WA misses deadline to bring foster kids back from out-of-state homes

Following reports of abuse, the state Department of Children, Youth and Families said it would bring back nearly 100 Washington youth by the end of September.

Empty beds are scarce at specialized group foster homes in Washington that typically serve youths with severe behavioral and emotional problems. So state child-welfare officials have sent some of these youths to out-of-state facilities that have been criticized for treating their young charges harshly. The Washington Legislature allocated $35 million in 2019 to provide specialized care for these young people, but some remain out of state. Advocates for the foster youth say they all should be brought back to Washington, where they would be closer to networks of friends and relatives. (clockwise: Jen Dev/Crosscut; Lakeside Academy, Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Valery Roseus remembers the day when a staff member called a meeting at Capital Academy, a residential youth institution in New Jersey where he had lived for a time as a foster child under the care of Washington state.

The man gathered children in a room that had a surveillance camera, covered the camera lens, then singled out a boy and beat him. Four or five other employees joined the beating, Roseus said, kicking the boy and punching him in the face.

Roseus, now 19 and living back in Washington, lived in out-of-state facilities for almost two years, from August 2016 to June 2018. He was one of scores of foster children with behavioral and emotional challenges sent to institutions across the United States by the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

While the agency said that it would have all Washington foster children back in the state by September, 25 were still living in out-of-state institutions at the end of October, the agency said. This included six kids at facilities run by Sequel Youth & Family Services, a for-profit company with a record of endangering the boys and girls in its care. Sequel manages Capital Academy.


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When a Michigan boy died in May after being restrained by employees at a Sequel institution, child-welfare advocates in Washington demanded that the state bring home the foster kids remaining at Sequel facilities. Here they would be closer to relatives, friends and other people they know and to networks that would support their often-difficult transition into adulthood, advocates said. And, they said, the foster youth would be safer without Sequel.

“No Washington agency should be permitted to add to Sequel’s profits with taxpayer money,” a group of child-welfare supporters wrote in an email to Gov. Jay Inslee in early October.

Despite those advocates’ pleas, neither Inslee nor Ross Hunter, secretary of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, has moved to bring home all the out-of-state foster youth in facilities. The state has not said why.

Sequel Youth & Family Services staff at the Kalamazoo, Mich facility were charged with managing about 125 children with behavioral problems and other challenges.

Sequel Youth & Family Services staff at the Kalamazoo, Mich facility were charged with managing about 125 children with behavioral problems and other challenges.

After years of external pressure and negative media coverage at the state and national level about Sequel, the state in September stopped placing foster children with Sequel sites, such as Capital Academy, where Roseus was kept. Department spokeswoman Debra Johnson said the agency is reviewing its relationship with Sequel.

Through Johnson, Hunter rejected repeated interview requests from InvestigateWest for this story. Johnson also refused to release even a summary of a department report on the Sequel group homes, which DCYF officials began in mid-September and concluded on Oct. 31.

InvestigateWest filed a request for that Sequel assessment under the Public Records Act on Nov. 4. Although InvestigateWest asked for the report to be released immediately, a DCYF records specialist said the department would release the review by Feb. 4.

The Washington Legislature allocated $35 million in 2019 to provide more specialized care in Washington for foster children with severe behavioral and emotional problems that otherwise would prompt the state to place these foster children at out-of-state facilities. By the end of August this year, Washington had licensed a handful of new facilities offering behavior rehabilitation services, Hunter said in an interview at the time.

Then in late October, Johnson told InvestigateWest that DCYF may never completely stop housing foster children out of state. “DCYF anticipates that a small number of [foster] youth at any given time may benefit from out-of-state care due to specialized needs for which there is no existing service in Washington,” she wrote.

Warning signs

The level of danger and dysfunction at Sequel institutions varies, according to government records and media reports. But numerous investigations by disability rights groups and state authorities throughout the country suggest that Sequel employees routinely use painful physical restraints, such as pinning children to the floor, holding them down for long stretches and pushing on their organs and joints. Such incidents can turn disastrous and result in serious harm and even fatalities, according to Washington disability rights attorney Susan Kas.

