Rick Wurth navigates ‘An Easier Path to Mental Health’ for children and families of Kentucky

“What kind of world do you want to live in?” Rick Wurth asked.

The CEO of Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, CHNK Behavioral Health, Wurth believes that when we can talk about our vision of the world, together, we discover unity. “That conversation, he said, “creates the fuel for change.”

Rick Wurth
(photo by Mark Rector)

Since 2012, CHNK has expanded under Wurth’s leadership and his desire to ask that question. He served as CHNK’s vice president for development, from 2010 to 2012, then was promoted to chief executive officer and chief development officer.

Wurth is creating the fuel for change and starting those conversations all over the region.

According to longtime friend Rev. Peter D’Angio, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington, Wurth is “constantly reaching out to the community, creating new alliances and partnerships. He’s got the mission of the Children’s Home clearly at the front of his brain and wants to advance that mission. That’s one reason he’s so committed to his job.”

CHNK’s mission is “to be a trauma-informed healthcare organization focused on creating holistic partnerships for health and wellness that are inclusive, innovative, and inspiring.” The mission reveals itself in nearly every conversation Wurth has.

CHNK’s vision of the world is broad, inclusive and healthy. The organization’s capital campaign, “An Easier Path to Mental Health,” seeks to address a five-year expansion plan to close access gaps to mental health services for youth ages 12-17 throughout the Commonwealth,and across Northern Kentucky. This includes increasing the number of children and families served, reducing youth suicide and addiction, and reducing the number of children in the juvenile justice system.

Founded as an orphanage in 1882, the Covington Protestant Children’s Home transitioned to offering residential treatment for abused, neglected and at-risk boys in the 1970s. In 1990, the name was changed to Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky.

Rick Wurth with volunteers from GE Aviation

Over the last four years, CHNK has provided more than 120,000 treatment services, including more than 10,000 via telehealth, and demand continues to grow. Medicaid sources account for 91% of treatment revenues.

The stunning lack of mental health providers is a national crisis. Of all available providers in the region, not all accept Medicaid, putting already susceptible children and families at higher risk.

Seeing abuse and neglect up close

A proud Kentuckian and former Catholic priest, Wurth grew up in Western Kentucky in a religious home of modest circumstances. He wanted to make the world a better place. Leaving the priesthood, he still had a heart motivated by service. 

“I did want to serve my fellow human beings and I still felt the call to do that.” 

He spoke transparently about his loving, but sheltered upbringing. Knowing that abuse and neglect existed, he never saw the truth of it until he saw it closely in others. “It changes you. There’s no way to go through life with blinders on anymore – no more of this sheltered type of existence where everything is orderly and routine.”

The chaotic environment in which certain children and families live, ravaged by poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction and violence – normal for many – is his focus, now.

Rick Wurth receiving the 2022 NAACP Corporate Award from Denise West

His original goal was for CHNK “to be the best doggone children’s home in Kentucky. How do I make sure that the personnel are excellent for the kids, that it’s a home-like environment, that the food is good and that they have nice games to play.” Now, his goal has shifted and it’s more daunting. “How do I work with other people to create systems for health and wellness that automatically decrease the need for residential care centers for children?”

CHNK not only serves children, but families, as well. While Wurth proudly talks about Kentucky’s horses and bourbon, he all too vividly describes what he calls the “Kentucky Uglies.” Kentucky is among a few states that often lead the nation in child-abuse fatalities and near fatalities. The number of children removed from their families of origin and placed into state custody is disproportionate in Kentucky and Wurth believes the primary causes are addiction and mental illness.

According to Wurth, there are so many barriers to treatment that families can’t navigate the healthcare system, can’t afford the healthcare system and don’t understand the healthcare system. He is passionate about where we do stand a fighting chance and that is coming together on the issue of access to mental health services.

Jeffrey Sackenheim, CHNK’s board chair, described Wurth’s “infectious energy and drive to lead an organization doing difficult work.” The two have collaborated for seven years.

It’s not always the child

During Wurth’s tenure as CEO, CHNK chose to meet a new challenge and began to treat parents and other family members with mental health issues. 

“It’s not always the child,” Sackenheim explained. “Parents struggle with substance abuse, anxiety and depression, and that limits their ability to provide the proper care for their children. This approach to taking care of the whole family is moving right through the DNA of the organization.”

Wurth is also passionate about addressing the “poisons in the groundwater” that Kentucky families are drinking. Those poisons are things like poverty, illness, violence and unequal access to education. “When they drink this groundwater, they have these very unfortunate health outcomes and we scramble to put band aids on the problems rather than addressing the systems that give rise to these these problems.”

Rev. D’Angio said he is proud of the work being done with LGBTQ youth in CHNK programs, despite the political temperatures.

Above all, Wurth is passionate about creating new alliances and partnerships with police, courts, healthcare systems, businesses and schools to start that conversation about “poisons in the groundwater.”  About our systems. About the kind of world we want to live in.

“It’s not about your net income,” Wurth said. “It’s about the vision of the world you want to live in. When we can identify and name that, we have taken the first and most important step toward philanthropy.”

The Greek root of philanthropy means “lover of humankind.” “Most human beings have an affection for and want to see other people do well,” he said. “Most humans are philanthropists.”

CHNK capital campaign: ‘An Easier Path to Mental Health

The capital campaign is intended to address three areas:

  • People. The organization is committed to attracting and retaining the best and the brightest on a national level. To create an easier path to mental health CHNK recognizes that attracting and retaining the most qualified clinicians and other mental health professionals is critical. Wurth talked at length about the importance of paying a meaningful salary to those expected to help others come out of crisis.
  • Programs. In order to create solutions, evidence-based programs are a priority. CHNK has spent well over a million dollars to adopt the evidence-based Sanctuary Model. The model moves away from asking “What’s wrong with this child?” to “What happened to this child?” “Once you start asking what happened to this child, then you start getting into the arena of adverse childhood experiences and adverse community environments. You are forced to learn to speak a new language; the language of trauma,” Wurth said. Children who have suffered abuse and neglect experience neurological and physiological changes to their bodies. Their resulting behaviors and choices are a result of what we now know as trauma.
  • Places. CHNK also has a campus in Burlington, Ky., currently providing treatment for boys. The planned transition to a campus providing residential services for girls will be a first in the organization’s history. In addition to an outpatient center in downtown Covington, a fourth facility is under consideration.

To support “An Easier Path to Mental Health,” donate at www.chnk.org.

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