Hope and Grace Fund Spotlight: RFK Children’s Action Corps

May 24, 2016

When many of us think of mental health, most media reports would have us focus on adults living their lives with or without diagnosis. But one of the greatest injustices that happen as a result of the stigma, lack of education, and insufficient programming around these conditions happens to children. The health and welfare of the next generation is crucial, which is why we’re extremely proud to introduce you to our next grant recipient from the Hope and Grace Fund: this is RFK Children’s Action Corps.

We reached out to Leigh Gallivan Mahoney, Director of National Education and Program Development, to get some thoughts on the multiple programs and services offered by this worthwhile organization, and to give you an insight into this very special segment of the mental health population:


“The mission of RFK Children’s Action Corps, like so many of our core beliefs and philosophies, comes directly from the fact that we are a memorial to the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. One of his guiding beliefs, to paraphrase him, was that all children in this nation deserve to grow up as we would like our own to do. That part of what drives our mission. We believe pretty strongly in the potential of children and in society’s responsibility to nurture and help them grow into the best possible adults they can be. We believe that by doing that we can offer our best hope for society in general.

We achieve our mission through a variety of services. The bulk of our agency falls into direct care, which encompasses working with youth in the child welfare system as well as those in the juvenile justice system. We also do some direct work in terms of adoption, and on the other side of that we do work with jurisdictions to help serve that same youth. That type of work is more technical assistance, consultation, training, systems integration work, etc. But the bulk of our work and the heart of the agency is still rooted in direct service with children and families, which can take place in residential facilities, in the community, and in schools.

We also offer a fair amount of education. We work with special needs students who are unable to be served within their home school district, sent to us either in a residential setting or through our own system of special schools. By special needs, we mean that we serve those with physical and mental challenges. We find that some of our highest-need students fall into both categories, depending on how you’re looking at the disability spectrum. The majority of the youth we serve in our special education schools have developmental or social/emotional disabilities, but those are often paired with physical, neurological, and/or even specific learning disabilities. We have a therapeutic day school in Holyoke, MA, and a residential school in Lancaster, MA. There’s also a day school located on that campus as well, so kids can attend in either capacity there. It allows us to do what we do best: individualize our education and treatment approaches with children, and work with a lot of different communities. You can have 20-30 different communities interested in sending students who are unable to be served in the home district, whether it be because their needs are so great that they require a high level of intervention, or because they’re such a low incidence profile that the districts haven’t have the economy of scale to create a program for them.

I can tell you the needs for these types of services are great. The learning needs are there, the growth needs are there, the therapeutic needs are there. We’re doing everything from finding the best way to help kids access their abilities and really grow in the classroom and in the community, as well as helping many of them manage housing and medical care. Very few of these kids are coming with everything but the education piece missing from their lives; it’s not how life is for a lot of the kids we serve. They’re frequently double-or-tripled stacked in terms of the challenges they face.

We work diligently to help children reach their potential while assisting them so they don’t fall through the cracks of the system, and we’re not alone in this. Many children receiving this type of out-of-district education have gotten some strong advocacy somewhere along the line, whether it’s from their sending district, an involved parent or caregiver, corollary agencies also working with that child in another capacity, etc. Someone stepped up to say this kid needs more than they’re getting right now, and we like to think that’s what we’re able to provide when kids come to us.  It’s part of the reason we feel so strongly about engaging on the technical side of assistance and advisory: we know not all kids get that kind of advocacy, and we feel pretty strongly they deserve it.

Probably one of the most prominent aspects is the RFK National Resource Center for Juvenile Justice, which was originally created with a MacArthur Grant as a model for change. In brief, they provide consultation, technical assistance, and training to local and state practitioners or jurisdictions to improve system performance and outcomes for kids involved with both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems. At one point, they took a step back realized well over half of the kids in the juvenile justice system started in the child welfare system, and realized since such a connection exists that we could serve them better if we gathered those entities together to focus on the best way to move both their collective missions forward. So, that’s essentially what they do through systems integration on what we call “dual-status youth;” kids who reside in both systems. It happens way more often that you’d think, and through this kind of work we can help them better serve the youth they’re serving, understand their needs, and align the systems so they get the best possible outcomes for the children involved.

There’s another phase to that dual-status process, which is information sharing. There are incredible legal hurdles and challenges that exist around sharing information, and one of the biggest hurdles is getting the systems to speak to each other outside of this belief that they’re not allowed to share information regarding kids. In actuality, there are many legal ways that can be done, and so one of the things the NRC does is information sharing and how to best position departments and agencies so they can better share information and work for better outcomes.