Such an incident in April led to the death of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredrick Jr., living at Lakeside Academy, a Sequel facility in Michigan. The death gave new urgency to child advocates in Washington, who have been pleading with the state for years to fix the situation.

Fredrick’s death came nearly 20 months after a warning to authorities about excessive force at a different Sequel facility. Seattle-based Disability Rights Washington issued a report highlighting shortcomings at Clarinda Academy in Iowa.

The nonprofit rights group, which has a federal mandate to investigate abuses related to disabilities and mental health, interviewed all of the Washington foster children at Clarinda Academy in February 2018.

The resulting report, “Let Us Come Home,” published in October 2018, concluded that “Washington’s social workers have received information regarding allegations of inappropriate physical restraint practices at Clarinda Academy, but did not act to ensure the safety of the young people they have placed there.”

By that time, DCYF had stopped new housing placements at Clarinda in response to a draft of the report. And in September 2018, Hunter had written in a budget document that the state would bring all Washington foster children back home by September 2020. (The last Washington foster child left Clarinda in February 2019.)

Advocates at Disability Rights Washington continue to scrutinize Sequel both through news reports and their own research. Kas, the rights group’s attorney and the primary investigator and author for the 2018 report, visited a Sequel facility in Utah, Red Rock Canyon School, in February 2019.

“I heard very, very similar concerns to what we heard in Clarinda,” she said, referring to what students at Red Rock Canyon told her.

These concerns were borne out by a riot at Red Rock Canyon in April 2019, as Kas continued to look into its record. On May 30, 2019, Washington state removed its last foster child from the facility. The next month, The Salt Lake Tribune published an investigation examining police reports from 2017 to 2019, finding that officers had been called to the school 72 times in that period.  During those years, Washington state had housed 13 of its foster children there.

Also during that time, authorities investigated 23 Red Rock Canyon employees for child abuse, charging nine of them with crimes, the Tribune reported. In August 2019, the school permanently shut its doors.

“We became increasingly concerned that this was a pattern [with Sequel]; it wasn’t just limited to one or two facilities,” Kas said. “We were also seeing reports from other parts of the country [about Sequel].”

“Out-of-state placements are inherently problematic because it’s so much harder to investigate and monitor [them],” said Kas.

 

Fredricks was tackled to the ground by multiple staff members and held down for 12 min. During that time, court records state the teen said “I can’t breathe” as he was being restrained. When he became unresponsive, staff waited 12 more minutes to call 911 and tried to revive him with chest compressions. Fredrick died two days later at the hospital.

Fredricks was tackled to the ground by multiple staff members and held down for 12 min. During that time, court records state the teen said “I can’t breathe” as he was being restrained. When he became unresponsive, staff waited 12 more minutes to call 911 and tried to revive him with chest compressions. Fredrick died two days later at the hospital.

A child’s last lunch

On April 29 of this year, employees at a Sequel-run facility restrained Fredrick, the 16-year-old Michigan foster child, to unconsciousness.

Surveillance video from the Lakeside Academy cafeteria in Kalamazoo, Michigan, shows Fredrick tossing bread at others sitting at the next table. A staff member then shoves Fredrick to the floor. After he throws more bread, the staffer tackles him. In total, eight adults had a role in pinning him down, with seven of them on him at one time. They pinned him for 12 minutes. After another 12 minutes, the head nurse at Lakeside Academy called 911.

Fredrick died in the hospital two days later. The Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner’s Office said his death was a homicide caused by “restraint asphyxia.” The Kalamazoo County prosecutor charged three Lakeside Academy employees, including the nurse, with involuntary manslaughter and child abuse. Civil litigation has followed.

While no Washington foster children lived at Lakeside at the time of Fredrick’s fatal restraint, the department has placed at least one child there. Johnson, the DCYF spokeswoman, told InvestigateWest that the last Washington foster child to live at Lakeside left in August 2019.

Disability Rights Washington demanded in September that DCYF stop contracting with Sequel. DCYF officials said they would conduct a review of Sequel, Kas said.

Kas and other advocates remained unsatisfied. “Based on what we know now about what’s happened in many [Sequel] facilities across the country, there’s enough reason to decide that this is not a company that needs any more chances,” Kas told InvestigateWest.

