Washington state is the latest to announce it’s severing ties with a for-profit company that has been accused of widespread neglect and abuse of kids.
After countless stories of maltreatment, legislative and media scrutiny, and the death of a 16-year-old boy who was killed by staff members at a treatment center in Michigan, several states have started to rethink their relationships with Sequel Youth and Family Services, a company plagued with problems that operates youth treatment centers all over the nation.
Many states, including both Oregon and Washington, sent youth placed in foster care to the out-of-state facilities. The kids were often sent when the state could not find a foster home for them. But Sequel houses a wide range of youth, and advertises specialized care for certain behavioral needs.
Related: ‘Youth were abused here': Investigating Sequel’s patterns of abuse of foster children
Starting in 2018, Oregon’s Child Welfare Department increasingly relied on out-of-state facilities to house foster kids. In Oregon, Child Welfare officials initially kept their decision to send more children to other states largely under wraps. They didn’t alert lawmakers to the arrangement and when OPB broke the news in February 2019, state administrators declined to disclose where they were sending the children or what kind of oversight was offered once the boys and girls, some as young as age 9, were sent thousands of miles away.
Eventually, the placements were leaked and became public; it became apparent most of the youth were being sent to facilities across the nation primarily owned or operated by Sequel Youth and Family Services.
Two Oregon kids were at Lakeside Academy in Michigan when eight staff members restrained a 16-year-old named Cornelius Frederick Jr. in April. The restraint lasted 12 minutes. Frederick died of asphyxiation from being restrained.
In June of this year, after intense pressure, Oregon removed all foster kids from these facilities and brought them back to the state.
An investigation by APM Reports, in collaboration with OPB, revealed dozens of cases of physical violence, sexual assault and improper restraints against children by Sequel employees at facilities owned by the company nationwide.
After the story published, Disability Rights Washington called on Gov. Jay Inslee to end the state’s relationship with the company.
Like Oregon, Washington was using taxpayer dollars — as much as $300 to $800 per day per child — to house the kids out of state.
“Washington should not entrust an abysmally failing company like Sequel with the precious lives of its children,” a statement from the disability rights organization read. “No Washington agency should be permitted to add to Sequel’s profits with taxpayer money. Governor Inslee must direct all Washington State health and child-serving agencies to avoid and dissociate from this company.”
Disability Rights Washington first raised concerns about a Sequel facility called Clarinda Academy in Iowa in 2018. At the time, Washington had about 80 foster kids in out-of-state facilities. After the advocacy group’s report, Washington decided to pull kids out of Clarinda, but continued to use other Sequel facilities.
Following Frederick’s death and the latest abuse allegations, Washington state officials said they launched a “desk review,” due to the pandemic, of the four Sequel facilities where Washington state youth remained.
One of those facilities was Northern Illinois Academy in suburban Chicago. It’s one Sequel’s more expensive facilities, and it’s geared toward kids with more severe behavioral health challenges. The Washington state review noted that one child had been inappropriately restrained and law enforcement was involved. The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services opened an investigation into the incident.
Limited access to Sequel’s records
There is a video of the employee restraining the child, but Sequel would not give Washington officials access to the recording despite several requests from the state.
Sequel told Washington officials the video files are used for something “akin to peer review records” and used to “confirm the details of the description of events from both students and staff.”
Restricting access to records is not a new tactic for Sequel.
After several scandals were uncovered by newspapers and TV stations across the country, Sequel officials promised to install hundreds of new cameras as one of the solutions.
But they haven’t seemed willing to release controversial footage.
Although Sequel told the public it was cooperating with the police investigation into Frederick’s death in Michigan, police officers noted in their report that wasn’t the case. It was Frederick’s attorney who eventually released the video that captured the last moments of his life. And it was that horrifying video that led to more widespread outrage about Sequel’s facilities.
Northern Illinois Academy’s problems aren’t new. In 2019, a former staffer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a resident. Another staffer allegedly choked a resident under the age of 13 and was charged with battery and child endangerment. Another employee gave drugs to a resident and sent her love letters. There are examples of incidents where staffers tackled, punched and body slammed residents.
Oregon State Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis who became one of the early outspoken critics of Sequel, visited Northern Illinois Academy when Oregon had foster youth living there. What she saw was so disturbing, her persistence led regulators to crack down on the facility and declared the deficiencies so serious they constituted an immediate threat to the children’s health and safety.
Debra Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Washington state Department of Children, Youth and Families, said the state will no longer send kids to Sequel facilities and officials are actively exploring options to bring the remaining ones home.
Washington state still has five kids placed in Sequel treatment centers.
Washington is the fourth state to cut ties with Sequel, joining Oregon, Minnesota and Maryland.