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Nov 21, 2020

The bad place

Co-produced with PRX Logo

The vacant building that once housed the Riverside Academy in Wichita, Kansas, was covered in haunting graffiti: “Burn this place.” “Youth were abused here … systematically.” “This is a bad place.” The facility, run by the for-profit company Sequel Youth & Family Services, promised to help kids with behavioral problems. But state officials had cited the facility dozens of times for problems including excessive force by staff, poor supervision and neglect.  

Riverside was just one residential treatment center run by Sequel. In a yearlong investigation, APM Reports found the company profited by taking in some of the most difficult-to-treat children and providing them with care from low-paid, low-skilled employees. The result has been dozens of cases of physical violence, sexual assault and improper restraints. Despite repeated scandals, many states and counties continue to send kids to Sequel for one central reason: They have little choice.

Dig Deeper

Read:Youth were abused here’

Credits

Lead reporter and producer: Curtis Gilbert

Reported by: Lauren Dake, Dustin Dwyer, Tennessee Watson, Connor O’Neill, Natasha Senjanovic, Nomin Ojiyediin, David Fuchs, Daniel Lathrop, Audrey Kennedy, Will Craft

Edited by: Catherine Winter

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Production assistance: Brett Simpson

Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Editor in chief: Matt Thompson

CEO: Christa Scharfenberg 

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Speaker 1:

Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. While the holidays are going to look a little different this year, one thing remains the same. They're not the easiest on our planet. With a little more consciousness around the gifts we give, we can all help reduce that impact. Allbirds has you covered with their signature line of cozy shoes made from merino wool, new apparel line and Trino socks and undies, which make for perfect stocking stuffers. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by you and the planet. Head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift. Give light. Tread lighter. Allbirds.

Speaker 2:

Climate change leaves us with questions not just about how fast the water is rising, but everyday things like, "Is it ever going to be too hot to live here?" and "How can I reduce flooding in my neighborhood?" In a new podcast from WWNO, WRKF and PRX, reporter Travis Lux and comedian Lauren Malara explore some of those questions from a city at the forefront of climate change, New Orleans, Louisiana. It's called Life Raft. Climate change is scary, but Life Raft is not. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Chris Hagman lives in Wichita, Kansas with his two dogs, Maggie and Annie.

Chris Hagman:

Females. They run the house.

Al Letson:

He spends a lot of time with them outside in the neighborhood.

Chris Hagman:

Yeah, we take long walks. I got boxers so I got to wear them out.

Al Letson:

One of their favorite destinations used to be a spot along the Arkansas River. There was a pretty building there, pre-war, brick walls, white columns.

Chris Hagman:

There's a beautiful city-owned golf course right outside the front steps, maybe 30 yards. It was just kind of a nice place to walk. I've been walking by it for 10 years, probably.

Al Letson:

Chris didn't know much about the building. He heard it used to be a home for unwed mothers and more recently, some kind of youth treatment center called Riverside Academy. When the academy quietly closed last year, Chris didn't even notice at first. But then he heard police found people hanging out in the vacant building, trashing the place, even sleeping there.

Chris Hagman:

Call it being the nosy neighbor or what, but knowing people that have kids right along that stretch of road, my biggest concern was that the building had become a public safety hazard.

Al Letson:

So Chris decided to take a closer look, maybe complain to the city. As he walked across the overgrown lawn, he noticed the spray painted messages scrawled across the brick walls.

Chris Hagman:

One said, "Pray for the victims. We want justice." There was one spot that said, "We need to talk about Riverside Academy."

Al Letson:

Chris teaches middle school and does some part-time bartending and he's pretty fearless. The door to the building was unlocked so he went inside.

Recording:

Let's walk this level first.

Al Letson:

He came back later to show a friend what he saw. Chris recorded it with his cell phone.

Chris Hagman:

And all throughout the building, there were very alarming things spray painted that I read.

Recording:

Check this out.

Al Letson:

On one wall, someone had written, "This is a bad place." And as they moved from room to room, the spray painted allegations about what happened at Riverside Academy grew more explicit. "Youth were abused here," one said, "systematically."

Chris Hagman:

I got kind of sick to my stomach, but I had so much adrenalin that I just wanted to keep going.

