” the report said.
Deckert, the DCYF director, disputed the child advocate’s findings about St. Mary’s meeting requirements for a psychiatric residential treatment facility. “St. Mary’s is meeting the federal requirements of the fully function PRTF,” she said Thursday.
DCYF stopped new placements and referrals to St. Mary’s on Nov. 30, after months of trying to help St. Mary’s address its problems.
After making the report public on Thursday, the child advocate’s office and DCYF said in a joint statement that its priority, with St. Mary’s Home’s board of directors and staff, is to “develop and implement immediate and long-term solutions and work with colleagues in state government, RI Family Court, and community partners to address the problems.”
The officers on the board of directors are: chairman Bishop William Nicholas Knisely Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island; president Jeffrey P. Cascione, senior vice president of commercial lending at Navigant Credit Union; vice president John J. Schibler, who teaches management and organizational behavior at Providence College; treasurer Dennis Burton, retired CFO of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island; assistant treasurer Harry Hanoian, retired from Wells Fargo Advisors; and secretary Dolores Zompa, human resources professional.
The members include: Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, North Providence Mayor Charles Lombardi, Marisa Albanese; Matthew Conway; Doris De Los Santos; Glen Grilli; Aaron Nadich; and Jeffrey Silcox.
This article has been updated to include additional comments from DCYF and to correct information provided to the Globe by a spokesperson for the state Senate.