NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Andrew Marsalli still thinks about the boy with cuts and bruises who showed up at his door asking for help.
“The boy would say, ‘Please don’t let me go with them. Don’t let them find me,’ ” Marsalli said. “He would just come knock on my door to talk. But . . . they would know where to find him.”
The home Marsalli shares with his partner, Ken Richey, and their daughter is next to St. Mary’s Home for Children, a residential psychiatric treatment center, with a residential and day school for children with learning, emotional, and behavioral challenges, and outpatient services for children, adults, and families impacted by sexual abuse and exploitation.
In the years they’ve lived there, Marsalli, Richey, and other neighbors said, they’ve often heard children screaming and seen the flashing lights of police and ambulance vehicles at St. Mary’s.
The North Providence police were called to St. Mary’s more than 300 times in the past two years, mainly for children as young as 8 running away, according to 317 pages of police call logs obtained by the Globe through a public records request. That does not include calls about children who ran away but returned in less than an hour.
“What we’re frustrated about is, once we bring the juveniles back, we’re getting called back for the same reasons,” North Providence Police Chief Alfredo Ruggiero Jr. said. “We’ll say, ‘Wait a minute — we just brought that juvenile back, and then they are leaving again?’ ”
The state Department of Children, Youth, and Families stopped placing children at St. Mary’s in November 2023, after one of two boys fleeing a staff member was run over by a Jeep and seriously injured. By then, DCYF determined that St. Mary’s hadn’t made “significant progress” in correcting a thicket of problems.
An eight-month investigation by the Office of the Child Advocate revealed physical and sexual abuse, neglect, understaffing, and deep problems at St. Mary’s. The report, which was shared with the Globe in January, led to the sudden retirement of the executive director, Carlene Casciano-McCann, and pointed questions from the House Oversight Committee.
Both the child advocate’s office and DCYF have been working with St. Mary’s administrators to fix the numerous problems at the facility. DCYF director Ashley Deckert told the House committee it was a “too big to fail situation,” because Rhode Island doesn’t have enough placements for vulnerable children in need.
St. Mary’s interim CEO, Charles Montorio-Archer, said Monday that St. Mary’s is making “tremendous progress” by fixing up the facilities, intensifying training, and finding activities for the children, such as a night at a monster truck event.
St. Mary’s is adding more staff, new locks, and a security system, as well as an internal “safety and risk” committee to respond to the runaways, he said in a statement.
Acting state child advocate Katelyn Medeiros said she couldn’t say whether St. Mary’s has made progress until she sees a comprehensive action plan from Montorio-Archer. Her office is continuing to investigate. But she had a clear reasoning about the children who were trying to run away.
“Overall, we had kids who expressed they didn’t feel safe or cared for,” she said.
The redactions in the police logs make it difficult to tally how many were first-time runaways and how many had tried to run away before. About 300 children tried to run away from St. Mary’s in just two years. The children sometimes ran away in groups of two or three; younger children often tagged along with older ones.
Neighbors Marsalli and Richey said an 11-year-old runaway showed up at their home several times, sometimes saying he was being abused.
One time, Marsalli and Richey said, they watched in horror when two staff members tackled the boy in their yard and hauled him away. They said an ambulance was called because the boy’s arm had been yanked back.
“I was really surprised by how aggressive they were with him. It’s really disturbing to us,” Richey said. When they brought it up to the executive director of St. Mary’s, they said they were told the facility was “trying” to retrain the staff to “deescalate.” Richey said he now regrets not reporting the incident.
When a child tries to run away, the staff is responsible for deescalating the situation, according to DCYF. The doors at St. Mary’s are set to open after a 30-second delay to give the staff time to react. It’s against licensing rules for the staff to restrain or tackle the children who are trying to flee. Instead, if the child runs, the staff is supposed to follow and notify the police and DCYF’s special investigations unit.
But when St. Mary’s was understaffed, it wasn’t always possible for the staff member to follow and leave other children unsupervised, the chief said.
Runaway children often took off down the street, darted into neighboring yards, ran into traffic, or jumped into waiting vehicles. Some left without shoes. One young boy was still in his pajamas. One girl left with three males, one of whom grabbed her hand.
Many were also quickly returned by police or staff members, often in the same day. Some turned up in Providence, Pawtucket, Johnston, Cumberland, and Newport. A few came back under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
One police dispatcher noted of a girl found by police, “She is very friendly and feels SAFE when she is with officers.”
“To be honest, the kids have to be running from something,” Ruggiero said. “And as law enforcement officers, there’s a part of us that our hearts were breaking, but they never wanted to talk.”
The police had regular meetings with St. Mary’s administration, but nothing seemed to change, Ruggiero said.
“We knew it was an internal issue to be dealt with,” the chief said. “St. Mary’s always had plans in motion — more training for the staff was a key word I caught early on — but they never really shared what the ultimate plan was.”
One woman sued St. Mary’s in 2022 after her daughter ran away from the home several times and was raped twice. DCYF had placed the girl at St. Mary’s because she suffered from PTSD and prior sexual assaults, and was at high risk of being sexually exploited, running away, and hurting herself.
The mother’s lawsuit said that St. Mary’s was understaffed, and the staff lacked training and supervision, and alleged that St. Mary’s had neglected her daughter, failed to recognize that her condition was deteriorating, and allowed her to be exposed to harm.
St. Mary’s denied negligence, arguing the harm was caused by “third parties,” and that the girl had assumed the risk of injury. The lawsuit was settled and dismissed with prejudice last year.
In addition to the runaways, there were other police calls to St. Mary’s: children assaulting staff or one another, children and in one instance, a staff member who was out of control. One child stole a group home van. A staff member’s ex-boyfriend called dozens of times and threatened to shoot everyone; St. Mary’s Home obtained a restraining order, which Ruggiero said the ex-boyfriend violated last year. A spokeswoman for DCYF said their department didn’t know about the restraining order until the Globe brought it up.
When Ruggiero read the child advocate’s investigative report last month, he was shocked. “We only know what is being reported to us, but in reading the findings that came out, a lot of it to me was concerning and shocking,” he said. “We never knew.”
Despite the issues, the state is moving forward with an $11 million project to build and operate an expanded psychiatric treatment facility for girls at St. Mary’s. The expansion will increase the number of psychiatric beds from 14 to 26, and increase the total capacity to 51 beds, DCYF officials confirmed on Tuesday. DCYF has already paid $2.1 million for the project, which is expected to break ground in March.
That the expansion is still in the works baffles Marsalli, Richey, and other neighbors, some of whom spoke during the North Providence Town Council meeting Tuesday night.
“It’s clear that St. Mary’s is putting the cart before the horse by pushing forward with this expansion in a rush to take on more residents,” Chris Loranger told the Town Council. “How could anyone, including this council, support such an endeavor when it’s clear where St. Mary’s priorities need to be? Stop the expansion. They’re not ready.”
Mayor Charles Lombardi, who is also on St. Mary’s board of directors, assured the crowd the situation at St. Mary’s is improving and that he was “very, very happy” with some of the changes.
“I know there were issues there, no doubt about it,” Lombardi said. “I know things will change with the board being apprised of the happenings at St. Mary’s. That wasn’t done before.”
After the meeting, some attendees told the Globe they heard a lot of talk about hope, but they were still skeptical about whether St. Mary’s would be ready to take in more children.
“How is this construction going through . . . while they have a full investigation going on?” Marsalli said. “They already failed these kids once.”
This article has been updated to include comments from the North Providence Town Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6.