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Robert Thorn to leave CSAC after 40 years

MIDDLEBURY — Counseling Services of Addison County Executive Director Robert Thorn has come to work each day for the past 39 years with a simple professional priority that’s had a huge payoff.
“It’s not hard in this job to do good; there are opportunities each day,” Thorn said.
The thousands of people Thorn’s efforts have touched over the years — whether they be colleagues or mental health clients — would undoubtedly acknowledge he has accomplished his daily mission, and much more.
But starting next fall, someone will have to carry on for Thorn, who at age 69 has given his one-year notice. The Counseling Service has created a committee to ask constituents about the qualities they’d like to see in a new director.
He’s confident the agency will have a replacement by next spring, but has offered to stay on for a while if there’s a hitch in the hiring process.
“I’m not going anywhere,” said the New Haven resident. “The board has a very thoughtful process that will ensure client services will go on uninterrupted.”
One could argue that Thorn’s appearance and demeanor were made for the profession he has chosen. He has a very kind visage, crowned by a full head of gray hair always immaculately coiffed. His voice is steady and gentle, always reassuring. While he’s an administrator, one could easily imagine him subbing for any one of his employees, notebook or phone in hand, guiding troubled souls through mental anguish.
“I’ve had immense satisfaction with coming to work each day with the goal of trying to make people’s lives better,” Thorn said. “I do believe it is important to have purpose and meaning in your life.”
CHANGING THE WORLD
Thorn developed an affinity for the mental health field during his undergraduate studies at the University of Connecticut. He started as a philosophy major, but eventually saw the greater potential in helping people through a psychology degree.
“I always had an interest in who we are as human beings,” Thorn said. “I got into psychology and loved it, academically.”
He and other UConn psychology students were given a hands-on introduction to mental health care through the former Mansfield Training School (MTS), located just 10 minutes from the campus. This was sadly a period in time (late 1960s/early 1970s) when the mentally ill were warehoused in shameful conditions, and the MTS was no exception, according to Thorn.
He recalled the MTS campus hosting four dorms, each lined with rows of beds strung side by side. Patients had to literally crawl over each other to exit the dorm hall, he said. Patients — suffering from a variety of mental afflictions — were hosed down in lieu of a conventional shower.
Thorn was a part of the hippy youth movement of the ‘60s, and he altruistically wanted to improve conditions for MTS patients. So he took a job there. His duties included supervising a group of more than 30 UConn psychology students who wanted to work with MTS patients.
“There were endless opportunities to do good and improve people’s lives,” Thorn said. “We were going to change the world.”
His enthusiasm was soon tempered by the recalcitrance of the mental health system of that era.
For example, Thorn requested that patients be given some basic therapeutic objects, such as toys, as some of the MTS residents were spending their day playing catch with their own shoes because they had nothing to do. The shoes were knocking tiles from the dorm ceiling.
One day, a human services agency truck pulled up to the MTS doors. But instead of the therapeutic objects he’d requested, workers unloaded a large net that they fastened to the ceiling to prevent the tossed shoes from causing further damage.
“We saw then what we were up against,” Thorn said.
A BETTER PATH FORWARD
Fortunately, Connecticut would soon get on a path of de-institutionalizing its mental health patients — something that Vermont would also embrace during the 1980s and early 1990s with the Brandon Training School. Officials saw the merits of creating smaller group homes for patients who could benefit from the more intimate socialization and delivery of services.
Thorn would leave MTS during the mid-1970s for a job at the former Seaside center in Waterford, Conn. He was part of a team that taught behavior modification to mental health patients. It was a program largely funded by grants, so Thorn in 1979 began looking for more secure employment.
As luck would have it, the Counseling Service of Addison County was looking for someone to run its new program for people with developmental disabilities. That much-respected program is now known as “Community Associates.”
Then-CSAC Director Neil McLaughlin called Thorn in for two interviews, and hired him after the second.
“Neil was a character, and still is,” Thorn said with a smile. “He told me I had the job, but only if I promised to ‘never wear that suit again.’”
It was what Thorn called a 1970s-era “Brady bunch” suit, which he summarily discarded.
COMING TO CSAC
Once hired, Thorn turned his attention to establishing and fortifying group homes in the Middlebury area. The Elm Street group home, established just prior to his arrival, was the first in the state. He helped create an additional group home in the Peterson Heights area (which has since closed).
He enjoyed direct contact with patients, and his CSAC bosses were pleased with his work — so much that they asked him to serve as co-director of the agency in 1994. Then-director Bill Lippert had just accepted an appointment to the Vermont House, a position the Hinesburg Democrat would win outright in the next election. Thorn accepted the job, though he had no real plans to stick with it. He pictured the next phase of career as including teaching and consulting in the mental health field, which he was already doing on some weekends while not on the clock at CSAC.
