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12/23/2021 Op-Ed: A new home for RI’s ‘lost girls’ urgently needed

We are not meeting our shared obligation to some of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable children. For far too long, the state has neglected to ensure there are adequate placements for young people in its care, especially our high-risk girls.

For the children and families involved, the results of this broken system are devastating. And there are significant costs, now and in the future, as the state relies on expensive but inadequate alternatives.

This is an emergency. It’s also an equity issue that must be addressed as soon as possible.

We are calling for the utilization of a portion of our roughly $1.1 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to immediately construct a psychiatric residential treatment facility for girls here in Rhode Island.

Recent Senate Oversight Committee hearings and news reports have shed light on a situation that Child Advocate Jennifer Griffith says has become “much more dire and, frankly, dangerous” in the last two months. Indeed, she says, it has “never been this bad,” and there is an “extreme level of desperation.”

DCYF has essentially run out of appropriate placements for the young people in its care. There’s not enough capacity at the service providers with which the agency contracts. And as the social services industry struggles to retain workers, there’s not enough staff.

Some of the children at the greatest risk, those in need of psychiatric treatment services, have been the most affected. Pediatric psychiatric beds at hospitals are full, and there’s no safe, secure place to send children in those facilities as they “step down” in their treatment.

A shortage of appropriate residential placements means many of those young people remain hospitalized over the long term, a restrictive and detrimental setting that also puts the state in violation of the law. Many children are sent out of state, which disconnects them from their communities and is much more expensive. These children risk falling far behind their peers in terms of educational and social development, creating even more challenges as they age.

Particularly troubling is the fact that young women – our “lost girls,” as they’ve been described – have been so disproportionately affected.

Of the 70 children who have been placed in out-of-state care, 75 percent are girls. That figure reflects the existing gender disparity in terms of residential placements here at home.

Having an appropriate treatment option for these girls will help keep them safe and stable, connected to their families and communities. It will give them the best possible chance in life as they transition out of treatment. And it will ease the strain on a system running dangerously thin.

It makes financial sense, too, in both the short and long terms. Out-of-state placements are costing Rhode Island roughly $9 million a year, money that could be used much more effectively – and efficiently – to take care of our children here at home. And the improved outcomes that will be realized down the line will ultimately cost our state less. This is the kind of investment that allows us to truly maximize the unprecedented opportunity the ARPA funding represents.

A line item for the operation of such a treatment facility already exists in the state budget. What’s missing is a physical location. We propose new construction or the acquisition of an existing structure that can be made suitable. The facility’s operations can then be contracted through a service provider.

This is a chance to tell our most vulnerable children and families – most of all, our girls – that we value them and their future. We cannot abandon our collective commitment to lift up those in the greatest need.

For more information, contact:
Greg Pare, Director of Communications for the Senate
State House Room 112
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 276-5558