We do have a number of success stories. I think those of us who work in the field sort of pass them around like candy. I will tell you honestly that we sometimes struggle with how to measure success because we concentrate so much on individualizing what we’re doing with kids that it’s really hard to draw apple-to-apple comparisons across the board. Our kids are all different, their needs are all different, and our goals — which are created with help from the kids themselves — all end up differently. One of our big goals is to figure out how to measure our impact. But I think one of our greatest benchmarks of success is the impact the kids tell us our program has had on their lives. That’s incredibly powerful. Seeing kids who’ve made progress toward benchmarks and grades, have graduated, moved on into really developing independence toward adulthood — those are pretty powerful and telling examples. Part of what we’re trying for is for a kid to be able to have a successful childhood, which will lead to a successful adulthood. In some ways, our goals are pretty simple, but the solutions to resourcing those goals are incredibly complex.

I think what always amazes me about the kids we serve is that they don’t have one complexity, they have six or eight. It’s truly humbling when you stop and think about it. I’m really proud of what the agency does, but in the end it’s really about the kids. They’re the ones who survive, the ones who, if you’re able to uncover enough of their gifts, are able to capitalize on them in order to move on and be successful. It’s really amazing that they’re still upright, frankly, and moving about the world with this beautiful resilient way of coming back every day. They can be extremely challenging, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.

We’re thrilled to be named a recipient of the Hope and Grace Fund. We’ve got the skeleton of our plan together on fund usage, which centers on increasing access to services for youth identified as CSEC, which stands for Commercial and Sexually Exploited Children. The issue of trafficking has become far more prevalent over the last few years both nationally and internationally, but not as prevalent as it should be, quite frankly. What we know is that we don’t know everything and that there are far more CSEC children than we are currently aware of, that we know. We don’t always know how to track them down and identify them. We also know that there are certain vulnerable populations, and interestingly they’re all the populations we work with. So, it’s fairly dear to our hearts. What we’re in the process of figuring out with our community partners is where we fit best. We hope to help out in the areas of identification and increasing access to services. We don’t have all the particulars about what the programming is going to look like, but we’re in talks with the task force currently to figure out exactly how we’re going to be able to be an active participant. We hope to deliver treatment for those already identified, and to assist on the prevention end, which is so incredibly overlooked at this point. Right now, I think everyone is so overwhelmed by identifying these youths that they’re not as focused on how to help youth avoid becoming enmeshed in trafficking to begin with.  It’s a worthwhile topic, and something that needs to be addressed by every jurisdiction in the nation. There’s no area of the country not affected by it; some are certainly more impacted than others, but it is incredibly far reaching.

If you’d like to get involved or learn more, you can check our website. That gives a really good overview of the breadth of our programming, the children we serve, and the ways that we go about education, clinical services, and case management, whether in the community or residential setting. If you’re local to any our programs located across the state of Massachusetts, I would encourage you to stop in and meet our people; they’re some of the best you’ll ever meet. Also, definitely meet the kids if you have the opportunity. They’re amazing and incredibly inspiring.

We’re a living memorial to the late, great Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a fact about which we all feel very strongly. Most of us identify personally with his powerful view for society’s responsibility toward children. We were founded by a group of private citizens who through one connection or another felt connected to Senator Kennedy, which is how the agency was born. (The Kennedy family is) certainly supportive of our work, and we appreciate it so very much, but we were founded by a group of people who saw a great need and took it upon themselves to take action. I think we’re proud of that, and it speaks to our identity as an organization.

I think the other thing that I would highlight is the incredible diversity of our programming, all the different ways that we serve. The constant throughout is how strongly we see the kids as individuals. That has served us well in terms of our ability to work with lots of different types of children and in our ability to have a diverse staff. I’ve been doing this work for over 20 years, and I’ve seen the swing from almost no programming at all to a greater push for personalized care based on specific populations and individual need. What the children need is to be treated like individuals, and some of those treatment and specific life needs around things like gender really shouldn’t be treated in the aggregate. A good amount of our strength is in individualizing our approach to kids, and putting systems and structures in place that allows us to be as flexible and kid-centered as we can. We’re proud of what we can provide, and we’re looking forward to doing even more to protect the next generation and generations of youths to come.”