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A profitable ‘death trap’: States paid millions to youth facilities despite abuse allegations

When Tristan was 16, he tried to run away, and when he was caught, he mentioned, Sequel staff put him in solitary confinement as a punishment. For 72 hours, employees members left him in a small room outfitted with a skinny mattress and a digicam on the ceiling, he mentioned. According to Tristan, and confirmed by state information and accounts from advocates and 4 former foster youngsters, the employees repeatedly used seclusion, typically for days, at Tuskegee and Owens Cross Roads.

The first morning he wakened within the room, Tristan mentioned, he waved his arms on the digicam, pounded on the door and shouted for the employees to let him out to use the toilet. He watched via a window as youngsters made their means to class. “I was banging and kicking on the door, trying to get someone’s attention,” he mentioned.

But no one got here. He was pressured to go to the toilet on his personal breakfast tray, he mentioned.

Tristan Broadrick says he was stored for 72 hours a room comparable to this “seclusion room” at Sequel’s Tuskegee facility as punishment for operating away.Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program

Sequel declined to touch upon Laurie’s and Tristan’s circumstances. Birmingham mentioned that seclusion — which the corporate refers to as “controlled observation” — and bodily restraints are supposed to be “last resorts” and are usually not meant to be punitive.

After NBC News offered Sequel with an inventory of questions this month, Birmingham visited two of the corporate’s Alabama facilities, and mentioned she discovered that “The kids were very happy.” She mentioned she encourages employees members to report any considerations about misconduct to an organization hotline so Sequel can guarantee no youngster is abused in its care.

“Personally, I am enraged when I find out that people have treated my kids that way, if that allegation turns out to be substantiated,” she mentioned.

The firm later mentioned in an e mail that in circumstances the place a toddler’s security is threatened, “we take all necessary actions — from employee termination, to policy and process changes, to staff-wide retraining — to ensure we live up to our high standards of care for the youth we serve.”

Records present that the issues at Sequel facilities transcend Alabama.

In Iowa, licensing inspectors discovered on a number of visits over the previous two years that the Woodward Academy employees had put residents in inappropriate restraints with out justification. They additionally found the facility in disrepair, documenting lacking sink handles, showers that had no scorching water, moldy meals, chairs with arms ripped off and nails uncovered from torn upholstery on a number of couches. Sequel disputes the findings and the ability stays open.

At Kingston Academy in Tennessee, state inspectors discovered mildew infestations, overflowing bathrooms and kids sleeping on mattresses on the ground. Last yr, Tennessee, which had paid Sequel up to $608 a day per youngster, suspended admissions to Kingston and the state’s Medicaid company terminated its contract with Sequel. Sequel subsequently closed the ability.

“What we do is we strive every day to provide the best care we can for kids in these facilities,” Birmingham mentioned. “And when we identify circumstances in which we are not providing care to the par that we expect it to be provided, we intervene with it. And we either make drastic improvements at the facility, or we may choose not to operate that facility anymore.”

A business funded by government money

Two dozen individuals sat quietly in a convention room on the University of Baltimore on Oct. 1, 2015, as Sequel co-founder Jay Ripley, dressed neatly in a blazer and tie, defined why he had constructed an organization that largely ran on taxpayer cash.

Jay Ripley speaks on the Merrick School of Business in Baltimore in 2015.University of Baltimore

“We focused on public pay because we figured kids are always going to have issues and they’re always going to get in trouble, and again, the government has to figure out a way to take care of them,” Ripley defined, in accordance to a video recording. The firm collected over $200 million in annual income on the time, he mentioned, and turned about $30 million in revenue, which he attributed to preserving staffing prices low.

“You can make money in this business if you control staffing,” mentioned Ripley, who on the time made $104,167 per thirty days from Sequel as chairman, in accordance to a monetary disclosure.

Today, youth counselors at Sequel facilities begin off making $12 to $15 per hour, relying on the placement.

