Senators launch investigation into allegations of child abuse at treatment centers

Two senators are launching an investigation into abuse in facilities that house children with special needs and mental health issues as well as children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems.

Senses Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent letters Thursday to the heads of four of the largest companies and organizations operating residential treatment facilities across the country — Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health – requesting information on each location and program they operate.

The senators requested documents on policies for restraining or placing children in segregation, training provided to employees and the number of incidents of child abuse and mistreatment over the past five years. They also asked for details about contracts, sources of funding, complaints and inspections, how companies spend their money, and how companies ensure that children in their programs receive a proper education.

Lawmakers said they wanted the information by Aug. 4. The letters are the start of an investigation led by Murray, chair of the health, education, labor and pensions committee, and Wyden, chair of the finance committee. The senators chose the four companies and organizations because they operate a large number of facilities across the country and operate programs “in which abuses have allegedly occurred,” according to a spokesperson for the HELP committee.

“Children and teens dealing with mental health, addictions and other issues need to be able to get the care and support they need in a caring, safe and nurturing environment. Period,” Murray said in a statement. “But it is clear that gross treatment has been inflicted on young people in residential care facilities across the country – so we demand answers and accountability.

Child welfare advocates have intensified pressure on Congress over the past year to crack down on youth treatment centers, citing investigations by state agencies, watchdog groups and journalists documenting abuse and mistreatment of institutionalized children.

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One of the letters was sent to Jay Ripley, CEO of Vivant and co-founder of Sequel Youth & Family Services.

Sequel built a business based largely on charging state government agencies $250 to $800 a day to house minors from the juvenile justice and foster systems, as well as children with special needs. The company has shut down at least 17 sites in the past five years, following a series of investigations that uncovered allegations of abuse, decrepit living conditions, falsified records and the high-profile killing of a child in a Sequel facility which has since closed. Responding to inquiries, Sequel executives said at the time that the company had invested in hiring additional personnel and improving their training, and had always cooperated with requests from state agencies and forces. of the order.

Ripley launched Alive last year and told NBC News that he purchased several remaining Sequel installations, but declined to say which ones. Ripley said in an email in November that his new company had signed a nondisclosure agreement and that only Sequel could tell which facilities Vivant had purchased.

Ripley did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. In an unsigned statement, Vivant said: “We will review the letter and work with President Wyden and President Murray as we share the same goal of providing quality services and care to children and youth in treatment centers. residential.”

Sequel did not respond to requests for comment and no longer lists contact information or the facilities it operates on its website.

UHS, the nation’s largest chain of psychiatric hospitals and another of the companies senators are examining, was accused in a 2016 investigation by BuzzFeed News of detaining patients for as many days as their insurer will pay, regardless of the actual medical need. UHS disputed those claims and said it had approval from independent regulators and accreditors such as the Joint Commission. However, in 2020 the company agreed to pay $117 million as part of a settlement with the US Department of Justice to resolve claims it had billed for medically unnecessary inpatient behavioral health services.

UHS also owns Provo Canyon School, a private youth treatment facility that has been accused of abusing minors for decades, alarming state lawmakers who have said the institution traumatizes children. Famous businesswoman Paris Hilton was placed in Provo Canyon as a teenager and became a leading advocate for stricter oversight of residential facilities for young people. The company has repeatedly refused to address Hilton’s criticisms, and Provo Canyon said the property has evolved in recent years toward a “trauma-informed and personalized approach.”

UHS said it is reviewing the senators’ letter.

A report released last year by the National Disability Rights Network raised concerns that too many children were being placed in for-profit facilities, where they “are given strong drugs they don’t need and are housed in buildings infested with vermin”. The report describes allegations of inappropriate physical restraint of children, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or staff shortages at facilities run by the four organizations targeted by the senators.

The report cited examples that included an Acadia facility in Montana that injected a 9-year-old child with antihistamines as punishment for misbehavior in 2019, and a lawsuit filed in 2021 — which is still ongoing — alleging that several children had been sexually abused by staff at the Devereux facility.

An Acadia spokeswoman said in 2019 that company staff only inject children “when absolutely necessary for patient safety.”

Gretchen Hommrich, vice president of investor relations at Acadia, said in a statement Thursday, “We look forward to working with senators and helping in any way we can to improve access and care for all. children and adolescents in need of behavioral health care service.”

Devereux, a nonprofit, said it has taken several steps to prevent sexual assault, including increased training to spot grooming and potential abuse, and higher salaries to attract better staff.

Devereux did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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