NORTH PROVIDENCE – It’s a place where Rhode Islanders, mostly children, go to heal.
Many of them have experienced significant trauma, extreme abuse or neglect; desperate for help to put the pieces back together.
The most vulnerable and at-risk children, adults and families have turned to St. Mary’s Home in North Providence, where a multitude of life-changing services have been provided to the community since its beginnings as an orphanage in 1877.
Carlene Casciano-McCann, executive director of 12 years and pictured, began at St. Mary’s Home for Children as a clinician more than 30 years ago. From day one, she said the organization “seemed like home to me.”
“Every time I walked through those doors I was so impressed with the level of passion, intelligence, and the desire to always do better at St. Mary’s Home,” she said.
When she first started there, the organization focused strictly on sexual abuse work, which Casciano-McCann said was a relatively new specialty in the field.
“It was an exciting time. That’s what drew me to the work,” she said.
What kept her at St. Mary’s, decades later, is the agency’s ability and willingness to grow and change with the times.
St. Mary’s was originally established as an orphanage in 1877 through St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in East Providence. Since then, its focuses have shifted throughout the years depending on the community’s need.
During World War II, children often came to stay at St. Mary’s while their parents were away serving or working the assembly line. Surging drug use in the 1960s prompted the organization to begin serving youths impacted by the drug epidemic. Later, in the ’80s, the home began to expand resources for survivors of sexual abuse and trauma.
“The agency constantly evolves to meet the needs of the state’s at-risk and vulnerable people,” Casciano-McCann said. It takes flexibility and creativity to fill the service gaps in the state’s system, she added.
Casciano-McCann noted that St. Mary’s was the first to adopt the Building Bridges Initiative framework in Rhode Island, which focuses on family-driven and youth-guided long-term recovery.
Today, the St. Mary’s campus at 420 Fruit Hill Avenue in North Providence consists of three subsets: residential services, outpatient services, and the George N. Hunt Campus School.
St. Mary’s has five residential homes that provide treatment to youth ages 6 to 18.
Three of the houses are non-hospital facilities offering intensive inpatient services to male, female, nonbinary, agender and transgender youth with various mental health issues.
One house, Harding, is a hospital step-down, or diversion program serving boys ages 6 to 13 and girls ages 6 to 18. Hills House serves teen girls and transgender youth ages 12-17, with services including clinical assessment, treatment planning, psychiatric services as needed, and individual, group and family therapy.
The George N. Hunt Campus School provides highly structured, individualized instruction and therapeutic services to students from across the state with learning, social, emotional and behavioral challenges.
Outpatient services, known as the Shepherd Program, supports those impacted by sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and other trauma such as family violence and physical abuse. It is the largest tenet of St. Mary’s in terms of the number of clients served.
The program offers a mix of treatment modalities including office-based counseling, equine-assisted therapy, clinical support groups, support for those vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking, support for adoptive and foster families and more.
There is a dire need for these comprehensive services, Casciano-McCann said. Programs focused on sexual exploitation and trafficking are “consistently full.”
“It’s a much larger issue than people tend to realize,” she said.
All told, St. Mary’s serves roughly 500 clients every year, but staff said it’s the sheer amount of services provided to those clients that sets St. Mary’s apart.
As St. Mary’s Home looks to the future, it’s hard not to acknowledge the impact of the current pandemic on operations.
“It was, and continues to be a bit of a challenge,” said Casciano-McCann.
“Initially we had to stop family visits and community activities. The youth reacted to that and became more dysregulated, and I think our staff struggled, too, with the stress and anxiety,” she said.
Outpatient services shifted to telehealth, and the school moved online.
“I’ve been so impressed with our team,” she said. “As an agency, we’ve gotten good at planning for emergencies and crises. While a pandemic wasn’t in our plans, we’re learning a lot.”
As the organization navigates uncertain waters, Casciano-McCann has her eyes on the horizon. St. Mary’s, she said, will continue to evolve with the times.
“We’re building programs to close gaps in service in the state and meet the needs of those families,” she said. It’s about breaking the cycle.
“When I began as a clinician I was working with young people with pretty significant trauma histories. Your hope is that your work will help them to break the cycle of abuse. That a child of abuse does not become an abusive parent,” she said.
When clients check in years later, she often finds they’ve been successful.
“There are these successes. Seeing that their children were never removed … maybe we aren’t stopping the entire cycle, but maybe for this one young person, we are,” she said. “Our job, really, should be to put ourselves out of business.”