EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Paul Chaput said he was working the overnight shift recently when one of the patients at Bradley Hospital, a psychiatric facility for children and teenagers, approached him with some words of gratitude.
“I heard what you did for us,” Chaput says the patient told him. “I never thought you actually cared enough to do something like that.”
Chaput, a behavioral health specialist, has worked at Bradley for more than a decade. Last year, he decided to speak out about student-age children under state custody getting stuck at the facility without receiving any formal education — sometimes for months at a time.
He raised the issue with state child welfare officials and wrote a letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo. His actions resulted in a couple meetings, but Chaput felt like his concerns were being ignored, so he decided to bring the issue public.
“At that point, after the second meeting, I decided to make a move,” he said. “And that was to contact you guys.”
A Target 12 investigation in December revealed more than 20 student-age children hadn’t been receiving any education in part because of long-standing breakdowns in communication between state agencies and local school districts.
Last month, they started receiving daily lessons as part of sweeping changes made at the facility in coordination with the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families. As part of the changes, children and teenagers now have regular access to Chromebooks for the first time, meaning they can participate in remote learning.
“What they’re doing right now is something that’s really, really special, and really good,” Chaput said. “It needed to happen a long time ago.”
DCYF also issued a new policy two weeks after the Target 12 report, requiring that the agency immediately notifies a school district whenever one of its students is admitted at Bradley.
The agency’s acting director, Kevin Aucoin, said state officials had been reaching out to districts in the past. But he admitted to a faulty assumption that districts – which are legally responsible for providing education to their students – were following through with formal educational plans.
“We should not have been making that assumption,” Aucoin said during a R.I. Senate Education Committee hearing last week.
Now, every week, a case worker must confirm students at Bradley are receiving education. If there’s a failure to provide lessons, there’s a set plan of intervention that is required to be followed. If intervention still doesn’t result in a student receiving education, the issue is elevated to DCYF legal counsel, and the R.I. Office of the Child Advocate is notified.
The East Providence facility – which provides care to children in and out of state custody – has long been a place where DCYF children sometimes stay for prolonged periods of time because the state cannot find a placement for them post-treatment.
State officials said that problem was exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, as many group homes and other types of facilities stopped taking new children and teenagers amid concerns of virus outbreaks in congregate-living facilities.
As a result, the average length of stay for a child or teenager under DCYF custody at Bradley jumped to 56 days during 2020, compared with just over a month in 2019, according to the agency’s presentation during the Senate hearing.
Chaput, however, pushed back on the idea that this is only a pandemic-related problem, saying he’s watched children get stuck there for years and the educational problem has been persistent, even though tutors have offered services on a part-time basis in the past.
“Two years ago, prior to the pandemic, this had been going on,” he said. “If the pandemic wasn’t happening at that time, and I hadn’t come out and said something about it, what would have been their answer then?”
Since he decided to speak out, there have been some signs the length of stays has improved. As of Feb. 11, the number of children under state custody at the facility totaled 15, down from 22 in December, according to DCYF.
Dr. Henry Sachs, president of Bradley, said he thought the newly implemented system to ensure students are receiving education would ultimately help them. Children usually need a few days after getting admitted to stabilize, he said, but getting into the routine of schooling is important for any child after a period of time.
“School is part of being a kid, so having them do that is really important,” he said.
Sen. Sandra Cano, who sharply criticized DCYF following Target 12’s report in December, is chair of the Education Committee, and she called the hearing to discuss the issue. Cano reiterated her concerns during the hearing, but she also expressed optimism that so much has happened over the prior month and a half.
“The good news is that there have been some policy changes,” Cano, D-Pawtucket, said during the hearing.
Chaput said he’s encouraged by the changes, too, and he’s hopeful that it will have a positive effect on the young people at Bradley. As a teenager, Chaput was admitted to the same hospital, he said, after he experienced psychosis caused by encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain.
In many ways, Chaput said he feels like expectations are low for these children, and they know it, so he feels good about his role in advocating for them because it gives them some hope.
“Some of the kids do feel like no one cares, that no one is advocating for them,” he said. “A lot of good things came out of this – a lot of positive things – and I’m really excited moving forward to see how it works out.”