Recording:

It's clear that some of these kids that was here came back.

Recording:

Yeah.

Chris Hagman:

Whoever had written these things on the walls, they purposely wanted these words to be seen and heard. They weren't put where they were put by coincidence. It was like they were trying to tell a story or they were trying to say help, in so many words.

Al Letson:

Chris went back to the building almost every day until he was confident he photographed everything. He reported what he saw to the news media, the police, even the FBI. Nobody seemed interested.

Chris Hagman:

It was very defeating to know that it fell on deaf ears.

Al Letson:

In September of 2019, Chris was there filming again as a backhoe rolled up to the building and knocked it down to make way for a luxury apartment complex. The words on the walls were erased forever.

Chris Hagman:

You wouldn't even be able to tell that anything existed.

Al Letson:

The graffiti is gone, but you can still find glimpses of what happened to the kids at Riverside Academy. Fragments of their stories remain in the records of the Kansas Department of Children and Families. Our partner for today's show, APM Reports, fought to see those documents. When they finally got them, they uncovered a troubling string of citations against Riverside Academy: excessive force by staff, poor supervision, neglect, bullying by residents and underqualified medical personnel. One investigation concluded, "The staff's indifference towards a child in pain was frightening."

Al Letson:

Riverside is closed now, but its parent company is still open. It's still treating children and it's facing even more troubling allegations of abuse. It's a for-profit business called Sequel Youth and Family Services. Today, we're going to show you what happens to children who are sent to Sequel and why more isn't being done to protect them.

Al Letson:

APM Reports spent the last year investigating Sequel with reporters spread across 10 states. Curtis Gilbert led the team. Curtis, why did it take so many months and so many journalists to get to the bottom of this story?

Curtis Gilbert:

Because Sequel is just a huge company. It's a 200 million-dollar a year enterprise. It's got thousands of employees, 29 residential treatment centers. They're in 15 different states. There used to be even more than that. It's also been in business for more than 20 years, so that's a lot of time to cover.

Curtis Gilbert:

Over those 20 years, there'd occasionally be a scandal that might erupt at one of these facilities, and it'd even make the news and get investigated, but no one had really put all these pieces together because the company was just so large and so spread out.

Al Letson:

How do kids end up at these residential treatment centers in the first place?

Curtis Gilbert:

There are lots of different paths that can lead to Sequel. Some of the kids get in trouble with the law and then a judge will send them to Sequel to try to rehabilitate them. Some of them are kids in the foster care system and the government just can't find a family for them to live with. And then some of them are just kids with just really serious mental health problems, and those problems become so serious, it's impossible for them to keep living with their families. That's the case with the family I met earlier this year, the Hunters.

Angela Hunter:

And did you want coffee or something? [crosstalk 00:07:08].

Curtis Gilbert:

They live in far western Minnesota near the North Dakota border. Angela Hunter's the mom and she showed me the wall in her house where she hangs all the photos of her kids.

Angela Hunter:

This was probably my favorite memory. That's Austin right there. That was our first picture. Look how little. Three.

Curtis Gilbert:

That's how old Austin was when the Hunters adopted him and his sister. Their birth parents were teenagers from West Virginia. Austin had been abused during those early years. He spoke only gibberish when he arrived in Minnesota and initially communicated with hand signals. The Hunters would later learn he had fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The family already had three kids at the time. In the photo, the oldest girl poses as though she's reading aloud to Austin.

Angela Hunter:

Do you know, he's pointing at the book. Do you know what's in the book? A piece of gum. They stuck that there so that he would pose because they wanted them all looking and the little ones wouldn't look so they stuck a piece of gum there. He's like, "Look, there's gum." I wish you could just take those moments, don't you, and just keep them.

Curtis Gilbert:

Austin started getting into trouble when he was about eight. He'd steal things from other kids at school, disrupt the class, refuse to do his work. He spent almost every day in the principal's office at the local Catholic school. Most of the time, he'd just lie on the floor under her desk. There's another photo on the wall from when Austin was 10 or so. For that one, the family is outside at Angela's mom's place.

