Congress has escalated its scrutiny of the youth residential industry, with two senators launching a new inquiry into four major operators that have been the subject of recent reports of abusive treatment.
Sen. Patty Murray of Washington (D) and Ron Wyden of Oregon (D) released a set of scathing letters in late July “demanding answers” from the companies’ chief executive officers.
“I am seriously concerned by report after report of abuse and neglect in residential care facilities responsible for caring for youth struggling with mental health and substance abuse disorders,” Wyden said in a joint release with Murray. “These youth and their families have put their trust in these organizations to help them get better and instead are being met with more trauma. Accountability is desperately needed, and we’re demanding answers.”
Two of the companies — Universal Health Services and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health — are based in suburbs west of Philadelphia. A third, Acadia Health Services, is based south of Nashville, and the fourth, Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, is based in Montgomery, Alabama. All have operations in multiple states.
According to the senators’ statement, the organizations provide “in-patient therapeutic services for youth with mental health, substance use, and behavioral and emotional disorders, or other disabilities” nationwide, yet have been accused of inappropriate use of physical restraints and seclusion, staffing shortages, as well as inadequate education, mental health care and treatment services.
Mounting pressure has also come from a federal judge in Texas, who has ordered the state to plan to bring home any of its children residing out of state at facilities run by the organizations now under investigation.
Previous allegations at the residential centers include a 9-year-old girl in Oregon foster care injected with Benadryl at a Montana facility run by Acadia, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
In 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on child sexual abuse at Devereux facilities. The nonprofit, one of the largest residential care providers in the United States, hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to audit its practices in the wake of that coverage.
Vivant opened in 2021 and purchased facilities from Sequel Youth & Family Services, an Alabama-based company that has also faced reports of children being improperly secluded and physically restrained. In 2020, a joint investigation by The Imprint and The San Francisco Chronicle found that California had sent thousands of children to out-of-state facilities run by Sequel where abuse allegations were rampant. In 2020, Sequel employees at a Michigan facility smothered a 16-year-old foster youth who had tossed a sandwich in the cafeteria. He died shortly thereafter.
The leader of a trade association for behavioral health care providers — including for-profit providers such as Sequel — has said its members provide urgently needed treatment to a vulnerable population.
“Occasionally there are problems,” Shawn Coughlin, executive director of the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare, told The Imprint in November. “But there are still hundreds of thousands of children who are being helped by this.”
The senators’ four separate letters dated July 21 demand information in eight areas, including restraint and seclusion policies, training and data; use of medication; records on past allegations of abuse, neglect or mistreatment; government funding details; treatment of LGBTQ youth and education.
The programs under scrutiny serve children privately placed, as well as those from the juvenile justice and foster care systems. But the senators singled out the care of foster youth for particular scrutiny, requesting details on the facilities’ compliance with the recently enacted Family First Prevention Services Act, which overhauled federal funding requirements for group facilities.
“Kids and teens struggling with mental health, substance use, and other challenges must be able to get the care and support they need in a compassionate, safe, and nurturing environment. Period,” said Sen. Murray. “But it’s clear that egregious treatment of young people has occurred in residential care facilities across the country — so we’re demanding answers and accountability. No young person should ever fear for their safety, suffer abuse or neglect, or be denied the supportive care and education they deserve.”