Ripley began Sequel in 1999 with Adam Shapiro, a lawyer, initially simply to run Clarinda Academy, a youth facility in Iowa the place Shapiro had been govt director. The firm stored rising by taking on different youth facilities and programs, fueled by investments from a handful of private equity corporations. One agency, Altamont Capital Partners, which has investments in well being care corporations, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and clothes manufacturers like Billabong, bought a majority stake in Sequel for an undisclosed quantity in 2017. Both Altamont and Sequel said the sale would assist Sequel increase to serve extra youngsters.

A walkway to enter the varsity on the Courtland facility.Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Project

In response to questions on allegations of abuse and negligence at Sequel facilities, Altamont mentioned in a press release: “We conducted significant due diligence prior to our initial investment and are confident that Sequel Youth and Family Services is one of the best operators in the industry. With the goal of continuous improvement and our support, the company has consistently invested in quality and safety initiatives and in its staff to raise the bar and drive positive outcomes for thousands of individuals trusted to its care.”

Sequel declined to make Ripley accessible for an interview, and as an alternative arrange an interview with Birmingham, who handles compliance. She mentioned she couldn’t communicate intimately in regards to the firm’s funds, however argued that Altamont’s help — together with practically $40 million invested over the previous two years — has allowed Sequel to present additional coaching for its staff, improve infrastructure and set up further safety cameras at its facilities.

‘Lucky to have Sequel’

After buying a brand new facility, Sequel makes use of its advertising arm “to increase capacity and occupancy,” as Ripley put it in a 2017 call to investors. That means sending out advertising brokers to get extra states to ship youngsters to its facilities. Even states with out a Sequel location, together with California, Oregon and Washington, have performed so.

Sequel is a frequent presence at conferences for probation officers, judges, social workers, school safety professionals, attorneys and others involved in court cases. The firm has provided all-expenses-paid journeys to state staff to tour the corporate’s facilities. “It’s part of what we do,” Jarrett Shoemaker, a Sequel advertising agent, wrote to a Washington state youngster welfare official in 2014. (Sequel mentioned the free journeys are usually not customary apply.)

In wooing states, Sequel has a bonus: It provides to take youngsters with essentially the most extreme challenges, who’re hardest to place.

Glenda Marshall, a program coordinator for Oregon’s state youngster welfare company, wrote in a 2016 email to Shoemaker that the state had been struggling to discover placements for foster youth. “We have been lucky to have Sequel programs available to serve our kids,” Marshall wrote. Two years later, Marshall sent cookies to different Sequel staff as a present, emails present.

Those shut relationships turn out to be useful when the corporate faces scrutiny.

Sequel advertising brokers contacted state officers in Oregon before and after a narrative aired on NBC’s “Nightly News” final yr detailing allegations of sexual and bodily abuse at Clarinda Academy. Sequel employees members shared the company’s side of the difficulty and mentioned how to cope with considerations amongst state lawmakers.

On multiple occasions later in 2019, when Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser emailed state officers demanding details about oversight of Sequel packages, authorities brokers promptly forwarded the messages to Sequel staff for assist responding. Marshall also traded messages with Sequel’s advertising employees monitoring Gelser’s social media exercise when the lawmaker toured Sequel facilities that yr.

Birmingham mentioned Sequel’s advertising brokers play a key position in receiving suggestions from state officers and in serving to the ability’s staffers get what they want to care for his or her residents. They could also be making an attempt to drum up enterprise, however finally, Birmingham mentioned, Sequel staff care in regards to the youngsters.

“Nobody joins our industry, you know, unless they’re actually here for the kids,” she mentioned. “It’s a hard industry.”

But the advertising push couldn’t overcome considerations a number of states had after Cornelius Frederick’s death this yr. Michigan’s governor ordered state businesses in June to by no means do enterprise with Sequel. Ohio just lately revoked the license of a Sequel psychiatric facility in Columbus over a number of cases of violence. California, Maryland, Oregon and Washington have additionally stopped putting youngsters in packages run by the corporate.

