A $50 million lawsuit filed in federal court describes the for-profit treatment facility in Michigan where 16-year-old foster youth Cornelius Frederick was killed by staff as a “snake pit” that prioritized “cash over kids.”
The suit, filed in western Michigan’s U.S. District Court on Sept. 30, alleges violations of the teenager’s constitutional rights at the privately run residential group home, and seeks compensation for his medical and burial costs.
Cornelius died in May of 2020 after eight employees of Lakeside Academy pounced on him for tossing a sandwich in the group home’s cafeteria. (Officials have at times identified the teen as Cornelius Fredericks, but in the lawsuit his name has no “s.”) Cornelius cried out “I can’t breathe,” as staff members employed by Lakeside’s parent company — Sequel Youth & Family Services — restrained him. The scene was captured on videotape and shared nationwide during a burgeoning of the international Black Lives Matter movement.
“Sequel claims that its facilities provide comprehensive services for children. Children are supposed to be healed and safe at these facilities,” the lawsuit states. “In reality, Sequel’s facilities are snake-pits where its staff members abuse and prey upon children.”
Representatives for Sequel did not respond to The Imprint’s requests for comment on the lawsuit.
The staff members accused of contributing to Cornelius’ May 1, 2020 death remained on top of the young teen for 12 minutes, and waited another 12 minutes after the restraint ended to call 911. The lawsuit, filed by his aunt Tenia Goshay, alleges that the excessive use of force during the restraint amounts to a violation of Cornelius’ constitutional rights.
“Cornelius Frederick was physically restrained scores of times” while at Lakeside Academy, the court filing states, including one hold that lasted 35 minutes and left the teen unconcious. The facility that purported to treat troubled children in child welfare and probation systems nationwide has been shut down amid heightened scrutiny by journalists and local officials, along with numerous other residential programs run by Sequel. “Many, if not all, of such restraints constituted abuse and violations of Cornelius’ constitutional right to be free from the use of excessive force, and to substantive due process of law,” the document states.
In addition to punitive damages “in excess of $50 million,” the family requests compensation for their legal fees as well as for Cornelius’ medical and burial costs. The family has also formally requested a jury trial.
The 28-page civil rights lawsuit filed by attorneys Jon Marko and Geoffrey Fieger names Sequel Youth & Family Services and Lakeside as defendants, along with ten employees involved in the incident, three of whom have also been criminally charged.
Heather McLogan, a nurse who witnessed Cornelius being restrained and was accused of failing to provide urgently needed medical care, was sentenced to 18 months of probation earlier this month. Staffers Zachary Solis and Michael Mosely, who participated in the restraint, have yet to stand trial.
Cornelius, a Black child, was killed the same month as the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota by a white police officer, bearing gruesome similarities because they both cried out in vain for breath. Amid global protests over police brutality against Black people, Cornelius’ death fueled heightened concern about abusive treatment in group homes nationwide.
Sequel has come under particularly intense scrutiny for rampant abuses documented at dozens of their programs across the country. An investigation by The Imprint and The San Francisco Chronicle found that staff at facilities run by Sequel choked, punched and bullied the children in their care, at times leaving them with broken bones and concussions. The investigation resulted in passage of a new state law that bars California children in foster care and those on probation from being sent out of state.
Last year, Sequel officials responded to the reporting through a crisis management firm, stating that their residential treatment programs have increased staff training and oversight and are phasing out the practice of physically restraining children.
But in the recently filed lawsuit, Cornelius’ family and attorneys echo the news outlets’ findings.
They also quote court testimony by Lakeside employees indicating that the private company’s quest to create dividends for its investors led to cutting corners on children’s care. McLogan, the nurse who faced criminal charges in Cornelius’ death, said Sequel’s motto was “heads in beds,” according to the lawsuit. Another employee testified under oath that the company prioritized “cash over kids.”
“The record clearly shows frequent systemic abuses by the for-profit foster care industry,” Peter Samuelson, president of the nonprofit First Star, said in an email to The Imprint. Samuelson, whose group serves foster youth nationwide, added that vulnerable children in 28 states are placed in institutions “for commercial profit.”
“Our government regularly places our most vulnerable youth in for-profit facilities designed to make money by warehousing them,” he said.
For its part, Sequel has been forced to close numerous facilities due to concerns of abuse and neglect on their campuses.
In 2021 alone, the $450 million Alabama-based company has announced the closure of at least five facilities, including its flagship Clarinda Academy in Idaho. Three of those closures were directly linked to the loss of children being sent from California following The Imprint’s reporting. This week, Sequel announced it would close another location in Ohio, after years of trying to remedy abusive conditions that earned them heightened monitoring from that state.
Several states have also cut ties with the company in the wake of Cornelius’ death, including Michigan, Minnesota and Oregon.
In addition to the pushback Sequel has faced, a national coalition of child welfare and juvenile justice professionals, nonprofit organizations and advocates — including Samuelson at First Star — have mounted a campaign in Cornelius’ name against for-profit foster care and youth detention. More than 300,000 people have signed the petition.