Angela Hunter:

My folks have like a hundred acres. But anyway, there's this big trail and she called it the bunny trail because there's always rabbits there. It was right in front of there and we had a photographer come. He's right there next to me on that one. That's the last one we took before Austin... We haven't had a family one like that so...

Curtis Gilbert:

When Austin was 11, he came at his sister with a weed trimmer. Luckily, she was wearing a leather jacket. He also stabbed his dad in the thigh with a lawn ornament.

Angela Hunter:

We just blocked everybody in the house and called 911. It's all we could do.

Curtis Gilbert:

The sheriff's office took Austin to a juvenile lockup in the north woods of Minnesota, then to a Catholic children's home on the other side of the state in Minneapolis. But Angela and her husband were still very much in his life: visits, phone calls, family therapy sessions.

Angela Hunter:

We're never going to give up on our kid because he has behaviors or problems or whatever. He's our son and we love him to the end of time. We made a commitment when he adopted him at three years old.

Curtis Gilbert:

On his good days, Austin is an intuitive kid with a great sense of humor. He's not a strong reader, but he still loves books, especially about the military and the Wild West. Just before Christmas in 2016, Austin came back and lived with his family. But Angela and her husband Corey say it didn't work out.

Angela Hunter:

After that, things just went downhill.

Corey:

Bad to worse?

Angela Hunter:

Yeah, it was like bad to worse.

Curtis Gilbert:

He threatened his parents, came at Corey with a butter knife. He even tried to set a fire near the water heater. The Hunters knew it wasn't safe for him to keep living at home. He went to another residential treatment center, this time for a year, but Austin was kicked out after he injured three employees who were trying to restrain him.

Angela Hunter:

And they refused to take him back and so he sat, then, at a detention center, couple different ones they switched him from. When that happened, then they were looking for a facility and no facilities in Minnesota would take him. They kept refusing him. I think we had like 15 denials at that point.

Curtis Gilbert:

That's how it went for most of 2019, Austin languishing in juvenile detention. That's where kids with severe behavioral problems sometimes end up because there's no other place to send them. And then, after nine long months, his county social worker finally brought the Hunters some good news. She'd found a facility that would take him.

Angela Hunter:

At that point, I didn't know nothing about it and I was just excited. I felt hopeful.

Corey:

And so did I. It's like, "Wow, finally found one. Good."

Curtis Gilbert:

It was a Sequel facility called Lakeside Academy, located 700 miles away in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The distance made Angela nervous so as Austin made the journey in the back of a secure van, she got on a plane and booked a hotel in Kalamazoo so she could see the place in person.

Angela Hunter:

I Ubered there and as I Ubered there and drove up, it was beautiful. From the outside, there was woods. There's a golf course next to the facility. Looked like almost a college campus, sort of in a way, only a small one.

Curtis Gilbert:

Relief washed over her. She met a case worker she liked and as she prepared to say goodbye to her 14-year-old son, she felt like everything was going to be okay.

Angela Hunter:

I hugged Austin and we took a picture, another picture, and left. Yep, it looked good. From the outside, it looked really nice.

Curtis Gilbert:

Angela didn't know it at the time, but investigations had begun to expose serious allegations of abuse at other Sequel facilities around the country.

Recording:

Restrained, thrown to the ground, kicked and beaten. That's what state investigators say happened to a child inside Sequel Pomegranate...

Recording:

Now, former residents are sounding an alarm, telling NBC News what they experienced at Clarinda was abusive.

Recording:

In May, state investigators began looking into claims of sexual assault, violence and neglect, threatening to pull the facility's license if more than a dozen significant...

Curtis Gilbert:

There hadn't been much news coverage of problems at Lakeside Academy, but it didn't take long for Angela to start seeing red flags. The first one, her phone wasn't ringing. Even when Austin had been in juvenile detention, she and her husband Corey were in constant contact with him. But at Lakeside, residents had to earn the right to talk to their parents.

Angela Hunter:

They said if his behaviors weren't good, he didn't get phone calls. They were like, "Well, he has to make his levels," or whatever, and "He has to become a titan," or something like that.

Curtis Gilbert:

Titan was a status Lakeside Academy gave to kids who behaved well. Many Sequel programs have a system like that. Students who stay in line get rewards, things like later bed times, more freedom to roam campus and phone calls home. But for the Hunters, the silence was agony.