Cornelius Frederick.Family photograph

“Despite Oregon’s efforts to work with Sequel to meet our licensing and safety standards, it became abundantly clear that Sequel was unable or unwilling to meet Oregon’s mandatory reporting requirements,” mentioned Jake Sunderland, press secretary for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Alabama, nevertheless, is among the many states which have permitted Sequel to proceed working.

‘Choked, body slammed, tortured’

At Courtland, the place situations had nauseated Johnson, state businesses obtained dozens of incident experiences from 2018 to this summer time detailing troubling allegations, together with that youngsters there had sustained accidents, akin to a damaged toe, a fractured ankle and a concussion, due to restraints. Children additionally reported being “slapped” and “choked” by employees members.

One of the kids positioned at Courtland in early 2018 was a 15-year-old boy named Hunter, a former foster youngster with post-traumatic stress dysfunction who’d been abused. According to Hunter’s adoptive mom, Patricia, the ability was supposed to get Hunter again on monitor with faculty, present intensive remedy and immerse him in a “Positive Peer Culture” that teaches residents to help each other.

That’s not what occurred, Patricia mentioned.

“They come out worse than they were when they went in,” mentioned Patricia, whose final identify is being withheld to defend her son’s privateness.

Sequel’s Courtland facility. Google Maps

Hunter was assaulted a number of instances by different youngsters, together with by his roommate, in full view of Sequel’s employees, in accordance to a lawsuit his household filed in opposition to Sequel this week. Patricia took pictures throughout a go to displaying Hunter, a skinny, slight youngster, sitting on a sofa on the facility in a Spider-Man T-shirt. Both of his eyes are black; one is swollen shut. He has a bulging, bloody laceration on his brow. On high of these assaults, the swimsuit states, a employees member as soon as restrained Hunter so violently that his head hit a concrete wall and reopened an present lower, requiring stitches.

In February 2019, Courtland staff known as Patricia to inform her that Hunter had tried to dangle himself, she mentioned. Hunter is now receiving psychiatric remedy at a hospital, she mentioned.

“I just want people to be held accountable,” Patricia mentioned. “For what they’ve done, and what they’re not doing. We don’t want anything like this to happen to any other kids. If they can’t get qualified people to do their job, they need to shut them down.”

Sequel declined to touch upon Hunter’s case and his household’s lawsuit. Sparkman, the Alabama Department of Human Resources spokesman, mentioned the company couldn’t touch upon particular person circumstances.

For extra of NBC News’ in-depth reporting, download the NBC News app

In September 2019, Sondra Landers, director of the division’s workplace in Lawrence County, the place Courtland is, despatched an alarming e mail to a number of high company employees members.

Landers wrote {that a} former Courtland worker reported that there have been “40 different residents/students that are consistently choked, body slammed, tortured, emotionally abused, football tackled, held up to the wall by their neck, dragged out of their beds, punch children in face, break their glasses, and encouraged to harass and fight other residents.”

“Children are punished by not being allowed to go to the bathroom to the point where they urinate and defecate on themselves,” Landers mentioned the worker instructed her. “Once the child has an accident they are then humiliated by staff members in front of the other children and made to sit in their urine or feces.”

Local police, the worker instructed Landers, known as Courtland a “death trap.”

Landers referred questions to the Department of Human Resources. The company declined to clarify what motion it took in response to the e-mail. In a press release, Sparkman wrote that the company investigates allegations and that “subsequent investigation records are confidential based on Alabama law.”

Records present that about two weeks later, Department of Human Resources Commissioner Nancy Buckner forwarded two new contracts with Sequel to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican. Those contracts, which Ivey signed, permit Sequel to proceed to run Courtland via September 2022. They’re value practically $13 million.

‘We just lifted each other up’

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