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Providing Life Lessons

Springfield’s Children’s Study Home Has Long Been a Safe Haven
Steve McCafferty

Steve McCafferty has a passion for working with troubled children.

He’s the most disruptive kid in class, the worst the school has ever seen. He comes from a broken family and has gotten passed from one foster home to another. Almost every person and agency thus far has thrown up their hands at him. But if he is lucky, there’s one place left that might offer help.

It’s the Children’s Study Home in Springfield, home to some of the Pioneer Valley school system’s toughest kids. Through its three campuses (two in Springfield and one in Falmouth), the agency offers education, residential housing, and family support to students with severe behavioral issues.

Some of its residents have heartbreaking stories. Yet, when one drives up to the tidy lawn and flower beds that line the Study Home headquarters on Sherman Street, it’s hard to imagine any trauma exists inside. The old building has an almost homey feel. Staff members greet visitors with warm smiles that seem to indicate they’ve found something promising in the work they do.

That’s because they have.

Place to Live and Learn

“You see changes in the kids,” said Steve McCafferty, explaining what he gets out of his job, which at times can be challenging. “Not in every single case, but in many, you see a lot of change.”

McCafferty started his career with the Department of Youth Services in the Juvenile Justice System. He later spent 20 years with the Center of Human Development (CDC) in Springfield. When he got a chance to return to his first love, working with troubled children, he took it. He’s been executive director at the Study Home for 14 years now.

Over that time, McCafferty says he’s learned that part of seeing change in young people is giving them an opportunity to believe in the future.

That’s why education is a key priority of the Study Home. The agency has two schools on its 16-acre campus: Kathleen Thornton Elementary School and Mill Pond Middle and High School. Classrooms are small and intimate with five to seven students. Each class has one teacher and one aide who focus on education and behavior management.

“We do a point-and-level system, and that helps kids manage their behavior effectively,” said McCafferty. “You gain points, and you move up in the system and get rewards.

“And frankly, we build strong relationships with kids so they begin to trust us,” he continued, while also talking about the importance of self-esteem building. “We have a strong art program and do a lot of physical education. Kids who have never been able to play on a basketball team learn the discipline and the skills, which really makes them feel they are succeeding.”

When the school bell rings, not all of the students return home to their families. Several reside on campus in one of the two Study Home residential facilities in Springfield: the Cottage for boys ages 6 to 12 and SHARP (Study Home Adolescents Residential Program) for males 12 to 18. A third facility in Falmouth, called the Cape START (Short-Term Adolescent Residential Treatment) program, serves males and females 12 to 18. Each of the three facilities houses 15 residents.

“You can say two things about our younger kids who come here,” said McCafferty. “By and large, they’ve been subject to some pretty severe abuse and neglect, so they have horrible histories. And in some instances, they’ve gone through 12, 16, even 18 foster homes.”

At the Cottage residential home on Sherman Street, each boy gets his own room with a bed and dresser and, in some cases, even a TV. Staff members are on duty 24 hours a day to make sure kids don’t hurt themselves or run off. There’s a kitchen, a game room, a laundry room with clothes stacked in neat little piles along a shelf with each child’s name below, and even a ‘time out’ room with carpeted walls where kids can safely blow off steam.

The average stay at a Study Home residential facility is 12 months, but some kids remain for four to six years, because “this is really the best place for them,” said McCafferty.

“It’s true, we have more boys than girls,” he explained. “Years ago, the program was coed, but in recent years, we weren’t getting as many female referrals. It’s part of the identification process. Boys tend to act out more, so they find their way to these programs more often than the girls do.”

As part of its residential program, the study home also has 25 kids in foster homes. It also works closely with families to try and break cycles of abuse, so that one day kids can go home.

Long Roots

Children’s Study Home has been doing what it does for a long time, with roots that stretch back 140 years.

Folks don’t think of it today, but the Civil War devastated families. With no adult males left to help on farms, women and young children traveled in numbers to nearby cities in search of help. Many widows arrived in Springfield with their young kids as what we think of today as the classic homeless family —poor, uneducated, with no skills for urban survival.

Rather than leave them to fend for themselves on the streets, church leaders opted instead to open a shelter on Union Street, which they initially called the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Children. It was a true charitable organization, relying on the community for donations.

Shortly thereafter, the organization realized it needed a house for children arriving in Springfield with no parents, so it constructed its first residential facility. Throughout the 1930s, the agency’s focus shifted more and more to the needs of troubled children. No federal or state funding was available, and the organization was still largely dependent on the community.

As the agency evolved and got noticed for its work with children, it changed its name to the Children’s Study Home in 1940. In the ’60s and ’70s, it evolved to the culture it is known for today.

Tightening the Belt

“Out of balance” are the words used by McCafferty to describe the Study Home’s current budget situation. The economy is of huge concern to the ongoing health of the facility.

“Two things are happening right now,” he said. “Bad economic times are hitting families and kids, so the need for service is rising. On the other hand, the money is disappearing, so we have less funds available to pay for the services they need.”

With a yearly operating budget of $7 million, the Study Home receives most of its funding from the state, which pays for the agency’s residential and foster-care programs. The second-largest funders are the school departments who cover the cost of each student they refer out of system to the study home.

The facility started feeling the squeeze about two years ago, when the economy first started to falter. So far, the agency is holding steady. It hasn’t laid off any staff members yet, but it’s not adding new ones, either. According to McCafferty, the Study Home has lost seven of its 145 employees over the last year through attrition.

Yet, it’s also juggling fewer caseloads. Schools, grappling with their own diminishing budgets, can’t afford to refer out as many kids to the Study Home as they did in the past. Now, the schools are more apt to try less-expensive options first. And kids who are sent to the facility are staying for shorter periods of time.

Right now McCafferty has his eye on Gov. Patrick’s plan for the fiscal year 2010 budget. Still on the drawing board, the budget gets finalized in June and goes into effect in July.

“We do have people at risk,” he admitted. “It’s hard to determine how many at this point, but we have positions at risk, and we have services at risk.” He hinted that the agency may have to make cuts as early as this July, and more in September.

New Models

In the midst of ongoing budget cuts, McCafferty is charting a slightly modified course for the future.

“In the long term, the real concern is strategic,” he said. “I mean, the budget cuts are the budget cuts, and you sort of can live with that in a way. But the larger question facing all of us in social services is, can we find ways to serve children and families that are quicker, cheaper, and yet still effective?”

The Study Home is now experimenting with new care models that provide service in the home and community, while cutting back on costly residential treatment.

One approach involves a partnership with a for-profit mental health clinic in Springfield called Community Services Institute (CSI). CSI uses an intensive, in-home treatment program to treat families in crisis. Since insurance companies pay for the service, it doesn’t impact the Study Home’s existing budget.

Another model is the Family Support Project (FSP), which the Study Home is trying out of its Falmouth office. Similarly to CSI, FSP provides intensive support in the home and through a community youth center, which kids visit several times a week after school.

Even with a shrinking budget and fewer staff members, the Study Home stays committed to keeping kids safe. After all, the agency has survived a century and a half already; there’s no reason to think it can’t ride out this storm as well.