Updated March 26 at 5:46pm

Helping troubled children reconnect with family

By Robin Respaut
Contributing Writer
Each year, hundreds of distraught parents across Rhode Island struggle to care for emotionally troubled children. In the most severe cases, children are sent to psychiatric hospitals or out-of-home placements. It is then Marcy Atkins’ job to get them back home. More

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A PBN SPECIAL SECTION: 2011 BUSINESS WOMEN

Helping troubled children reconnect with family

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Each year, hundreds of distraught parents across Rhode Island struggle to care for emotionally troubled children. In the most severe cases, children are sent to psychiatric hospitals or out-of-home placements. It is then Marcy Atkins’ job to get them back home.

During her six years at Psychological Centers in Providence, Atkins has helped more than 1,000 children with significant emotional, psychiatric and cognitive issues and developmental disabilities after they were sent to hospitals or special homes.

In many cases, exasperated parents grappled to care for their children. Atkins and her team of clinicians worked closely with families, aiding them in the most stressful moments, such as when a child unravels into an uncontrollable, aggressive fit or when a child shrieks for hours in the middle of the night.

“It’s very stressful,” said Atkins, who now oversees 15 clinicians and three interns. Together, they manage hundreds of cases a year. “We’re looking to keep kids at home with their families.”

When Atkins was hired, she took on a large program that had just opened and was struggling, said Paul Block, director at Psychological Centers.

Atkins hit the ground running. “Really quickly, she stood out as someone who is thoughtful, insightful, a real leader,” Block said. “She is someone that could get people inspired.”

The children in her program range in ages from 3 to 18 and wrestle with developmental disabilities, mental retardation, autism, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, severe anxiety and overly aggressive behavior.

“These are kids that are so disruptive, so out of control, they are breaking things, hurting people and hurting themselves,” said Block.

Many families battle with finances or live in dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes parents suffer from their own depression or scramble between jobs. Often, extenuating circumstances prevent children from receiving the extra attention that they require. And once the parents become overwhelmed, the child can vacillate between family homes and hospitalization. So, when Atkins and her team arrive on the scene, they try to “uniquely identify what needs to change for the parent to be able to bring the kid home,” she said.

Atkins also keeps a watchful eye on her own clinicians.

“They don’t work 9-to-5 when they go into these homes,” said Atkins. “They are there when they need to model specific parenting needs.”

Clinicians might arrive at 6 a.m., when the family wakes up, to help frustrated parents shepherd a child to school. Or, a clinician will stay through the night, if a parent needs help settling an autistic child that does not sleep.

“It’s challenging work, and it can be very emotionally draining,” said Sarah Fine, director of clinical effectiveness at Psychological Centers. “Marcy puts a huge emphasis on nurturing her staff, so they are emotionally and cognitively ready to do the work that they do.”

Programs like this one are notorious for employee burnout. But Atkins is watchful for telling signs and maintains a low turnover among her staff.

“I look for when they are starting to lose sleep or when they are thinking about their clients out of work,” said Atkins. “I coach them through it and talk to them about what’s going on.”

Since Atkins’ arrival, Psychological Centers’ program has grown exponentially. In just the last year, the caseload doubled, and referrals continue to stream in, said Fine.

“I don’t know many people who work as hard as Marcy,” said Fine. “She’s had so much growth over the past few years, and it’s still going.” •

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