Here’s the most tragic thing about the Philadelphia Inquirer’s searing expose of Devereux, the nation’s largest non-profit chain of “residential treatment” centers: You’ve already read it.
Maybe not literally, of course. But abuse in these places is so common, so pervasive that it’s become a sad staple of investigative reporting. Take this paragraph for example:
Devereux’s programs had been hunting grounds for predators. Interviews and documents show that, despite bringing in $467 million in annual revenues, Devereux understaffed its campuses and failed to adequately supervise its patients and staff members, who all too often disappeared for hours and slept through shifts.
The streets had prepared Kenny for the [Devereux] treatment center. In many ways, it was a culture he recognized. Tough kids were respected. Weak ones became prey. Kenny was one of the tough ones. …”
Except that second paragraph is not from the Philadelphia Inquirer expose in 2020. It’s from a Washington Post expose – in 2003.
None of this is meant to be critical of the Inquirer – on the contrary, the reporting by Lisa Gartner and Barbara Laker is superb; reporters need to keep doing these stories.
And in one crucial respect, the Inquirer story breaks new ground – in the form of a stunning admission from Devereux’s Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer Leah Yaw:
“This is not an aberration that happens at Devereux because of some kind of lack of control or structure,” Yaw said. “This is an industry-wide problem."
This is crucial because first, at long last, the residential treatment industry admits it’s an industry. More important, it illustrates that residential treatment is unfixable. A bunch of new laws, a flurry of “program improvement plans” even a blue-ribbon commission, will change nothing. The cycle of abuse-reform-repeat continues forever.
But it doesn’t have to. That’s because residential treatment also is unnecessary. That’s something I discuss and document in this column for the trade journal The Imprint, published coincidentally just as the Inquirer published its expose. (There’s more detail about the research showing even “good” residential treatment fails, and more detail about better alternatives, here.)
My column in The Imprint is in response to one by a trade association for nonprofit residential treatment centers, the Association of Children's Residential Centers. The Association’s column did two things: First, it tried to co-opt the rhetoric of the #BlackLivesMatter movement (possibly the worst such example yet, though there are plenty of others). Then, it tried to sell us on the idea that it’s all a matter of a few rotten apples, and it’s only the for-profit McTreatment chains that are abusive.
In my response, I discuss examples of abuses at nonprofit institutions that are members of this very same trade association. Originally, I’d had a paragraph about Devereux – their Massachusetts division also is a member of the ACRC. But I cut it because I didn’t have recent documented examples of abuses at Devereux facilities.
Now, thanks to some great reporting by the Inquirer, we do.
And now we know: It’s an industry and the problems are industry-wide.
At least close the Presents for Pimps Loophole
The only way to fix residential treatment is to abolish it. But Congress could at least take one small step by repealing what should properly be called the Presents for Pimps loophole.
Much of the abuse documented by the Inquirer occurred at institutions specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking. But predators go where the prey is. So few things are more ludicrous than setting up programs in which victims of sex trafficking are all institutionalized together. But the residential treatment industry (remember, it’s their own phrase now) actually managed to get a loophole added to the vastly overhyped Family First Act.
That law puts some small curbs on where a state can institutionalize children and for how long and still get federal reimbursement for part of the cost. But the industry managed to add a loophole, exempting from these limits institutions specifically designed for victims of sex trafficking – presumably like some of the ones run by Devereux.
So yes, everyone should read the Inquirer’s latest expose – whether or not you’ve, figuratively, read it before. And then Congress should start down the road to abolition of “residential treatment” by repealing the Presents for Pimps Loophole in the Family First Act.