Angela Hunter:

It was like three weeks, for sure.

Curtis Gilbert:

Three weeks, no phone calls.

Angela Hunter:

Yeah. Yeah, from him. Nothing. I feel like he felt like we abandoned him. I remember Corey calling and he would like, "We want to talk to our son. This is ridiculous."

Curtis Gilbert:

And when Angela finally did get to talk to her son, she got even more concerned.

Angela Hunter:

Austin had told me that a staff had punched him in the ribs. Somebody then reported it to CPS there in Michigan and it was investigated because the investigator called us.

Recording:

Hi, this is Dawn [McKellar 00:13:47]. I'm calling from Children's Protective Services. I am trying to reach Angela and Corey.

Curtis Gilbert:

The investigation couldn't find evidence to back up what Austin was saying. But just two weeks after the allegation surfaced, Angela and Corey got a letter from the county. Lakeside wanted Austin gone. It said his needs were too complex.

Angela Hunter:

And I just found it very strange. I just felt like it was because he reported what happened. That's what I felt, personally.

Corey:

I mean, it's just an assumption. Can't prove it.

Angela Hunter:

Can't prove it, assumption, but I really felt like that because after that, too, then he wasn't allowed phone calls for two weeks, they said, because of his behavior, either. So all of a sudden, his phone privileges were pulled.

Curtis Gilbert:

But getting rid of Austin wasn't so easy because just like before, his social worker couldn't find anywhere else to send him. And so he was stuck there. Another kid we'll call Chris also got stuck at Lakeside Academy a couple years before Austin arrived. We aren't using his real name because he was a minor at the time and he's worried his tough childhood could follow him into adulthood. Chris has vivid memories of his first day at Lakeside Academy.

Chris:

All I can remember is just staring at my feet and it was so loud. There were so many people all in one area. It was hot, smelled like teenage body odor. Everyone was talking and everyone was yelling, and then we had staff yelling to get everyone else to stop yelling. It was just almost too much.

Curtis Gilbert:

Chris was 17 at the time. He'd grown up in foster care and he wasn't getting along with the family he'd been staying with, so his case workers sent him to Lakeside. Chris was told it'd be temporary, just a place to stay until a new foster family was found.

Chris:

I wasn't supposed to be there. I don't have any charges. I'm not a sex offender. I've never been arrested. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "You don't need to be here. You don't need to be here. You don't need to be here." Well, why am I still here?

Curtis Gilbert:

Chris actually liked a lot of the people who worked at Lakeside, but he also saw staff who were too quick to physically restrain kids who misbehaved.

Chris:

We're going to get frustrated. We're going to act out. We're going to test our limits. We're going to try to live, man. We weren't living in there. We were just there.

Curtis Gilbert:

Chris says he'd been there four, five months when Lakeside's head administrator, Steve Laidacker, called him to his office. He told Chris some important guests were coming to campus. They were executives from the parent company, Sequel, and he wanted Chris to show them around.

Chris:

What I seen, I seen a golden ticket.

Curtis Gilbert:

A ticket out of there. Chris had a fantasy that the executives would realize he didn't belong there, that somehow they'd rescue him, help him find a new foster family. He watched them roll up in a fancy black car. He thinks it was a Mercedes.

Chris:

They all dressed in flannels or button ups, the nice slacks to their shiny belts and suitcases. They all looked the same. They all just looked there for business. They're there for business.

Curtis Gilbert:

Chris says his job was to present a rosy view of Lakeside.

Chris:

I knew what not to talk about. I knew not to tell them that I thought I watched my friend poop his pants when he was getting restrained. I feel like if I would have told him the most negative things I could about Lakeside, I feel like that was to have been the last tour I've ever done. I feel like that would've been the last time I ever walked around campus by myself. It might've been the last time anything really, really positive happened.

Curtis Gilbert:

But near the end of the tour, he thought he saw an opening.

Chris:

So I'm walking around explaining, "We have the activity field. We wrestle. We have the wrestling team. We wake up at 6:00 AM for practice. We do this. Blah, blah, blah." And he's like, "Yeah, you guys like it here?"

