At Saint Francis, staff are encouraged to explore new opportunities, innovative treatments and services, and are challenged to always be learning.

Cheryl Rathbun, corporate vice president of clinical services, remembers well many of the research projects she was involved with during her 42-year career at Saint Francis.

Multiple projects offered her the chance to explore new ways to meet the needs of children and families, and to grow throughout her career.

“You need to know that what you’re doing works,” she said. “You want to make sure you’re using tools that are proven.”

Using evidence- based practices, or EBPs, that have been well- researched has always been a critical part of the organization’s work. The passage in 2019 of the Family First Prevention Services Act, which attached federal dollars to the use of EBPs, added increased emphasis to what Saint Francis staff already knew was important.

“For many years, Saint Francis maintained a research department, where well-known psychologists, like Ron Force and Gordon Gardiner, delved into ways to better care for children and teens and to confirm that the methods staff were using were working,” Cheryl said.

She remembers well that Ron’s Behavioral Personality Inventory was an instrument he constantly revalidated through data tracked for years after the clients left Saint Francis. It focused on determining a young person’s amenability to change and their drug proclivity (how likely they were to use drugs at some point).

Some of the research from the 1980s and 1990s still informs the work Cheryl leads today in the clinical department. The primary counselor model, which Cheryl encourages at the residential programs, showed that the most compelling predictor of a young person’s successful treatment was in the relationships they built.

“While the relationship didn’t have to be with a counselor, it most often was,” Cheryl said. “Other research, which was done before the study of trauma- informed care that is used today was in place, helped to look at the young person’s perception of the world.

“For instance, if five teens stole items, each might have a different reason. One stole because he wanted money and took the item. Another wanted to feed her sister. Yet another stole because her parents were getting divorced and she was angry and felt guilty. Looking at those different world perceptions would inform the treatment staff offered,” Cheryl said.

Today, research is still an important element of the work Saint Francis does, along with continuing education. Pam Cornwell, clinical director, gives as an example how important it is to understand the relationship of trauma to behaviors, and then to determine the best treatment possible. “In working with. young people, we often are dealing with generations of trauma,” she said.

“Traumatized children cannot develop and function as they need to successfully. The presentation of trauma- related behavior has many faces, but at the core of the behavior is the reflex to fight, flee, or freeze,” Pam said. “Only services that provide attuned care, that ability to be emotionally responsive to the emotional struggle of the child or parent, demonstrate lasting effectiveness. Trauma-informed care means an approach that restores relationships that expand how the children understand themselves.”

“Saint Francis partners with university researchers to explore better ways to work and support not just children and families, but staff. A recent project with Wichita State University focused on staff and resiliency, taking a look at secondary trauma associated with the challenging work Saint Francis does,” Cheryl said.

Currently, Saint Francis is working with University of Kansas researchers to measure organization-wide impact of services on clients using protective factors as a framework to measure impact. “Protective factors are conditions or attributes in individuals, families, communities, or the larger society that mitigate or eliminate risk in families and communities, thereby increasing the health and well- being of children and families. That project has just moved into the full implementation stage,” Cheryl said.

Pushing to learn more, to explore new and possible better options for treatment, touches the core values of Saint Francis Ministries.

“We focus on meeting needs, and the needs we see through the many kinds of work we do are complex and varied,” Cheryl said. “We never stop holding ourselves to high standards and striving to, as our value statement says, transform lives in ways others believe impossible.”

This story originally appeared in the 75th Anniversary issue of Hi-Lites, published in 2020. You can view past HiLites here.