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Faculty study to examine alternative program aimed at keeping children out of psychiatric residential hospitals

Research has shown that children with severe behavioral health impairments who receive community-based treatment have better outcomes than those who are placed in intensive psychiatric residential facilities, Yet, no studies have examined the effectiveness of such alternative programs in North Carolina. UNC School of Social Work faculty are working to bridge this research gap.

Assistant professor Paul Lanier is leading a team to begin the design phase of a study that will evaluate the success of Intensive Alternative Family Treatment, a program developed in partnership with N.C. Medicaid and currently operated by the Mooresville-based nonprofit Rapid Resource for Families. With assistance from UNC, the agency hopes to gather the needed support to launch their therapeutic program as an evidence-based intervention.

“We really need to know what works and for whom programs work the best,” Lanier said. “We owe it to children, families, and to the public to know if our investments are paying off.”

Rapid Resource’s behavioral-focused intervention includes 14 core components designed to treat the individual needs of children up to 21 years old who have been diagnosed with severe psychiatric disorders. Children are placed in therapeutic foster care families that have been trained to work with a team of professionals to provide the intervention, including intensive weekly therapy. Last year, 120 youth received treatment in North Carolina.

“Most of these kids have experienced trauma, are treated with psychiatric medications and have received some mental health services, but their problematic behaviors have become unmanageable,” said Beth Lowder, a social innovation specialist who is working with Lanier and research assistant professor Rod Rose on the evaluation project. “Whether that’s violence or they’re getting in trouble with peers or at school or they’re self-harming, there’s a continuum of symptoms.”

Long-term, the goal is to reduce the number of placements in psychiatric residential hospitals and to support children at home with their families, Lowder said.

The 18-month project will also include work to strengthen the program’s conceptual model and will examine Rapid Resource’s efforts to market the treatment program and recruit foster care families. Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, associate professor at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, will focus on the social marketing efforts of the study.