The hallways, classrooms and gym at CASA House are quiet this June evening.
A pond in the backyard shimmers beneath the fading late-day sun. A family of geese has made it their home, I’m told, emerging each morning to strut on the lawn with visiting ducks and pelicans.
Other than a group meeting in one of the conference rooms, and a few chattering teens who have gathered for dinner, it’s as peaceful as a monastery.
But looks are deceiving. The 19 young residents aged 12 to 17 who live here – typically for four to five months at a time – are in crisis.
They’re grappling with severe mental health challenges, addiction issues, complex learning needs, family problems, school troubles and interpersonal issues. Almost all have already attended outpatient or hospital inpatient treatment and day programs elsewhere.
“CASA House is tertiary or somewhat ‘end of the road’ care. Usually by the time kids get here it isn’t just mental health and school issues they’re dealing with. There is often a breakdown in the parent-child relationship,” explains Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr. Alice Leung, Medical Lead at CASA House.
“When you’ve been through so much in terms of the complexity of trauma, mental health issues, school issues, and sometimes involvement with Child & Family Services or the legal system, it really wears on the parent-child relationship. That’s why we do a lot of family work here,” she adds.
CASA House – which has 11 beds for local kids and eight for teens from central and northern Alberta – employs a comprehensive, family-centred, evidence-based treatment approach, involving a multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, speech and language therapists and others.
From left: Dr. Alice Leung, Janet Cathro, Dr. Yvonne Legris and Jessica Rivard.
“These kids are dealing with things like ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, parent-child relational issues, peer problems and social and economic issues,” says Registered Nurse Janet Cathro, Program Manager at CASA House since this facility opened in 2009.
Residents attend regular classes each day. The Edmonton Public School Board operates four classrooms onsite, including two junior high and two senior high classrooms. Individual and group family therapy sessions are a standard part of every child’s treatment plan.
“When kids are away from school for a long time, and if they’ve accessed other types of services and failed, it can create conflict or disengagement, so their families are not cohesive anymore. That leads to anger, frustration and isolation,” says Registered Psychologist Dr. Yvonne Legris, Clinical Lead at CASA House.
“Part of the beauty of CASA House is there are so many different types of therapy here, and families get an opportunity to look at themselves and see what part they play in the dynamic, as well as the children. Then we all work together. That’s what makes us successful.”
It’s not all hard work. Play is important too. There are jam sessions, movie nights, yoga classes, cooking and art classes, trips to hockey games or other events. There’s also a backyard fire pit and patio, with brightly painted Adirondack chairs.
“Our jobs can be quite stressful, but you’ll often find staff walking around with speakers, playing music, waking kids up or just being silly. The staff here is so positive and validating and comforting that you can feel it as soon as you walk into the building,” says Psychiatric Nurse and Program Supervisor Jessica Rivard.
“Everyone here puts in 110% and cares a lot about the teens. No matter who is in the building you can tell they’re giving their all.”