A bow tie and colorful socks reflect Bruce Stanley's cheerful demeanor, but he’s seen some tough things during his 12 years as pastor, CEO and president of the Methodist Home for Children in Raleigh. Stanley, 61, talks about the challenges of his work and how mental health assessments could play a role in curbing school shootings.
Q: More than 40 percent of the 1,600 kids you serve each year are repeat offenders in the court system with histories of neglect, trauma, substance abuse and school suspensions. How do you help them?
A: We know that positivity whispers and negativity shouts. A typically functioning healthy person needs a minimum of three-to-one positive-to-negative interactions a day to maintain an even keel, and these kids need more than that. We teach 51 skills, and we do 80 interactions per day; we monitor those at a four-to-one positive-to-negative nature.
The mission is to help them imagine and achieve a better life. They’re not bad kids; they’re mad kids.
Q: The Methodist Home for Children offers services at 12 facilities across North Carolina and receives referrals from law enforcement, social services and the Department of Juvenile Justice. What are you learning?
A: The criminal justice system — and this is true for the adult as well as for the youth — it’s a de facto mental health system. Sometimes they (the kids) act out to get out because they’re suffering from such horrific abuse at home and don’t know how to ask for help.
Q: You’ve said more funding for psychological assessments is important and could play a role in reducing the number of school shootings. How so?
A: This was a bold vision by the Department of Juvenile Justice. There are three centers, one in Butner, one in Winston-Salem and one in Asheville, and the boys and girls serve together and come to us for 14 to 30 days before they go to the judge so we can give the court and the families and the children themselves an accurate understanding of what’s going on inside them and what’s producing that behavior.
Q: Can you give an example of what you see on a day-to-day basis?
A: We had an 8-year-old girl who came in a year ago who had smashed in a classmate’s face and fractured an orbital socket using a rock because the classmate had a snack she wanted. When our staff brought the girl in … we did an in-home visit. They said, "We understand completely why the child is this aggressive and why she responded in this way."
She was coming from a toxic environment where words were always hurtful and not helpful, repeating the patterns of interactions she’d grown up with and observed. She went into one of our residential facilities and then to a therapeutic foster home.
Q: The number of incarcerated children in North Carolina has decreased. You must feel good about that.
A: We’d like to think we played a role in that by doing diversion programs and offering therapeutic alternatives. In 1999, there were over 1,000 youth in prisons in N.C. on any given day; now there are fewer than 250 even while the state’s population has grown exponentially.
Q: What did you do before this?
A: I’m a United Methodist pastor, and I went to Harvard for divinity school. While I was there, like all divinity students, I had two field education placements — one in a congregation and one in a 350-bed homeless shelter in the south end of Boston, and we’d sleep sometimes 1,000 in the winter when the weather was bad.
I think I have always had both those impulses with me in terms of how the church works — sometimes being in the pulpit and sometimes not. I’ve been pastor and associate pastor in six different congregations, but I was also director of missions for the Methodist church in North Carolina.
Q: What compels you to stay at the Methodist Home for Children?
A: Every year it’s something new. At intake, the needs of the child are so evident. They definitely come to us from a place that is frequently hard for typically functioning people to imagine. You’re not dealing with minor things; you’re dealing with profound things. The ability of God and the ability of our staff over time to transform them and to be able to watch that growth is just a thrilling thing.
Bruce Stanley — Tar Heel of the Week
Born: Dec. 3, 1956, in Grafton, W.Va.
Family: Married with two adult children
Occupation: Pastor and president of the Methodist Home for Children, which began as an orphanage in Raleigh in 1899
Education: West Virginia University and Harvard Divinity School
Fun fact: He once had lunch with the Dalai Lama.