Curtis Gilbert:

This was his chance.

Chris:

I'm like, "No." I don't know if he heard it. I don't know if he did hear it and pretended like he didn't, but it was not addressed. It was like another day. All right, next building.

Curtis Gilbert:

Fantasy, meet reality. There was no offer to find him a better place to live. He says the executives only saw what they wanted to see.

Chris:

They just kept looking at everything in such awe, almost like, "Yeah, we built this." But what is this? You're here for five minutes. What about the buildings we didn't show you? You're not even curious at all? What about the restraint logs? You don't want to take a look at that? It wasn't like that. They didn't show up to talk to the kids. They didn't show up to do anything other than to see that their business was still up and running, not in flames. "Everything looks all in order? Cool. When's lunch?"

Al Letson:

Chris ended up spending nine months at Lakeside. He didn't get out until he found himself a new foster family to live with. Chris was gone, but he was right to be worried about the way the staff restrained kids at Lakeside.

Recording:

Emergency dispatch.

Recording:

Hi, my name's Heather. I'm a nurse at Lakeside Academy and we need an ambulance here.

Recording:

Lakeside Academy?

Al Letson:

When we come back, we take a closer look at how Sequel makes money and what it takes to get a job there.

Kyla James:

My understanding was they they were willing to hire literally anyone who was willing to take the job and could pass a background check.

Al Letson:

That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Speaker 1:

Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. While the holidays are going to look a little different this year, one thing remains the same. They're not the easiest on our planet. With a little more consciousness around the gifts we give, we can all help reduce that impact. Allbirds has you covered with their signature line of cozy shoes made from merino wool, new apparel line and Trino socks and undies, which make for perfect stocking stuffers. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by you and the planet. Head to allbirds.com today for the perfect gift. Give light. Tread lighter. Allbirds.

Rod:

The Black Guy Who Tips is a comedy talk show with the motto, "Nothing's wrong if it's funny."

Karen:

It's hosted by my husband, Rod.

Rod:

And my wife, Karen.

Karen:

You can listen to new episodes five days a week, Saturday through Wednesday, free on Spotify.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Today, we're teaming up with APM Reports and public radio reporters in 10 states to investigate Sequel. It runs residential treatment centers for kids all over the country. Its residents include kids in the juvenile justice system and foster care, and those who have significant mental health problems. A number of its facilities have had serious problems in recent years. This spring, police had to make yet another run to a treatment center in Columbus, Ohio.

Speaker 13:

How's it going?

Speaker 14:

Good. How are you?

Speaker 13:

Did you get called?

Speaker 14:

Yeah.

Al Letson:

And they were getting fed up with the people who ran Sequel Pomegranate.

Speaker 14:

[inaudible 00:21:20] called. Said she needed the police and that was it.

Al Letson:

The top administrator, a guy named Jeffrey Rice, came out to talk to them.

Jeffrey Rice:

We've got four or five girls here that are hell on wheels.

Al Letson:

It was captured by the officers' body cameras.

Jeffrey Rice:

And they're threatening staff. They're fashioning weapons. They're destroying property. We aren't equipped to handle that. We never have been.

Speaker 14:

This is what's confusing about this place. You're a lockdown facility. You're bringing in troubled kids and then-

Speaker 16:

190.

Speaker 14:

... you don't expect to have problems?

Speaker 17:

[inaudible 00:21:54].

Jeffrey Rice:

Well, no.

Speaker 14:

You don't-

Jeffrey Rice:

That's not it at all. We do have problems, but don't have problems to this extent because I think these girls are criminals.

Speaker 13:

Well, send them back to where they come from.

Jeffrey Rice:

And we're trying.

Speaker 14:

Sounds like somebody needs to do a better job screening people coming in.

Jeffrey Rice:

Well, that's a possibility.

Speaker 13:

Perhaps security here.

Jeffrey Rice:

That's a possibility, too.

Speaker 14:

Sounds to me like you guys need to come together with your company to get some type of different policy because you're not working in a safe environment.

Jeffrey Rice:

Okay, [inaudible 00:22:31] it safe, right [inaudible 00:22:31]?

