Thursday, July 11, 2019

Before you believe a column claiming that residential treatment is wonderful – read the “sequel”

A word of advice to those writing puff piece op-eds about the joys of residential treatment: You probably shouldn’t cite a for-profit company that was the subject of exposes concerning allegations of widespread abuse at one of its institutions – and abuse allegations plus a riot at another.

Clarinda Academy, the "flagship" institution run by Sequel Youth and Family Services
(Photo from Disability Rights Washington.)

Well, I suppose they deserve credit for chutzpah.

There’s a column in the Chronicle of Social Change about the joys of what is probably the single worst intervention in child welfare – residential treatment.  The column cites no actual evidence that residential treatment works – because there is none.  Even the former head of a trade association that includes such providers admitted that “we find it hard to demonstrate success.”

Instead the column gives us a single anecdote, and the usual boilerplate about how supposedly nothing else works for some children so we should spend a lot more money on these places, blah, blah, blah.

The column was coauthored by Susan Dreyfus, the current head of another trade association for residential treatment centers and other providers, and Elizabeth Carey, CEO of Starr Commonwealth, which runs – of course – residential treatment centers.

But here’s what sets the column apart:  The youth in that one anecdotal success story achieved his success, the column claims, “[w]ith the help and support of residential behavioral health treatment provided by Sequel Youth and Family Services …”  The author’s note at the end of the column explains that Carey’s RTC “partners with Sequel Youth and Family Services, a behavioral health provider across the nation.”

If you’re thinking “Sequel – that name rings a bell…”  it should. 

Sequel in the news

Sequel, a for-profit chain of residential treatment centers, has been in the news a lot lately – over allegations of widespread abuse at one institution, and a riot at another. They run the institution where, according to one resident, you can be punished for trying to wipe away a year.

It began when Disability Rights Washington issued a scathing report on what news accounts call Sequel’s “flagship institution,” Clarinda Academy in Iowa.  What DRW alleges is appalling.  There’s a summary, with a link to their full report, here.  Sequel denies the allegations in the report.

The DRW report got NBC Nightly News interested. Here’s whatthey found :

Then, Nightly News broadcast a follow-up story:

At another Sequel facility, Red Rock Canyon school in Utah, a SWAT team had to be called in, guns drawn, to quell a riot.  

The riot may have been just the tip of the iceberg.  Just yesterday, the very day the Chronicle pubished the op-ed praising Sequel, a story in the Salt Lake Tribune ran under this headline: “After a riot, increasing violence and now sex abuse allegations, Red Rock Canyon school will close.” (Sequel says they decided to close the school voluntarily.) UPDATE, JULY 15: Sequel is reportedly closing a second facility in Utah as well, though the company claims they may "repurpose" this one.

But even if no child ever was physically abused at a Sequel facility, even if had there never been even one riot, that still wouldn’t be enough to justify such places’ existence.  Even the executive director of the group that calls itself Children’s Rights (A group that is not exactly family-friendly) Sandy Santana, told NBC that children should not be institutionalized – period. Said Santana:

“A well-functioning system places kids in families and wraps around supports … to keep those kids in families.”

But hey, not all the news for Sequel is bad. Last year, Investigate West reported that “A private equity firm acquired a majority stake in Sequel last year, citing ‘tremendous continued growth opportunities.’” 

So, to review: On the one hand there is an overwhelming body of actual evidence that residential treatment doesn’t work, and there are far better alternatives – evidence summarized here.

On the other hand the head of a child welfare agency trade association, and the head of a residential treatment center that proudly partners with Sequel Youth and Family Services say they’re wonderful.