One of the nation’s largest youth residential treatment programs is shutting down after California officials, prompted by a San Francisco Chronicle and Imprint investigation into rampant abuse allegations, decided to stop sending vulnerable children there.
The closure of Clarinda Academy — the flagship facility of Sequel Youth & Family Services, a for-profit company based in Alabama — marks the second Sequel campus to close in as many weeks.
Leaders of Sequel said in a statement Monday that they had conducted a “review” of Clarinda’s residential program in southwest Iowa for children with behavioral and emotional problems, before deciding to end the decades-long contract. Late last month, Normative Services, a Sequel-run program in Wyoming where children reported being choked, dragged on the ground and threatened by staff members, announced it too would shut down, following an internal “evaluation of viability.”
Sequel will also close a third facility not used by California, a North Carolina treatment center for girls, according to the statement.
“Over more than three decades, tens of thousands of youth have received critical treatment across the three programs,” Sequel’s leaders wrote. “We will continue to do everything within our power to deliver on our mission of providing compassion care and treatment to youth with complex behavioral health needs around the country.”
Sequel did not specify what its review had found at Clarinda. Members of the academy’s nonprofit board did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment.
At least 358 California foster youth and juvenile offenders were sent to Clarinda Academy since 2015. Late last year, these teens comprised 20% to 25% of all residents, according to Department of Social Services records.
A spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Human Services, which licenses the 252-bed treatment center, told The Chronicle and The Imprint that Sequel representatives cited its “reduced census” for the closure, meaning too few children were in the program. In September, Clarinda housed 55 residents, down from 192 in May 2018, according to California inspection reports.
There are currently no plans to shut down Sequel’s other two residential facilities in Iowa, the spokesperson said.
The planned closures follow the California Department of Social Services’ decision in December to pull more than 130 foster children and youth adjudicated for crimes from all out-of-state treatment facilities, including Clarinda Academy and four other campuses run by Sequel.
The announcement came in response to “Far from Home, Far from Safe,” an investigation by The Chronicle and The Imprint that revealed that staff members at Sequel-run facilities had been accused of punching, kicking, choking and sexually assaulting youth.
Reporters found that California’s reliance on Sequel programs violated the intent of a state law that prohibits sending vulnerable children to for-profit residential facilities where financial gain could be prioritized over the quality of care.
The company was able to sidestep this law by contracting with nonprofit treatment centers that then sent a combined 83% of revenues back to Sequel to “manage and operate” the campuses in recent years. This allowed Sequel to collect public funds from California that, as a for-profit company, it alone would not otherwise be eligible to receive.
Public records show that since 2015, at least 1,244 California children have been sent to Sequel-run facilities in Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, Utah and Wyoming. That amounts to roughly half of all youth sent to out-of-state treatment facilities by local child welfare and probation agencies.
“California was one of Sequel’s largest customers,” Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat from Corvallis who has been a vocal critic of Sequel, said in response to Clarinda’s closure. “It’s one more example of how this industry is much more about hefty profits for investors than building safe and healthy futures for kids and respecting the staff that work for them.”
At Clarinda Academy, which bills itself as “The Original Sequel Program,” licensing records and news reports show that children have long reported violence and serious injuries at the hands of staff, including the alleged rape of a 17-year-old female resident by a male counselor.
In a 2013 inspection, California child welfare investigators found that a staff member broke a resident’s collarbone and then tried to “cover up” any wrongdoing, according to a state report. Clarinda fired two employees following the incident and California officials recertified the program, allowing juvenile court judges to continue sending children there.
In 2018, Disability Rights Washington,a federally funded advocacy group that monitors care at treatment facilities, reported that Clarinda staff had restrained children until they passed out, broken a child’s eyeglasses, and told a child with a history of self-harm, “Why don’t you just go and cut yourself?” At the time, Iowa’s Department of Human Services reviewed Clarinda’s use of restraints, found no deficiencies and recommended the program keep its license.
As recently as July, police in the city of Clarinda, Iowa, were investigating a report that a 31-year-old man committed statutory rape at Clarinda Academy, and a separate report that a teenager forcibly sodomized a fellow resident. The Page County district attorney’s office previously said no charges were filed in either case and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
California officials have defended the practice of sending youth to Sequel-run programs, arguing that the facilities are legally organized as nonprofits and they treat children with complex issues that can not be handled by in-state programs.
However, after reviewing some of the same records compiled by The Chronicle and The Imprint, the California Department of Social Services announced on Dec. 9 that it had found all its out-of-state programs “lacking,” and ordered more than 130 boys and girls returned to California within 45 days.
The state Legislature also responded, allocating $8 million to help place the children in safer more therapeutic homes in California. On Feb. 2, more than a week after the state’s deadline to bring its youth home, eight children remained in out-of-state treatment programs, though none were at Sequel facilities.
“Clarinda, and facilities like it, are a failed model that California never should have sanctioned,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center, which has fought for years to end the use of out-of-state treatment facilities. “It’s now clear California’s lack of oversight kept these facilities in business and allowed unconscionable harm to children across the nation.”
DaeJah Seward, who said she witnessed abuse by staff at Clarinda as a 16-year-old in 2012, called the facility’s closure “a good place to start.”
But Seward, now 24 and working with foster youth at a Sacramento law firm, cautioned that California must also ensure its local centers can meet the treatment needs of youth.
“The closing of this facility cannot be celebrated,” she said, “until we have come up with a solution.”
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.