Al Letson:

The State of Ohio is now trying to revoke the company's license to operate there after finding what they called seriously inadequate staff monitoring, supervision and staffing levels. APM Reports found that keeping staffing costs low is at the heart of Sequel's business model. Here's APM Reports' Curtis Gilbert again.

Curtis Gilbert:

Back in 2015, an entrepreneur named Jay Ripley gave a talk to a bunch of business students at his alma mater, the University of Baltimore.

Jay Ripley:

It's really an honor to be here, I mean, and thank you for showing up. We were thinking maybe...

Curtis Gilbert:

Ripley talked about the chain of fast casual burger joints he started in the Washington, DC area.

Jay Ripley:

The meat is all gourmet. It's a prime dry aged beef. It's like...

Curtis Gilbert:

In his early career as an executive at Jiffy Lube in the 1980's...

Jay Ripley:

We put a thousand units on the map in about 10 years. That was...

Curtis Gilbert:

That's where Ripley met his mentor, James Hindman. After their oil change business was taken over by another company in the early '90s, the two men hatched a plan to start a new venture. The idea was to run juvenile treatment centers and to make a profit doing it.

Curtis Gilbert:

At the time, reform schools were usually run either by the government or as charities. So they visited one in Pennsylvania to see how it worked. And when they saw the accounting ledger...

Jay Ripley:

Made so much money.

Curtis Gilbert:

Ripley was astonished at how much money was coursing through the place.

Jay Ripley:

And I'm like, "Jim, I think this is a good business. I'm not that smart, but I think this is a pretty good business."

Curtis Gilbert:

He helped Jim Hindman found Youth Services International and then in 1999, Ripley launched a competing company. He called it Sequel. Ripley discovered the demand for youth treatment was virtually limitless. Most of the customers were government agencies, probation, social services, and they almost always paid their bills on time. The revenue was way more predictable than some of the other businesses he'd started.

Jay Ripley:

In a restaurant, on a day like this, you're pretty much shut down. I mean, people don't go outside. It's raining. It really affects your business, whereas my business with kids in my programs around the country, I'm going to get paid today for all of those students that are in my academies today.

Curtis Gilbert:

That steady flow of cash allowed Sequel to expand across the country. By the time Ripley gave this talk five years ago, the company was pulling more than $200 million a year, and more than $30 million of that was pure profit.

Jay Ripley:

And the reason that we can make that profit is if you control your staffing level. You have to have enough staffing to have an excellent program, but you can't have too much staffing to eat up your profit.

Curtis Gilbert:

Ripley didn't respond to our interview request, but we know that his company went on an acquisition binge around this time. It was snapping up local chains from Florida to Utah to Ohio. And then in 2017, Ripley tried to take Sequel public, but the deal fizzled and he ended up selling it to a private equity firm instead. While all this was happening, C.J. Huff was working as a supervisor at a Sequel treatment center for girls in Alabama. He was watching the place go downhill.

C. J. Huff:

Kids fighting staff, staff fighting kids, all kind of chaos.

Curtis Gilbert:

Huff says two big things changed during his three years at a Sequel facility in the town of Owens Cross Roads. First, the company started taking kids who had more severe developmental disabilities.

C. J. Huff:

Just talking to the kid, you knew like, "Okay, this kid is not going to function well in this program." You know what I mean? And we would take these kids anyway. I think it was just more so just to fill a bed. You know what I mean?.

Curtis Gilbert:

Huff was working on his master's degree in psychology at the time. He says when he started, most of the employees had a background in social work or counseling. "But as the years went by," he says, "the quality of the new employees deteriorated."

C. J. Huff:

The staff that they were bringing in, you could see it was just more so of "I'm here for a job and not here for the kids." You know what I mean? They're not even qualified to be in a position that they in and they're just there.

Curtis Gilbert:

Huff says money was the root of the problem.

C. J. Huff:

I mean, you're not paying enough money to get quality employees. The people with the proper training, people who are graduating school and working on master's programs or things of that nature aren't applying because of the pay. They knew this, so it's just a recipe for destruction.

Curtis Gilbert:

Sending a kid to Sequel isn't cheap. Record show government agencies pay anywhere between $130 a day to more than $800 a day. But depending on the facility, former employees say starting wages for staff working in the dorms tended to be in the range of 11 to $13 an hour.

