St. Vincent’s Home a beacon of hope for children and families

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

FALL RIVER, Mass. — In the waiting room at St. Vincent’s Home in Fall River, there is a piece of artwork prominently displaying the word “hope,” and that’s what St. Vincent’s Home offers to area children living in the southeast region who are dealing with emotional and behavioral challenges.

Founded in 1885 as an orphanage by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River and the Sisters of Mercy, St. Vincent’s Home ( has morphed into a comprehensive facility that provides myriad of community behavioral health and special educational services; last year, St. Vincent’s Home served 860 families — a tremendous jump from the 353 families served in 2009, only eight years ago.

When executive director Jack Weldon arrived at St. Vincent’s Home 20 years ago, it was a K-12 school, and “we had, on average, 120 kids. We also had six community-based group homes, three in Fall River and three in New Bedford, with a less restrictive model of care for the kids who lived in those homes. They either came to our school or went to a public school in the community.”

In the past two decades, Weldon has had a front row seat for the changes in the state’s approach to mental health programs: “The needs of the state and the priority of the state on how to deal with child welfare issues, largely the Department of Children and Families, and child and family mental health issues have changed. The state went to a place where they place less priority on removing kids from families to keeping kids with their families.”

The state created a range of services under the umbrella of “Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative.” CBHI is a self-referral program that assists the child and family with support in treating behavioral health needs and helping each family care for their child within the family home. Therapeutic Mentoring services are available to referred-youth who require one-to-one coaching, training and support from a therapeutic mentor. 

So St. Vincent’s Home went from having 120 kids in care who lived onsite to having only one child as part of the original program, and in answer to the change in the state’s approach, “we’ve developed a whole ranges of services,” said Weldon. 

St. Vincent’s established an outpatient clinic and opened it in 2011; the Mental Health Clinic is a self-referral program that provides diagnostic assessments, therapy and interventions for clients of St. Vincent’s Home, including children and youth under the age of 21, adults, couples and families. Clinicians are trained in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, and offer psychotherapy and other counseling skills to improve emotional and behavioral issues. 

“We currently have 14 clinicians here,” said Kristen Dutra, clinical director for 17 years. “All of the clinicians have received specialized training in trauma. Our clinicians provide a mixed case load; they provide clinic-based outpatient therapy, school-based therapy, they also provide in-home therapy for CBHI.

“Our niche is kids and family who have been affected by trauma. That grew out of the work we’ve been doing right along with children, and we continue to provide through closed-referral programs; a parent can’t just drop off a kid, the entry into these programs is through a state agency or third-party referral,” said Weldon.

St. Vincent’s still provides group home services, though they have only one group home in Fall River, down from the original six, and have an intensive group home located on the campus of St. Vincent’s Home, the Stabilization, Assessment and Rapid Reintegration (STARR) program, which provides short-term placement and intensive therapy focused on stabilizing the child’s current crisis.

“That is the state’s ‘emergency room,’ so if [the state] is in court and scheduling to remove kids, and there’s an issue with the family that requires removal and out-of-home placement, [STARR] is where they would go,” said Weldon. “It’s made to be a 45-day assessment and treatment, recommendations are made; often the length of stay is longer than 45 days.”

“It’s a self-contained program,” said Dutra. “We have two cottages on this campus for STARR, and we also have a home in Plymouth” with the Plymouth home mainly for the Plymouth area, Cape Cod and the Islands.

The Group Home, Intensive Group Home and Pre-Independent Living are longer-term programs where the kids live at St. Vincent’s Home but go to school in the public school system. 

“Even though we’re not an orphanage anymore, there are still kids living here,” said Weldon. “Some may say it’s where the ‘bad’ kids go, but I don’t like to say that. We’re a treatment facility for kids and their families.”

“I think for the kids who live here, because the majority of them do go off to school during the day, the notion of a ‘bad kid’ is still alive and well for them,” said Dutra. “Many times they don’t like to say where they live; they won’t say they live at St. Vincent’s. If staff is coming to pick them up at the end of the day, they might refer to them differently. 

“These kids didn’t ask to be put in these situations; they didn’t ask to be abused; they didn’t ask to be neglected; they didn’t ask to be removed from their family. They’re really resilient kids. They’re kids who have gone through, for many of them, the unthinkable, but get up every day, do the best that they can at school, engage the best that they can in their treatment, so that they can move on.”

And there are success stories. A young lady who resided in their residential program at the tender age of 14 and who had a “significant trauma history,” said Dutra, completed treatment and moved on to graduate from high school at the top of her class.

“She moved on to attend one of the state universities in Massachusetts, successfully graduated while working three jobs while being full-time in school,” said Dutra. “She continues her connection here. She’s come back to visit, been at the [summer’s annual fund-raiser]; she really is a phenomenal young lady.”

“She really is a role model to everyone,” Dutra added.

St. Vincent’s Life Skills Program provides youth between the ages of 14-21 with the education, skills, training and guidance to prepare them for transition to independent living and young adulthood. Instruction in daily living and organizational skill sets, complete his or her education, offers vocational training, provides opportunities for youth to develop employable skills, consider future career options and make good choices for his or her future. For those youth whose family support is minimal, the Life Skills Program affords its clients relationship-building support as a way of assisting the youth in his or her journey to becoming self-sufficient.

“We began to see an abundance of kids who were aging out of the system who had no reliable family resources that they could depend upon,” said Weldon. “Kids who experience trauma are even less equipped to live on their own, so the Life Skills Program was really a group of services that we put in place without state funding to meet the needs of those kids. We’re teaching them how to be a member of the community.”

State agencies and third-party insurers fund most of the programs at St. Vincent’s Home, but an annual fund-raiser held at Battleship Cove in Fall River funds its Life Skills Program.

The annual Summer Celebration will be held on June 23, at the Battleship Cove in Fall River; all proceeds benefit St. Vincent’s Life Skills Program. There will be a cocktail reception, dinner and silent auction, and this year will also feature a new fund-raiser entitled, “Glitz in a Glass,” where attendees can purchase one of 50 flutes of champagne for a chance to win a 1.5-carat diamond donated by Silva & Co. Jewelers. For more information, contact Jenny Mello Reis at 508-235-3228.

“We hear from kids who spent time here, and from family members as well,” said Weldon. “They have relationships here that are touchstones for them, and they want them to know of their successes. It’s always heartwarming to get those calls or letters. Most of them express their appreciation that there is a St. Vincent’s, and that they were able to turn their lives around, move on and be successful, and that without our intervention, their story might not have come out the same way.”

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts