The men took me to the airport as part of a parent-approved kidnapping. Like countless other parents of teens, my parents had searched for solutions to my rebellious behavior. Unfortunately, they fell for the misleading marketing of the “troubled teen industry” — therapeutic boarding schools, military-style boot camps, juvenile justice facilities, behavior modification programs and other facilities that generate roughly $50 billion annually in part by pitching “tough love” as the answer to problematic behavior.
Few people are aware of the abuses and tragedies that occur within the walls of some facilities.
At all four facilities I was sent to in my teens, I endured physical and psychological abuse by staff: I was choked, slapped across the face, spied on while showering and deprived of sleep. I was called vulgar names and forced to take medication without a diagnosis. At one Utah facility, I was locked in solitary confinement in a room where the walls were covered in scratch marks and blood stains.
I couldn’t report this abuse because all communication with the outside world was monitored and censored. Many congregate-care facilities drive wedges between parents and children by telling parents not to believe their kids when they report mistreatment and by telling children that their cries for help will never be believed. And some children in these facilities have no loved ones to turn to.
Sadly, this industry has thrived for decades thanks to a systemic lack of transparency and accountability. An estimated 120,000 young people are housed in congregate-care facilities at any given time across the country, many of them placed through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But there is little oversight. State inspections are typically minimal, and there is no federal or other organized data tracking placements, reporting critical incidents or monitoring quality of care.
Some states spend several hundred dollars per child, per day, for “care” that is systemically abusive. Some children exit facilities more traumatized than when they entered.
The last time the federal government looked seriously at problems with congregate care was the 2008 Government Accountability Office report “Residential Programs: Selected Cases of Death, Abuse, and Deceptive Marketing.” Despite its finding that “ineffective management and operating practices, in addition to untrained staff, contributed to the death and abuse of youth,” there are still no federal reporting requirements governing congregate-care facilities in non-Medicaid-funded psychiatric residential treatment facilities.
No child should die in the name of “treatment.” But too many children have. Cornelius Frederick was a 16-year-old boy who liked chess, basketball and card tricks. A ward of the state, he was sent to Lakeside Academy, a residential treatment facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., operated by a for-profit Alabama company, Sequel Youth and Family Services.
On April 29, 2020, Cornelius threw a sandwich in the Lakeside cafeteria. For that, he was pushed to the ground and physically restrained by seven staffers. As news reports and a graphic video documented, adults placed their weight on Cornelius’s chest for nearly 12 minutes — continuing well after he became unresponsive. Yet staff waited 12 more minutes before Lakeside’s nurse called 911. Cornelius died in a local hospital two days later; his death, by suffocation, was ruled a homicide.
This was not the first incident of dangerous, improper restraints at a Sequel-run facility. In response to media attention that followed Cornelius’s death, the company said that the restraint used on Cornelius violated its policies and that it is transitioning to “a restraint-free model of care.” That’s not good enough.
Perhaps if Congress had acted on the GAO report more than a decade ago, Cornelius and dozens of other children would still be alive today.
Congress and President Biden need to enact a basic federal “bill of rights” for youths in congregate care. Every child placed in these facilities should have a right to a safe, humane environment, free from threats and practices of solitary confinement, and physical or chemical restraint at the whim of staff. Had such rights existed and been enforced, I and countless other survivors could have been spared the abuse and trauma that have haunted us into adulthood.
Congress must also provide states with funding to create comprehensive reporting systems for incidents of institutional abuse and to establish standards for best practices and staff training. It should also require states to prove that children’s basic rights are being protected.
Ensuring that children, including at-risk children, are safe from institutional abuse, neglect and coercion isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue — it’s a basic human rights issue that requires immediate action. Those in power have an obligation to protect the powerless.