MATTHEWS – Thompson Child & Family Focus has called Saint Peter’s Lane off Margaret Wallace Road home for nearly 50 years, but most people don’t even know it’s there. Tucked away on 60 acres, the nonprofit has a long history of impacting the lives of families and children across the county and state. Today, it’s offering a fresh start to teen girls who have been through immense trauma.
Thompson was founded in 1886 as an orphanage in uptown Charlotte. Part of the campus included St. Mary’s Chapel, which still stands today in Thompson Park between 3rd and East 4th streets. It is the only remaining structure of the original orphanage.
Thompson moved to Saint Peter’s Lane in Matthews in 1970. It has since grown from its early beginnings as an orphanage and children’s home into a leading provider of clinical and prevention services across the Carolinas. Each location provides comprehensive education, therapy and care for families and children in need. Thompson now provides services to clients from almost half of the state’s 100 counties and employs more than 300 people.
Much of that growth is thanks to President and CEO Will Jones. He arrived at Thompson in spring 2017 with nearly 23 years of human services experience. Fifteen of those years were in senior and executive-level leadership in public and private agencies.
In his first two years at Thompson, Jones cultivated growth across all areas of service within the organization, resulting in the additional impact of 900 children daily. He helped expand family education services to Union and Cabarrus counties and worked with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to open an alternative middle school called Turning Point Academy on the St. Peter’s Lane campus. The school just wrapped up its first academic year.
Jones’ involvement has also lead to an 80% increase in foster care services – including an expansion to Asheville – and increased utilization of Thompson’s Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility, which is Thompson’s most intensive level of care. It’s a clinical setting for children and teens who have been severely abused and diagnosed with mental illness. Up until this year, the program was only for boys.
Thanks to funding from Cardinal Innovations Healthcare’s Community Reinvestment Initiative, Thompson was able to open a new residential services program for adolescent girls in April. The program, housed in Smith Cottage on Thompson’s St. Peter’s Lane campus, is for girls with a variety of traumatic backgrounds, such as human trafficking, abuse, sexual assault, family drama, drugs and alcohol. It is the highest level of treatment outside a hospital setting.
Smith Cottage is a partnership among Thompson, Mecklenburg County and Cardinal and was created in response to the gap in residential and mental health serves found and discussed in the report “Navigating the Maze.” The report – published in 2017 and commissioned by the Foundation for the Carolinas, the Children’s Medical Fund and Mitchell’s Fund – noted there were no group homes for girls 13 to 18 years old with around-the-clock supervision in Mecklenburg County. Providers were referring teen girls to programs in other states, some more than 200 miles away.
“It wasn’t really helpful,” said LaDell Josey, program director for Smith Cottage. “You can’t really reengage them with their families when they’re in another state.”
Josey said the Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility girls are a “tough population to serve.” They don’t see themselves as victims and don’t really want to be helped. They think they’re successful because they’re making their own money and choices and are unaware they’re headed down a dangerous path. Thompson aims to change that way of thinking, Josey said.
Smith Cottage holds up to eight girls and the average stay is 90 to 120 days. The program has 13 direct care staff, an in-house mental health therapist, a nursing staff and a recreational therapist who does art-based therapy.
During their stay, the girls might learn life skills like nutrition, cooking, conflict resolution, coping, budgeting, independent living, gardening or drivers education, depending on their goals. They also attend family therapy sessions and go to school on-site with private teachers. They can either get credit for their classes to transfer back to regular school or work toward their GED.
“We’re showing them there are other ways to feel successful,” Josey said.
Another big thing for the girls is internal motivation – wanting to change on their own – mindfulness, yoga and meditation, as well as processing and regulating their emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps them identify and change negative thinking patterns, Josey said.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” added Anthony Jones, Thompson’s chief operating officer. “Just because you’ve had a high level of trauma in the past, doesn’t mean you can’t get past that.”
Josey said girls track their progress in the program by moving up the “five tiers of royalty.” Each girl starts as a “lady” and becomes a “countess,” “princess,” “queen” and finally “empress” as she meets certain behavioral and emotional goals.
In the end, there is a graduation ceremony, and girls are discharged back to their families or to a stable home setting. A direct care staff member and case manager helps each girl throughout that transition.
“Our goal is to step the children down into lower levels of care,” Anthony Jones said. “That doesn’t mean they won’t need any type of care.”
Josey and Anthony Jones said they’re seeing progress with some of the girls already. A few are showing an interest in school and positive behavior changes, and some who are known to run away aren’t pushing back as much.
“With the population that we serve, small steps are actually huge steps,” Anthony Jones said. “If you gloss over the small steps, you may miss an opportunity.”
The state of North Carolina has been in the top 10 in the nation for human trafficking, and Charlotte is known as one of the major cities were it occurs.
Josey said without Thompson, these teen girls are at a high risk of being trafficked, assaulted or murdered, going to jail, contracting AIDS/HIV and having an overall shorter life expectancy. Without Thompson, they might never break the cycle on their own.
“Intervention can be a lifesaver for some of these ladies,” she said.
“This is life-changing work that we’re doing,” Anthony Jones added.