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Kids with autism could find residential care in South Bend

South Bend Tribune - 7/28/2018

July 28--SOUTH BEND -- Joshua Smith is getting calls from families in other states. He said it points to the need -- not just here, but in the Midwest -- for the residential care that his company would provide for kids with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The beds haven't even opened, said Smith, who's CEO of the for-profit firm Riverbend Behavioral Health. In January, it began a small school and outpatient therapy center for autism in the same three-story building, the former Madison Center Children's Hospital at 701 N. Niles Ave.

In fact, the Indiana Department of Child Services hasn't granted the residential license yet, though Smith is hoping that could come in September. DCS spokeswoman Noelle Russell said she couldn't speculate on a timeline to approving or denying it.

The public has a chance to learn more at an open house from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Wednesday with tours and ice cream sundaes.

It would serve ages 6-21 when their behavior becomes too difficult for their families to manage -- or when they are a danger to others or themselves, Smith said. Youths would stay an average of 90 to 180 days, though it could be more or fewer, while both the youth and family learn better ways to cope. DCS and juvenile justice centers could refer several of the kids.

The goal would be to return the youth home, said Smith, who'd opened a similar facility in New Orleans before this.

Riverbend is seeking a license for 70 beds here.

"We really need that service," said Joshua John Diehl, chief program officer for child and adolescent services at the nonprofit LOGAN, which works with people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

LOGAN has turned local families to Chicago, Indianapolis and even Wisconsin for similar residential care, which Diehl said isn't ideal since the distance makes it hard to do therapy with both parent and child.

Diehl hopes that Riverbend can serve youths with other developmental and intellectual disabilities, too. Autism has gained so much publicity and attention in recent years, that it's hard to find support and funding for other disabilities, said Diehl, who has done academic research on autism and managed LOGAN's autism services.

Smith said Riverbend will focus first on a few residents with autism, training staff to adequately manage them. Then, as numbers grow slowly, Riverbend could focus only on residents with autism if there's enough demand. If not, then the facility would also accept youths with other developmental and intellectual disabilities.

The residential care wouldn't duplicate what the nonprofit Oaklawn provides at The Children's Campus in Mishawaka, which offers residential care and treatment for mental health disorders such as bipolar, conduct disorder and substance abuse, said Kari Tarman, Oaklawn's marketing and communications manager.

Still, Smith and Tarman said, there may be times when the facilities will need to work together when a youth is diagnosed with both a disability and mental disorder.

Smith hopes to fill the building's 80,000 square feet of space, which the old Madison Center had built for similar purposes. About $70,000 is going into mostly mechanical upgrades, but little needs to be changed about the existing rooms. New, laminate flooring is beginning to replace some of the commercial tile, in an effort, Smith said, to help "take out the sterile environment."

Meanwhile, a separate school for autistic students at Riverbend, called Gersh Academy, served four children in the spring semester. Thirty families have shown interest for the fall, which will coincide with South Bend schools' schedule, though it's hard to say how many will actually enroll, he said. The school has gained accreditation, though it's still working to qualify for state vouchers. He hopes to start with third, fourth, seventh and eighth grades and fill out to K-12 in future years. Each classroom would take a maximum of eight or nine students.

The residential services would provide a separate school for its residents.

On Friday, children were coming and going to Riverbend's clinic for one-on-one behavioral therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis, which a handful of local agencies also offer. ABA will be the basis of therapy in residential care, too, Smith said.

Riverbend hopes eventually to add 32 beds for acute residential care for the same disabilities, in emergencies with more of a medical focus. Kids would stay four to seven days. Smith said Riverbend has yet to apply for that license with the state. It first needs to resolve an issue with the building, thanks to changes in hospital regulations since the structure was built, he said.

Riverbend is a subsidiary of Meridian Behavioral Health Systems, based in Tennessee. It and the nonprofit Cultivate Culinary School and Catering are renting space in the building from Matthews LLC, the company of local developer David Matthews.

jdits@sbtinfo.com 574-235-6158

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(c)2018 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

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