Carlene Casciano-McCann is the executive director for St. Mary’s Home for Children, a North Providence-based nonprofit that offers treatment for children impacted by abuse or who are experiencing challenges posed by psychiatric disorders.
Casciano-McCann spoke with Providence Business News about how the organization has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, how it has helped children cope with the health crisis and what its hopes are for the upcoming school year.
PBN: What challenges has St. Mary’s Home for Children faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?
CASCIANO-MCCANN: Like so many others, St. Mary’s had to adjust quickly to a different way of delivering services. Our teachers and students adapted quickly to distance learning and our outpatient program clinicians and care coordinators began to utilize telehealth with our clients, thanks to the Gov. [Gina M. Raimondo’s] executive order.
There was an adjustment period, which thankfully was relatively quick due to the persistence of our program service teams and IT [information technology] department. Having the option to provide telehealth services has been a positive one for those we serve.
One of our biggest challenges was within our residential programs, which are referred to as congregate care settings. Congregate care settings present unique challenges during a pandemic because our [youths] live in groups of six to eight [people] and our staff come and go. Planning to mitigate risk was our primary objective. While we did initially have three [youths] and four staff members test positive, we were able to prevent a greater outbreak by creating and staffing an “isolation” unit for those [youths] who tested positive.
I would argue that the greatest challenge was not ours, but for the [youths] we serve in the residential programs who were unable to physically be with their families for three months. This had a significant negative impact on the children and was a very difficult time for them. This was also a challenging time for our residential counselors, clinicians and nurses who were working hard to support the [youths] and their families through a time when they, themselves, were anxious about being at work every day during the pandemic. I am grateful every day for the resilience and persistence of our staff.
PBN: How has the organization been able to pivot in order to provide its services to children in need?
CASCIANO-MCCANN: We adjusted quickly with very little disruption in service provision. This started with our team beginning preparation for the pandemic in late February when a representative from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] stated that it was not a matter of if we would be hit by the pandemic, but when. At that point, we had not imagined the need for telehealth or distance learning, but by mid-March realized that things needed to change dramatically.
So much of the new way of doing things was dependent on our IT infrastructure and team. Since the majority of our outpatient, school, administrative and support staff would need to work from home, they needed to be set up with [virtual private networks]. Residential and day students needed Chromebooks set up for them and a virtual learning program was purchased. In outpatient, we needed to set up HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliant videoconferencing.
Our IT team has been extremely busy through it all. Members of our community-based teams have been assisting clients with basic needs by dropping items off for families who are struggling financially during this unprecedented time.
PBN: What plans does St. Mary’s have so that the George N. Hunt Campus School can reopen safely for the next school year?
CASCIANO-MCCANN: We are currently working on our reopening plan and will be putting the finishing touches on it for the R.I. Department of Education. This includes three scenarios, one with a full school opening, one that has a partial opening and one that focuses on distance learning. Because we provide special education services, our classes are relatively small, typically eight to 10 students.
We have developed a number of new protocols that address cleaning and sanitizing the classrooms, classroom setup to ensure social distancing and regular screening, and temperature checks for students and staff members. We have on-site nursing, which will be a tremendous help in allaying the fears of our students, teachers and teaching assistants.
PBN: Dealing with the pandemic can be challenging mentally. How has the organization helped children cope with this crisis from a mental health standpoint?
CASCIANO-MCCANN: As an agency with a focus on trauma-informed care, first and foremost, we have recognized the pandemic as a major stressor for those we serve. We have provided the [youths] and families we serve with education about the impact of the pandemic to help validate the fears and anxieties they have been experiencing.
It is difficult to take care of one’s mental health if one’s basic needs are not met, so we applied for, and received, funding from the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way of Rhode Island to assist the families we serve who have experienced significant financial distress during these challenging times. Much of our work has been helping the children and [youths] adjust to our new normal, but also providing hope that eventually things will slowly return to normal.
On campus, our staff [members] have shown a great deal of flexibility in running additional therapeutic and activities groups that encourage creativity, movement, sensory strategies and just good old-fashioned fun.
Off-campus services have focused on coping with the pandemic. For these clients, we offer treatment to help them heal from the traumatic experiences that brought them to us, as well as the mental health challenges they face. We focus on understanding and improving the functioning of the family system, as it is difficult for a child to heal without family support.
PBN: What new programs does St. Mary’s hope to implement in the near future, if any?
CASCIANO-MCCANN: We assess service gaps in the state’s array of services regularly and create programs to close those gaps. The majority of our work with children and families occurs after the family has been affected by a traumatic event.
In the next couple of years, we plan to focus on prevention. Our current physical plant no longer meets our needs, which makes growth challenging but not impossible. We are in the process of fundraising for a master plan so that we can explore what our facilities could be to meet the needs of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children and families.
James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.