Katelyn Medeiros has been the state’s acting child advocate since the departure of her predecessor Jennifer Griffiths last summer. (Rhode Island Capitol TV)
PROVIDENCE — The Department of Children, Youth, and Families has selected the site of an abandoned state psychiatric institution in Exeter for a new 16-bed residential treatment facility for adolescent girls who otherwise must leave the state to receive specialized care.
Acting Director of the Office of the Child Advocate Katelyn Medeiros said at a House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday that the facility would be in Exeter but did not disclose the location. The department told Rhode Island Current in an email Friday that the old Ladd School was selected.
Medeiros said the department has weekly meetings with project manager Peregrine and architectural firm DBVW Architects to discuss plans and a scheduled completion for the facility by 2026.
An attorney, Medeiros was previously the assistant child advocate until tapped to lead the office in an acting capacity since the departure of Jennifer Griffith last summer.
“Girls who require trauma-informed treatment and intensive psychiatric treatment will be able to acquire the level of care they need here in Rhode Island,” Medeiros told legislators during her testimony.
The facility would be a small step in addressing the backup in services in the department where, according to the office’s 2022 Annual Report, 66 children — 27 of whom are girls — are currently in out-of-state care due to a lack of capacity in Rhode Island in places as far flung as Virginia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.
“If it were up to me, I’d be down there with a shovel right now,” Medeiros said. “We’re slated to open some time in FY 2026.”
“Which is three years from now,” Committee Chair Rep. Patricia A. Serpa, of West Warwick, replied in exasperation.
“Does that mean another year of planning? Do you have a way to move these people along?”
The Department of Children, Youth, and Families requested $12 million in budgeting for fiscal year 2024 toward the project. Nonetheless, Gov. Dan McKee allocated no funds for the project in his proposed fiscal 2024 budget.
When asked why the facility would only house 16 girls, Medeiros said it was due to Medicaid reimbursement policies, though what exactly was unclear.
“This is a conversation we have been having for the last year,” she said. “We are still having it now and we are trying to get to the bottom of it.”
If it were up to me, I’d be down there with a shovel right now.
– Office of the Child Advocate Katelyn Medeiros
Medeiros said she planned to reach out to her Massachusetts counterpart to see how they were able to construct Glenhaven Academy in Marlborough, Massachusetts, with reimbursements for a 37-bed residential treatment facility.
“If they can do it in Glenhaven, 45 minutes away, and still receive reimbursement for their youth, I don’t see why we can’t do that here in Rhode Island,” Medeiros said.
The proposed facility would help to alleviate the challenges the Department of Children, Youth and Families has in serving Rhode Island’s vulnerable children and families.
Medeiros read testimony from one of 41 children currently placed in hospitals — regardless of the care level necessary — awaiting adequate placement. “This has taken a really big toll on me because I am used to hearing and seeing my family every day,” Medeiros read. “I missed the last two quarters of sixth grade, all of seventh grade, and all of eighth grade. I can’t even do something as simple as counting change.
“I came to the hospital to get help, not to live here.”
Medeiros added that 27 of the children in hospital placements are on Individualized Educational Plans yet only receive one hour of group class time daily and that their presence and an inability to find placements for those cases contributes to issues of backlog.
At its root, Medeiros said, it’s largely a problem of inadequate staffing.
“Workforce development issues are causing some programs to be understaffed and, in some cases, closed altogether,” she told the committee. “This thereby decreases our capacity here in the state to serve the needs of children.”
The Department of Children, Youth, and Families told Rhode Island Current there were 63 staff vacancies. Gov. Dan McKee authorized 702 full time employees in his fiscal year 2023 budget.
Rep. George A. Nardone, of Coventry, used his time to explore the question of out-of-state placements. He expressed concern about the services being provided and the cost of housing children so far away, $54,000 a day.
“That’s an astonishing number,” Nardone said. “That’s money that could be used to incentivize employees and bring more [workers] into the establishment.”
Medeiros said the removal of children from the state, and thus their support systems, was doing more harm than good.
“Our system continues to fail to prepare our youth for future success,” she said.
Medeiros added that a comprehensive needs assessment was necessary to ensure the department’s ability to serve children would be improved.
“That was a sobering report,” Serpa said.
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