Kas reached out to other child welfare and disability rights groups and advocates. Ultimately, about 20 — including ACLU of Washington, foster child advocacy group Mockingbird Society and the Office of Developmental Disabilities Ombuds — wrote to Gov. Inslee, calling on him to end all Washington state contracts with Sequel.

 “Governor Inslee must direct all Washington State health and child-serving agencies to avoid and dissociate from this company. Washington should put an end to its relationship with Sequel,” they emailed the governor’s office on Oct. 9.

Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk said the governor’s office “is reviewing” the letter.

“We take such issues very seriously,” Faulk wrote. “DCYF has kept our office informed on potential problems at out-of-state facilities and has conducted a number of inspections.”

In addition to the safety concerns with out-of-state placements of foster children, lawyers with the King County Department of Public Defense see another problem: a lack of due process for foster children. The state can send them away from relatives, schoolteachers and friends without a judge’s input, said Tara Urs, special counsel for civil policy and practice with the Department of Public Defense.

Urs said judges overseeing cases involving foster children, not state employees, should determine whether a foster youth is housed out of state.

“The average person would be surprised that, even though a dependency judge is going to be overseeing the health, safety and well-being of youth in foster care, they have no power to place any restrictions on where that youth lives,” Urs said.

Foster children “shouldn’t be treated like prisoners,” she added.

 

In the wake of Fredricks' death, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed the state health department to “take every step necessary” to ensure that it no longer worked with Sequel Youth & Family Services, which employed staff members at the Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Michigan Governors Office)

In the wake of Fredricks' death, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed the state health department to “take every step necessary” to ensure that it no longer worked with Sequel Youth & Family Services, which employed staff members at the Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Mich. (Michigan Governors Office)

Stories emerge

More than a year before the death in Michigan, InvestigateWest had reported on improper restraints and dangerous disciplinary practices at Sequel-run and Sequel-affiliated facilities. The article highlighted prisonlike conditions at Clarinda and reports by government regulators that at Normative Services, a Sequel facility in Wyoming, one worker improperly restrained a resident and broke the child’s arm. Another worker lost his temper and punched and kicked a youth. In addition, the Sequel-affiliated Starr Albion Prep in Michigan was the subject of more than 50 investigations by state regulator that showed staffers restrained youths unnecessarily and used unapproved techniques, in one case breaking a child’s thumb.

After InvestigateWest’s report in February 2019, another news organization, APM Reports, published a far-wider-ranging on Sept. 28 of this year. Its yearlong investigation of Sequel was based on thousands of pages of documents and interviews with more than 12 former Sequel employees from across the United States. Among the findings:

  • “20 cases since 2010 in which government investigations concluded that Sequel staff engaged in sexual or romantic relationships with residents.”
  • “More than 8,600 emergency calls from Sequel facilities in 18 states,” including “more than 1,000 calls reporting residents running away from Sequel treatment centers since 2010.”
  • “At least seven riots … among residents at Sequel treatment centers in Florida, Utah, Ohio and Michigan” since 2017.

By its own description, Sequel is a sprawling network. As of 2017, it was running 44 programs in 19 states, providing services to roughly 9,000 children and adults.

Sequel’s public relations firm, Lambert & Co., refused to make a Sequel executive available to comment for this article, but provided a Sequel statement to InvestigateWest.

“We take our duty to meet the significant behavioral health needs of all our students incredibly seriously,” its statement read. “While restraints have been common practice across our industry for years, at Sequel, we are in the process of moving to a completely restraint-free model of care, utilizing a trauma-informed approach. We believe this is the largest effort of its kind in the country.”

After InvestigateWest’s report published in 2019, Sequel announced that it was adopting a new approach to crisis management that minimizes the use of restraints. The program would be rolled out at all its facilities, starting with Clarinda Academy.

Whither Sequel

In mid-September, DCYF had “launched a program review to determine if Washington youth are safe in Sequel’s care,” Johnson told InvestigateWest. 

