One year ago, seven staff members at a residential treatment facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, pounced on a 16-year-old after he tossed a sandwich in the cafeteria, smothering the foster youth as he cried out desperately for breath.
Cornelius Fredericks died May 1, 2020. And since that day, a nation on high alert over the killing of Black people by white police officers has reacted swiftly, bringing reforms in the housing, treatment and care of youth from coast to coast.
Cornelius’ death, which spread publicly through videotape footage, has inspired California social services officials to bring home all the children sent out of state to residential facilities. In his name, Michigan has led multiple states in banning the use of dangerous physical restraints like the one that killed Cornelius.
And Sequel Youth and Family Services, the for-profit company that ran the group home where Cornelius was killed, has been forced to close a half-dozen of its facilities in five states, where a range of abuses have been documented, from rape to restraints so violent they left children with broken bones.
Meanwhile, two national advocacy campaigns, led by dozens of child welfare, juvenile justice and disability rights organizations, are calling for an end to all for-profit foster care operations like those run by Sequel.
“It is yet another example of a Black life taken by the system and underscores so many wrongs of today’s youth-serving systems,” Malaika Eban, a facilitator with the Legal Rights Center Minnesota wrote in an April report, “Justice for Cornelius: Shut Sequel Down.”
Before his death, Cornelius was housed with hundreds of others at Sequel’s Lakeside Academy for youth in foster care and on probation, a program billed to states as providing therapeutic treatment. Now, three Lakeside employees are charged with involuntary manslaughter and second-degree child abuse in connection with the teen’s death. They have yet to stand trial. Two of those charged were involved in the deadly 12-minute restraint used on Cornelius; the third is a facility nurse who let the teen lie unresponsive for more than 10 minutes before calling 911. Cornelius’ family is seeking $100 million in damages in an ongoing civil lawsuit.
It should not have come to this. Warning signs of problems at Lakeside and Sequel’s other facilities across the country have long been known to officials. In its December investigative report “Far from Home, Far from Safe,” the Imprint and the San Francisco Chronicle revealed through documents and interviews that staff members punched, kicked, choked and sexually assaulted youth in their care — and that California officials had received documentation of the abuse. Yet little was done to protect the children until crisis struck.
Shortly after Cornelius died in May 2020, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) canceled her state’s contracts with Sequel for Lakeside and the other program the company ran in her state, Starr Albion Prep, forcing both to close.
That began a cascade of states ending contracts with the $450 million Alabama-based company, and closures of four more facilities in Ohio, North Carolina and Wyoming, as well as its flagship, Clarinda Academy in Iowa.
Following the report by The Imprint and the Chronicle, California — one of Sequel’s top clients — brought home all of its children in foster care and on probation from Sequel-run programs, along with children placed at any other out-of-state residential program.
Called out for its lack of oversight, the state allocated more than $8 million to find more than 130 children safer homes close to their families and communities. And a bill currently moving through the California Senate is proposing an alternative to sending youth to faraway residential treatment centers.
In addition to Michigan and California, the states of Oregon, Minnesota and Maryland have stopped sending children to Sequel-run programs. And the Oregon governor has signed a bill requiring all out-of-state group homes to meet stricter licensing requirements.
In Michigan, policy change sparked by Cornelius’ death has extended beyond ousting one problematic provider. The state is now finalizing new licensing rules that will ban nearly all physical restraints on youth in group homes and treatment facilities.
Under similar pressure, New York responded by banning face-down or prone restraints on foster youth.
The governor in Utah, where Sequel’s Red Rock Academy closed in 2019 following an on-campus riot and widespread abuse allegations, signed a law last month banning chemical restraints, like injectable sedatives, and limiting when and how staff may physically restrain youth.
More change could well be underway in other states. Advocates in the state of Washington, led by the local ACLU chapter and Disability Rights Washington, are pressing state leaders to cut ties with Sequel, claiming the state had long known about its dangerous conditions. A damning 2018 investigation of Clarinda Academy by the disability rights group led Washington to cancel its contract with that campus, though it continued sending children to other Sequel programs.
“No Washington agency should be permitted to add to Sequel’s profits with taxpayer money,” the advocates wrote.
A disability rights group in Alabama — where Sequel runs a number of youth residential programs — has similarly called on its state to prohibit the company from operating there.
Meanwhile, a coalition of seven major children’s advocacy groups and nonprofits have launched a campaign to bar any for-profit companies from running foster homes, large or small.
The Fix Foster Care campaign highlights a 2017 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance that was critical of the care children received from private foster care agencies, noting that “profits are prioritized over children’s well-being, and sometimes those charged with keeping children safe look the other way.”
Children’s advocates see the campaign against privatized foster care as a natural extension of the growing movement against for-profit prisons, joined recently by President Joe Biden, who ended the federal government’s contracts with private prisons in a January executive order.
In a statement, Sandy Santana, executive director of the New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights, said the death of Cornelius a year ago “was a tragic reminder of how bad institutions are for children,” that group facilities are “inherently dangerous places for children,” and adding, “The time to end the unnecessary institutionalization of children is now.”
Santana noted the times: “As we awaken to the profound racism in our systems, the burden of institutionalization — including continuing reports of abuse and dangerous conditions — falls disproportionately on Black children.”
But he also said new federal child welfare laws emphasize “the importance of family preservation and prioritizing families over facilities.” The good news,” he added, “is that this is a fixable problem.”