After nearly 38 years as the head of the El Paso Center for Children, Sandy Rioux retired two weeks ago and headed home to Maine, where a cabin by a lake awaited.
At 67, Rioux was ready to quit the work-a-day world and pursue woodworking and hiking amid the trees and streams.
“I first came to New Mexico in 1975, and I fell in love with the desert,” he said. “The heat doesn’t bother me, and I like being able to go out and walk in this environment and see far.
“Someone told me when I first came here that the sky is the ocean. I’m going to miss the land, the people here and this work. But it’s time for me to go home. My dear old mom is 91, and I want to be able to go to lunch with her.”
Beth Senger, the former head of Big Brothers Big Sisters of El Paso, is the center’s new executive director.
In 1978, the operation included an orphanage. It’s long since been replaced by a network of foster homes that are seen as a better environment for kids who’ve been kicked out or run away while the center works to negotiate with parents and quickly reunite families.
Today, the nonprofit center touches the lives of more than 1,000 children a year through programs that range from its on-site Runaway Shelter, to foster care arrangements, to the state’s STAR program for at-risk youth.
On any given night, Rioux estimates there are more than 100 homeless and runaway kids in El Paso who are “couch surfing” at a friend’s house, in their car or in more desperate circumstances.
There is a particular need for additional shelter services for homeless 17- and 18-year-olds in El Paso, he said. But the situation here can’t compare to the magnitude of the problem in cities like Denver and Portland, Oregon.
“In Denver, there’s a spot in the center of the city that the trolley runs through, and you’ll see 100 homeless youth there panhandling,” he said. “In Portland, there are maybe thousands of them. It’s like a mecca for them.”
On the day before his last day at the center, Rioux sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about how its services have changed, homeless kids in El Paso, and what they’ve learned about trauma in children from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: You’re retiring as executive director of the El Paso Center for Children after almost 38 years. How have the center and the children it serves changed since the 1970s?
I was hired at St. Margaret’s Center for Children in 1978. Then in 1982, St. Margaret’s and Southwestern Children’s Home merged, and I continued as director of the merged entity. So for me, it was the same job but the agency changed its name and became the El Paso Center for Children.
When I started, St. Margaret’s was a residential treatment center, which is highly specialized for kids with very serious emotional behavioral problems. Ages 6 to 13, so they were young kids. Strictly residential treatment.
We don’t do residential treatment anymore for kids that age. We do outpatient and foster care for younger children, home-based and family-based care and some group home care, like Lee and Beulah Moor Children’s Home does.
Q: How did that change take place?
We evolved from residential treatment to foster care and emergency shelter care to transitional housing for older teens, teen mothers and single teens. There are the things that continue today. So it’s been an evolution of different models to work with kids and get less restrictive.
The goal is to try not to get kids into institutional-type settings and not to have too many restrictions on them. Let them live normally as much as possible and be part of a family, neighborhood and a community.
Q: I understand your replacement is already on the job. Who is it?
Beth Senger. She has a master’s in social work and was executive director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of El Paso for about 15 years. She left them a couple of years ago to be a grant writer for Texas Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Q: Young people today. Each generation of adults complains that they’re worse and their problems are worse than they used to be. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
You hear this in all kinds of fields, how the kids we’re serving today seem to be more trouble or more damaged. Whenever I hear myself say it, I think, well, that’s an old cliché. But it feels that way to us, I think.
It feels like children are really traumatized by the things they suffer at home. And we’re learning more about the effects of trauma – mainly because of our soldiers, I think. We understand more about the guys who came back from Iraq or Afghanistan and how it affects them for a long, long time.
Children suffer the same things. We’re learning how to be more mindful of that and how to reinterpret their behavior and their reactions to things in a way that we’re looking through their eyes a little better. A lot of what looks to us as just misbehavior or anger outbursts are the result of trauma.
Q: What kind of trauma do you mean?
Abuse by parents or abandonment. One of the things that has changed in the child welfare field is we’re aware how multiple separations affect a child. For example, they’re with their parents, and we take them away from their parents and we put them with a foster family. Then the foster family can’t keep doing the work or just doesn’t adjust to them. So we put them in another foster family or another placement of some kind.
Every time that happens, it’s a rejection to the child. After a while, they’ve been rejected so many times, they can’t bond anymore with people; it’s too painful. So they become resistant to bonding with the adults around them, and that makes it very hard to work with those children and help them.
Also, the understanding we have of how the brain works has changed a lot in 20 years, so psychiatrists and the medications we have are better.