Sequel declined to answer InvestigateWest’s specific questions about the three Sequel facilities currently housing Washington foster children. The questions concerned the use of surveillance cameras, use of physical restraints against children, employee disciplinary actions, incidence of sexual assault and rape and co-housing of juvenile criminal offenders with foster children.

However, Sequel did say in its statement that “even without this transition [to end use of restraints], across our care network, restraints are never an appropriate first response unless imminent danger is being displayed to oneself or others around them.” Sequel added, “Per our policies, and as allowed by our licensing and regulatory agencies, restraints are meant ONLY to prevent harm — either to students or staff.”

Roseus, who used to go by the name John Brenner, had been at a Sequel facility in Iowa. But after complaining about abuse there to his DCYF caseworker, the department in January 2017 transferred him to Capital Academy in Camden, New Jersey. It specializes in the type of teen who is a “juvenile offender who does not have deep-seated psychopathology, but has learned negative behavior patterns that victimize others,” according to the school’s website.

Roseus said he didn’t feel like that type, and employees never restrained him during his year and a half at Capital Academy because he kept on comparatively good terms with the staff.  

Roseus said he saw employees punch and kick other children. They also allowed kids to beat each other and settle their own scores, sometimes even arranging the fights. At times Sequel staff  joined in with children during the attacks. They brought in cigars for residents, he said.

Sequel, through its PR firm, declined to discuss Roseus’ case or address his descriptions of Capital Academy.

Beginning in fall 2018, after Disability Rights Washington gave the state its draft of the Clarinda report, Washington increased its oversight of foster children in out-of-state facilities. It launched a new policy giving many out-of-state children not just one in-person visit per month from a local contract worker, but also four in-person visits a year from a DCYF caseworker, plus one phone or video call per month with a caseworker.

However, the state has persisted in placing children in out-of-state facilities run by companies with disturbing records. For example, The Lewiston (Idaho) Tribune reported that children had sex with each other and a rape allegedly occurred at Northwest Children’s Home in Idaho. The facility almost lost its license in 2017. As of the end of October, Washington had nine children at that facility, just across the Snake River from Washington state. State employees make monthly in-person visits to the Washington children there to check on their health and safety, Johnson said.

Kas raised the possibility that her rights group might launch campaigns to end foster care contracts with other facilities and other companies if they have worrisome records like Sequel’s.

“I don’t have the same amount of detail or information about those [other out-of-state] places as we have readily available about Sequel,” Kas said. “We felt we know enough about Sequel to say, ‘No more Sequel contracts,’ ” she added.

In the year and a half that Roseus spent at Sequel’s Capital Academy, he learned that dysfunction was the norm at the facility.

When one white boy went out of control and used the N-word with Black staffers, they entered his room, which was directly across the hall from Roseus’ room, Roseus said. As Roseus watched, two or three staffers held the boy down while another punched him in the face and head, he said.

Roseus said he told nobody, not even his DCYF caseworker, about the beatings at Capital.

Because Roseus stayed on the good side of staffers, “it was a cool program for me,” he said.

Yet, for some other kids, “it was just hell for them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of Cornerstone Cottage. It is located in Idaho.

 

Update 12:50 p.m. Dec. 4, 2020: Washington state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families recommended in a report published on its website that department officials stop housing Washington foster children at facilities run by Sequel Youth and Family Services. The report also suggested that DCYF remove Washington foster children currently in Sequel facilities, who number about five, as soon as other housing can be arranged. The report cited “significant incidents regarding youth safety at different Sequel programs over the last two years with the closure of two facility locations.”

DCYF’s report also pointed to “concerns” over how staffers at Sequel’s Mountain Home Academy in Idaho supervised youth and to a “significant incident” at Sequel’s Northern Illinois Academy. DCYF said Sequel has refused to provide DCYF with a copy of a video of that incident, which involved a Washington foster child receiving an “inappropriate restraint.” DCYF said the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services opened an investigation into the situation. A Sequel spokeswoman had no immediate comment, but this article will be updated if the organization responds.

About the Authors & Contributors

Rachel Nielsen

Rachel Nielsen is a freelance reporter based in Seattle. Previously, she covered venture capital and technology from New York/Jersey City, affordable housing from New York and business and politics from Russia.