Leading provider of children’s mental health services has no Black clinicians

Agency relies on other sources for cultural competence

After a tragic mill explosion left several children orphaned, the Washburn Center for Children was founded in 1883 by Cadwallader Washburn as the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum. Washburn was a cofounder of the milling company that evolved into General Mills. More than a century later, long after orphanages have gone the way of poor farms, the organization continues to serve children and their families but has failed to adapt its core staffing to reflect the metro’s rapidly growing population of children of color.

Photo courtesy of Washburn Center for Children
Photo courtesy of Washburn Center for Children

In 1924 the orphanage was closed and the Washburn Foster Home Placement Agency was opened and provided services for children going into foster care. In 1951, in response to the changing needs of the community, they changed their name and focus to the treatment of children with learning and behavioral disabilities. This new agency was called the Washburn Memorial Clinic.

The most current name change came in 2007, when the agency went from Washburn Child Guidance Center to Washburn Center for Children. It is currently located west of downtown Minneapolis on Glenwood Avenue, in the heart of North Minneapolis.

Washburn is a “children’s community mental health agency, serving ages 0-18 in the areas of depression, anxiety, loss or grief, [and] working with them to get the skills to be happy, healthy and successful in their homes, community and schools,” says Amy Pfarr Walker, the agency’s director of development and communication.

With their longstanding involvement with children in need, both underserved and ill-guided, 55 percent of the children Washburn Center now serves are children of color. Though it is the state’s oldest and longest surviving agency serving the needs of children in Minnesota, they currently have no African American clinicians on their staff.

“Washburn Center advertises [job openings] in the Star Tribune, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits job board, and occasionally in Insight News,” said Pfarr Walker by email. “We are intentional about following the Department of Human Services’ equal employment opportunity and affirmative action guidelines.” However, this intentionality has not yet resulted in a staff that culturally reflects the client population.

What is being done to culturally assist these children to navigate the everyday life stresses they go through in their homes, schools, communities, and now even in their places of worship? They have approximately 16-20 case managers with a caseload ranging from 15-18 youth per case manager. Case managers serve all of Hennepin County.

Other programs in the agency serve various metro counties including Anoka and Ramsey. Programs include outpatient services, day treatment, and school-based and community outreach that helps with schools and daycare centers.

Currently, Washburn does not have a community-based African American clinician to work with these children, but they do have a school-based clinician who is African American working in a school setting. The school-based therapist, Gilonda Butler, currently works in the Eden Prairie School District at Cedar Ridge and Eden Prairie High School, “with a population that must meet specific, intense mental health needs in order to be in the program,” Pfarr Walker explains.

Butler is working primarily in the classroom with teachers who have youth who are struggling. “There are currently not a lot of children of color with this particular level of need in this particular school, which is why her caseload only has one African American family at this time.”

Pfarr Walker says they “partner with Kente Circle [an African American-focused counseling center in South Minneapolis] for therapists and try to make a model of working with other agencies. It is about walking alongside the family, not just because they are African American, but trying to find the services specific to the child and family.”

Maria Hipkins is a licensed independent social worker in the case management program at the Washburn Center. She primarily works with ages four-18, focusing on families collaborating with service agencies, schools and case managers to find appropriate resources and support systems for the youth.

Hipkins adds that, when making referrals, she is “comfortable referring to specific agencies or with therapists she trusts and has worked with in the past.”

With over half of their clients being children of color and their only African American therapist serving one African American family in a suburban school, Washburn clearly has far to go to achieve a clinical staff diversity that reflects the racial composition of its clientele and provides the cultural competence necessary to fully address their needs. Can the community expect to see changes in the Center’s workforce so that it becomes a place where families and children of color can find and work with people there who look like them?

In an effort to become more culturally competent, Washburn Center has developed an Inclusion and Equity Task Force whose vision is to foster and nurture an environment for employees that integrates equity and inclusion into the agency’s culture. According to information offered by Pfarr Walker, the taskforce is working to intentionally transform the agency’s internal culture in an effort to build a highly engaged, safe and productive climate around inclusion and equity.

This task force meets weekly and comes up with changes needed to better serve diverse populations. Hipkins admits that in the meetings some things can become hot and heated topics, but she adds, “Change cannot be made if everyone always gets along.”

The task force has the following 2015 focus areas:

  • Developing a strategic plan to support equity and inclusion at all levels of the agency including individual, team, leadership and the board.
  • Participate in the hiring process of a diversity and inclusion director.
  • Support intentional growth by providing resources for training and consultation.
  • Lead the Intercultural Development Inventory assessment and implementation work.

Butler says the agency has a weekly staff meeting, and when cultural questions come up from other staff, she is able to make suggestions on what ideas other practitioners and professionals can try.

Washburn Center for Children just hired a diversity and inclusion director, Savannah Curtin, who will begin her new job on July 6. They also have a diversity committee led by two co-facilitators.

Washburn has demonstrated for more than a century that it is committed to helping the community’s children and their families address their mental health concerns, but it has not yet been successful in seeking, finding and hiring job candidates sufficiently qualified to work with those children and families from a cultural standpoint. It remains to be seen how successfully the agency’s diversity task force, diversity committee, and new diversity director will be able to change the cultural face of the agency and bring this century-old institution into the multicultural 21st Century.


Brandi Phillips welcomes reader responses to bphillips@spokesmam-recorder.com.