A Wyoming treatment center where California had long sent troubled youth will shut down in March, following a Chronicle and Imprint investigation into violent abuse at its campus and others operated by Sequel Youth & Family Services.
The decision to close Normative Services Inc., a program for youth with behavioral and emotional problems in Sheridan, Wyo., is “not in any way related to any issues or concerns with the care and high quality services provided,” Sequel officials said in a news release Wednesday. Instead, they said, they arrived at the decision after “an evaluation of viability” of the program.
“The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority, and we will work to minimize any interruptions to their continuity of care,” the officials said. Sequel leaders, and Normative Services Executive Director Clayton Carr, did not immediately respond to questions seeking elaboration.
Last month, The Chronicle and The Imprint published an investigation detailing rampant abuse allegations by children at Normative and other campuses operated by Sequel, a for-profit company backed by Palo Alto investors. In response, the California Department of Social Services cut ties with all out-of-state treatment programs for foster youth with mental and behavioral health needs, opting to bring more than 130 children home by Jan. 23.
Erin Palacios, staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, said it was “about time” for Normative Services, a 132-bed program, to shut down. The legal advocacy organization has long fought against sending vulnerable children out of state.
“We don’t believe these facilities are safe for children, and they’re not providing treatment,” Palacios said. “These are not places any parent would want their child to be if they could really understand what went on there, or if they had real options.”
In the December investigation, “Far from Home, Far from Safe,” reporters found that — despite a state law that bars authorities from sending children to for-profit residential programs — Sequel-run facilities in Michigan, Iowa, Wyoming, Arizona and Utah had housed roughly half of the foster youth and teens adjudicated for crimes that California sent out of state since 2015.
Instead of finding help at these institutions, the 1,244 youth landed in facilities where staff members hit, choked and slammed residents to the ground, according to incident reports.
At Normative, records show, children have for years faced violence at the hands of staff. Wyoming and California child welfare officials investigated nearly two dozen licensing violations at the facility in 2019 and 2020, including multiple substantiated allegations that staff members assaulted residents or placed them in improper restraints.
In June, the Wyoming Department of Family Services found that an employee at Normative tried to drag a resident down stairs by his feet for “what appears to be (the) annoying behavior of opening and closing the dryer door.” The employee was immediately escorted off campus, placed on leave and later fired, according to the incident report.
In March, Normative fired a staff member who repeatedly pushed a child who refused to stay seated, then put his hands around the youth’s neck, leaving red marks, according to an investigation by Wyoming child welfare officials. Wyoming investigators found the same employee had choked and threatened to kill another child the year prior.
In 2016, a state investigation report shows, a Normative staff member was charged with felony child abuse after choking, punching and kicking a resident.
Yet over the past five years, at least 94 foster children from California have been sent to the Wyoming facility. About one quarter of the 80 children at Normative, also known as NSI, were from California in August 2019, according to local news reports.
Vernon Kalkman, the president of Normative Services’ board of directors, did not immediately respond to questions about the closure. In December, he told reporters, “Over the years, there have been bumps in the road, but Sequel has always been responsive to any issues or concerns from the Board.”
Kalkman said his nonprofit’s primary goal was “using its facility and resources to help troubled youth get on the right path and become productive members of society.”
California officials defended the practice of sending youth to Sequel-run campuses, pointing out that the individual facilities are legally organized as nonprofits, even though they are managed by Sequel. But after reviewing some of the same records compiled by The Chronicle and The Imprint, the social services agency announced Dec. 9 that it had found all the out-of-state programs it had certified “lacking,” and ordered more than 130 boys and girls returned to California within 45 days.
The state Legislature allocated $8 million to bring the children back to the state this month and place them in safer and more therapeutic homes.
In their decertification letter, California officials wrote that Normative staff used excessive force during physical restraints that bruised and injured young people in their care, among other violations.
In recent weeks, the local sheriff’s office has also expressed growing concern about the high number of calls for service from Normative. Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson said his office had issued 16 citations to youth placed at the facility in January alone, representing a third of the department’s total citations so far this year. The citations involve assault, battery, property destruction or theft at the facility.
“We have been concerned with the volume and nature of the calls for service at NSI for quite some time,” Thompson said in a statement. “We certainly are NOT celebrating the loss of jobs in the community, but it seems this might have been inevitable for a multitude of reasons.”
As of Tuesday, there were no California children still living at Normative. But three days after the state’s deadline to bring all its foster youth home from out-of-state treatment programs, 11 youth remained in other residential treatment programs from Utah to Florida, including one child placed at Sequel’s Mingus Mountain Academy in Arizona.
In July, Arizona’s Department of Health Services forced the program to temporarily halt admissions citing “significant health and safety risks.” It has since reopened.
Another five of the 11 youth yet to return to California are at a facility in Florida run by Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, which was the focus of a recent investigation by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The report revealed a pattern of staff sexually abusing developmentally disabled youth as young as 12 at Devereux facilities in eight states, including Florida.
Child welfare and probation officials across California said it was difficult to bring youth home amid a surge of the coronavirus pandemic and limited in-state options.
Riverside County’s probation department obtained a 30-day extension because it had been planning to bring children back to a local program that was forced to pause admissions while waiting out a coronavirus quarantine.
“You’ve got COVID as an underlying issue when there was already stiff competition to place kids in-state,” said Riverside County Probation Chief Ron Miller.
Miller said his bigger concern is that the out-of-state placements served treatment needs that California facilities historically have been unable or unwilling to address, including aggressive and violent behaviors, fire-setting, and the trauma of commercial sexual exploitation.
California officials have not yet announced specific plans to adjust local programs to meet these needs.
About 40% of the 122 kids brought back so far are being treated at short-term residential treatment programs. Twenty-eight are living with relatives, and nine are in foster homes. Six are in juvenile halls. Five of the youth have run away since coming back to the state.
One of the young people Miller’s department brought back to Riverside — a teen who had been trafficked before being sent out of state for treatment — ran away quickly after returning to California and is now missing.
“That was one of the concerns we were worried about in bringing her back closer to her home environment,” Miller said.
About This Project
This story is a collaboration between The San Francisco Chronicle and The Imprint, an independent, nonprofit publication dedicated to covering child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues faced by vulnerable youth. To report the story, Joaquin Palomino and Cynthia Dizikes of The Chronicle and Sara Tiano of The Imprint obtained hundreds of incident reports through public record requests; interviewed dozens of lawmakers, government officials, advocates and former residents and employees of Sequel-run facilities; and analyzed financial records, videos and other documentation speaking to the operations of facilities where California sends children to receive help for serious mental health and behavioral issues.