Q: But is it true? Are they really worse off somehow than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago?
I’m not sure if it’s true as much as we understand things differently. I don’t think kids now are any different than they were before – ever. And I don’t think adults are any different than they were before. What we see happening isn’t different. Maybe it’s just our eyes or our understanding that’s better.
Q: Tell us a little about the mission of the center.
We had two orphanages. The mission was to house kids, provide a home. Then the nature of the home changed from orphanages to treatment centers. But more and more now, what we’re all trying to do is keep the family intact to begin with, so you don’t have to take this child out of their home and start that chain reaction of rejections.
Our mission is safe homes, stable families and a chance for every child. A good example of how it works is our Runaway Shelter. The first year we had it, we admitted 250 kids. Every one of them spent the night in the shelter. But I read research that said the longer a kid is away from home, the harder it will be to reunify that child with their parents.
The best thing is no separation. So we started hiring caseworkers to do mediation with the families. We found out simple conflicts were the big reasons many kids ran away from home. So we said let’s call your mother and see if we can make a deal. We invested in mediation to make it so kids went home the same day they came here.
Last year, our program served 900 kids and families and just 120 of them spent the night at the shelter.
Q: Where do they come from?
Most of them come from school referrals or the police. We have a small foster program, three people that support 17 foster families and 20 to 25 kids.
Q: Why do kids run away today and are the reasons different from years past?
Who knows if this is different or not? Society has changed in some ways. One of the disproportionate populations among runaways is LGBTQ kids – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kids. Those kids are getting bullied at school or their parents are not receptive to their gender choices or their gender identity. It’s a source of conflict, and they leave or they get kicked out. There are lots of these kids, more than we think. I think they were always there but they were hidden.
Q: And you didn’t see this, say, 30 years ago?
Well, who knows who those street kids were 30 years ago? Maybe they were these same kids but they weren’t coming out.
Q: Is there anything that you and the board have wanted to do, any services you’ve wanted to provide, that you’ve been unable to?
Yeah, we’re working on a project right now. For 20 years, from 1991 until 2011, we had what we called a transitional housing program for older teens who weren’t going to be reunited with their family. They’re not going to go back, but they need to be able to go to school, learn how to care for themselves, care for their kids and take an adult role in life.
They needed a long-term kind of mentoring program. We had that for 10 years in two of the cottages down there. We focused on teen mothers with their babies for many years, and then we expanded it to single and parenting teens in the last few years.
Then the funding priorities at the federal level changed, and we had to close it down. But the need is still very much there. Now, HUD is rediscovering that transitional housing is still important for kids and we have some small widows of opportunity to try to reinstall that capacity in the community. I hope we will be successful in doing that.
Q: Though the whole concept of orphanages has been retired, kids still lose or leave their families. What about them?
Some kids aren’t going to be in a family. They’re not going to be adopted. They’re not going to reunify with a relative because maybe there isn’t one able to care for them. So we need to teach them how to live independently.
They may legally be adults when they turn 18, but they can’t support themselves for the most part. There are program models. We had them here to help kids for a year or two with good adult mentoring, learning how to take care of your child, how to balance a budget, take care of your home and cook decent meals, shop, about credit – all the stuff you usually learn from your family but these kids haven’t had that opportunity.
We don’t do that now because we don’t have transitional housing.
Q: What’s out there for those kids?
There’s one place, Winchester House, a small program operated by El Paso Human Services. They are providing that kind of housing for kids who have aged out of the foster-care system. They’re 18 to 24.
Q: But you still have those 17- and 18-year-olds who left home or lost their home and where there used to a place for them ...
There isn’t anymore.
Q: If you had the ability to provide that transitional living for that group, would you be busy?
Yes, we would be full all the time, with a waiting list.
Q: Where are these kids now?
They’re sleeping in cars, couch surfing, living on the street.
Q Who supports the center?
We have maybe 20 different grants and funding sources -- United Way, a small endowment from the old Southwestern Children’s Home, a number of corporations that make contributions every year.
But most of our money comes from government grants of one kind or another.
We’re also supporting the Paso del Norte Center of Hope, an independent nonprofit, for women and children who are victims of human trafficking.
Q: How would you describe the level of support you get from the El Paso community?
I think the community support has been great. The Runaway Shelter gets money from the city of El Paso, the state, the federal government, United Way and other charitable contributions. It’s really nice, diverse funding that allows that program to be stable.