‘I guess they are just waiting for me to die,’ one child told investigators
A New Mexico residential facility for children and teens run by the for-profit Sequel Youth & Family Services is scheduled to close next week following findings that staff physically abused children in their care and failed to provide a “humane” environment. Bernalillo Academy in Albuquerque is one of more than a dozen Sequel-run facilities to close over the past three years under similar circumstances.
News of the closure broke the day after the Alabama-based company settled a wrongful death lawsuit with the family of a 16-year-old foster youth who was killed by staff members last May while crying out “I can’t breathe” during an unnecessary physical restraint at a Sequel program in Michigan.
Residents at Bernalillo Academy, which housed children as young as 4, were frequently seen with visible injuries, from facial bruising to bite marks, according to monitors with the state’s disability rights agency. In at least one instance, staff allegedly beat a child with a tree branch — an incident that has been referred to the state District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution, according to an investigation by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. State investigators also found that staff failed to keep children from harming and sexually abusing one another.
“What we found there was pretty horrific,” said Carrisa Tashiro, an attorney with Disability Rights New Mexico, the local chapter of a federally mandated network of protection and advocacy agencies. “There was a culture of rampant peer-on-peer violence and inappropriate sexual activity, and then the staff were not intervening.” Tashiro also said there was evidence children had been poorly treated for psychological troubles, including “probable overmedication.”
Sequel and the dozens of youth behavioral health facilities it runs nationwide were the focus of a 2020 investigation by The Imprint and The San Francisco Chronicle that found that its staff choked, punched and bullied the children in their care, at times leaving them with broken bones and concussions. Abuse apparent at many Sequel programs turned deadly last year, when 16-year-old Cornelius — whose last name has been spelled as Frederick and Fredericks in different court documents — was smothered to death by staff at Michigan’s Lakeside Academy after tossing a sandwich. That facility, along with Sequel-run programs in Iowa, Wyoming and Ohio, is now also shuttered.
Earlier this year, Cornelius’ family filed a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit in federal court, and a settlement was reached in that case Dec. 2, according to reporting from a local Michigan outlet. The details of the settlement are not yet public. The family’s attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did representatives of Sequel.
While several Sequel facilities have been closed amid growing public scrutiny, the $500 million for-profit company backed by private equity investors continues to run dozens of programs in 20 states.
The concerns highlighted at Bernalillo Academy — which housed foster youth as well as children placed privately by their parents — mirror the findings of abusive and neglectful conditions identified at other Sequel facilities.
Tashiro and the report from state investigators both describe a bleak institutional setting: bedrooms without any toys, decor or personal belongings and common spaces without furniture. In lieu of chairs, investigators found, children sat and napped on Ukeru pads — cushions used by staff to “block” children in order to de-escalate physical outbursts that can be common among traumatized kids.
Residents were not permitted to wear shoes, instead shuffling around in white socks with the soles blackened by filthy floors, they also found. At one point, razor wire was installed around the playground, though Tashiro said that has since been removed at the request of the state licensing agency.
Despite advertising itself as specializing in caring for children with autism, including those with IQs below 50 and those who are nonverbal, Tashiro said the facility did not provide proper therapeutic programming and at times failed to assist children who struggled with daily tasks such as eating and communicating. In general, she said, there were very few education services available.
The state report notes that at least one child had been at the facility since 2013 with no discharge plan.
“That was happening to a lot of the children,” Tashiro said, “particularly those with autism who had been there for years without appropriate programming, not really making progress, not realizing their potential, not receiving effective treatment — just being warehoused.”
Monitors with Disability Rights New Mexico also witnessed signs of overmedication, describing children as “heavily sedated” and “blankly staring.” One child had to be repeatedly roused to wake up from naptime and physically assisted to the restroom before falling back to sleep on the hallway floor, Tashiro said.
Children also described their torment and fear to investigators with the state child welfare department and the disability rights group. One child reported being hit regularly by a peer, but that staff took no action. “I guess they are just waiting for me to die before they do,” the child told investigators. Others said staff instructed children to hit one another, both in discipline and self-defense, and several described explicit instances of sexual agression and even assault routinely left unchecked by staff.
State licensing officials placed Bernalillo Academy on a corrective action plan in July to address the problems, but the following month found the facility out of compliance. Shortly thereafter, the facility entered into a settlement agreement with the state to close the facility by Dec. 22.