Thorn could no longer put off his decision by 1996, when Lippert decided to move on from CSAC. He recalled going into the agency’s management team meeting soon after Lippert’s announcement and he could see, from the expression on his colleagues’ faces, that something was afoot.
“They said, ‘We have something serious to discuss with you,’” Thorn recalled. Then they each told him why they wanted him to stay on as the CSAC’s full-time executive director.
He jokingly compared the moment to a scene in the 1995 film “Dangerous Minds,” when Louanne (Michelle Pfeiffer) is asked by a colleague how she was convinced to stay on as a teacher in a tough urban high school in Northern California.
“They gave me candy and called me their light,” Thorn said, repeating the movie line.
And it’s a decision he’s never regretted.
“Thank God they asked me, because increasingly, I’ve loved being in this role,” Thorn said.
Just like when he was at the Mansfield Training School, Thorn sees it as a chance to do good things for people, many of whom are in a bad place. His talent, he believes, has been in maintaining a tradition of excellence at CSAC while being tenacious and creative in looking for funding to maintain the most critical services.
BIG IMPROVEMENTS
The Counseling service has, during Thorn’s tenure, grown from 55 staff and a budget of $690,000 to 300 employees and an annual budget of $22 million. Agency staff provided a combined total of 1,029,133 service hours to patients during fiscal year 2017.
Thorn is proud of CSAC’s work, but believes it could be doing even more. And the only reason it isn’t doing more is because of a lack of state and federal funding, he said. Thorn believes mental health agencies could and should be doing more preventative programming — particularly for youths, to address problems that could resurface and require more time and expense in the future if left unchecked.
“We’re dealing with more and more issues,” Thorn said of CSAC’s growing client base.
It’s a surge that is partly attributable to opioid addiction, a problem that is touching all corners of the nation.
Youth have become a larger portion of the agency’s client base, Thorn added. When asked to explain that trend, he offered some prevailing theories: Violent video games and TV and food additives. Whatever the reasons, kids and their families are reaching out for more help.
“There’s evidence of more anxiety and less resiliency among school-age kids today,” Thorn said. “And what does that mean, in terms of what’s coming in the future?”
He noted there’s a group of CSAC officials currently studying drug addiction and mental health, with the goal of creating an early intervention plan to help prevent these problems from getting more serious.
Meanwhile, CSAC and other agencies will try to get a handle on an explosion of clients seeking out-patient services and the lack of state hospital beds for the most seriously mentally ill. The current shortage of beds has seen the overflow of mental health patients stay — in some cases — for weeks and months in the emergency departments of hospitals, including Porter Medical Center in Middlebury.
It used to be that Thorn’s pleas for more mental health resources were met with a shrug of the shoulders from state officials, who are facing many competing requests for limited funds. That’s changing under a paradigm shift in how Vermont delivers health care, Thorn acknowledged.
“There are incentives for keeping people well instead of treating them later” when an illness becomes acute, Thorn said. “Vermont is doing an amazing job.”
He cited Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, as a particularly valuable ally for mental health services. Ayer is chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. He credited Ayer for championing recent bills that have, among other things, raised the base pay for mental health workers to $14 per hour. CSAC has been carrying many vacancies due in large part to the lack of a competitive wage, Thorn noted.
“The whole system is so fragile,” he said of the tight budgeting and low reimbursement rates that organizations like CSAC must navigate. “It requires constant juggling.”
Thorn will miss the people with whom he’s worked, noting several have been with CSAC for more than two decades. He’ll miss his board of directors, who each brought business and real-life skills to collectively make the agency work better.
He won’t take credit for any specific CSAC accomplishments, though there have been many during his tenure. He said all at the agency deserve accolades for the new programs and the consolidation of CSAC’s facilities, including the new campus at Middlebury’s Catamount Park.
“The approach I bring to this is ‘steward leadership,’” Thorn said. “The strength of this agency is its culture, and that was here long before I got here. I just didn’t mess anything up.”
STILL MORE TO DO
He’ll have plenty to do in retirement.
He plans on helping people dealing with chronic pain. His wife, Suzanne Wise-Thorn, has encountered such health challenges of late, and he wants to spend more time at her side.
He started writing a book he’d like to finish.
Thorn also has a motorcycle he hasn’t spent enough time riding.
He has another priority he’ll be able to quickly strike off his retirement bucket list.
“I want to be able to wash dishes after a Friday community supper,” he said of the free meals offered by a coalition of Middlebury religious groups.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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