Kyla James:

Turnover was a huge issue.

Curtis Gilbert:

Kyla James used to work at Sequel's Lakeside Academy in Michigan.

Kyla James:

My understanding was that they were willing to hire literally anyone who was willing to take the job and could pass a background check.

Curtis Gilbert:

State record show that in 2019, more than one third of the staff at Lakeside had been on the job for less than a year. Darcy Wilkin also used to work at Lakeside Academy.

Darcy Wilkin:

When you hire 20-year-olds for $13 an hour to take care of 17-year-olds, that might not be a recipe for success. We needed more people who were better trained and better paid.

Curtis Gilbert:

In fact, in 2019, a Sequel executive acknowledged the company simply didn't pay enough of retain quality staff.

Gary Flohr:

For us to compete in this community, we've got to raise our wages.

Curtis Gilbert:

Gary Flohr was the executive director of the Sequel treatment center in Sheridan, Wyoming. He spoke about the problems facing the facility at a meeting of the local county board of commissioners.

Gary Flohr:

I mean, not many people are going to work for 12 and a quarter doing what we're doing when you can go out to the truck stop and be the night clerk for 12.50 or stock shelves at Walmart for 12.50.

Curtis Gilbert:

Sequel recently boosted wages at it's Wyoming treatment center to more than $15 an hour for employees with experience, but minutes of a company meeting from April show it still has a hard time recruiting. Public records show the staff there has had difficulty dealing with some of the kids Sequel accepts, and the government has struggled over the years to get the company to fix that. It's a story that illustrates just how difficult it is for regulators to control what happens in a privately-run treatment center.

Curtis Gilbert:

In 2016, the State of Wyoming issued a damning report about the facility which locals call NSI. The State found staff there physically restrained kids as a form of discipline. It also cited the company for accepting children who needed a higher level of care than it could provide.

Nicole Anderson:

They have a lot of issues.

Curtis Gilbert:

Nicole Anderson works for the Wyoming Department of Family Services and she helps oversee NSI.

Nicole Anderson:

It felt like when you were on campus that the kids were running the show. It was not safe and not healthy for those kids.

Curtis Gilbert:

Anderson says Sequel has been working to improve its culture since then, and it's made a lot of progress. But just as one problem at NSI seems to get better, another one pops up to replace it. Last year, it was dozens of runaways. This year, assaults have been way up. Korin Schmidt directs the Wyoming Department of Family Services. She says she's aware of the problems, but there's only so much she can do to address them because she's constrained by her state's licensing regulations.

Korin Schmidt:

It's really a primary focus on physical [inaudible 00:30:15] and health and safety, food, all of those typical things.

Curtis Gilbert:

Schmidt says the state isn't in the business of dictating the day-to-day operations or the kind of treatments Sequel offers.

Korin Schmidt:

That's really not our job. We are not therapists. We are not clinicians. We are not mental health experts. I do think there's some of a deficit there, but we're also in a state where we really do have a lot of respect for that private industry. They are a private business. While we have some responsibility to make sure the kids are safe, there's also payers who are paying for that service from that particular facility and they're buying those services. So is it our business, then, to go in and make therapeutic decisions on behalf of their program? I think that's a good debate.

Curtis Gilbert:

And in that debate, Wyoming has come down on the side of the free market. If customers don't like the way Sequel does business, they'll stop using its services, even though the kids who go to Sequel have little or no choice in the matter and the government agencies who pay the bills often have few other options. That hands-off approach from regulators has left law enforcement to deal with violence when it breaks out.

Curtis Gilbert:

Allen Thompson is the sheriff of Sheridan County. He's been meeting with Sequel management at NSI monthly, but he feels like his efforts haven't paid off.

Allen Thompson:

It's just emotionally and physically draining and exhausting to keep battling the same concern year after year after year. I'm just at the point now that our staff needs to focus on the residents of Sheridan County that need our services. NSI as a for-profit entity can spend their money doing what they need to do to make their students and staff safe. They're already getting a lot more of our time than most residents of Sheridan County are and I don't see any of that as change to the climate.

Curtis Gilbert:

Most of the kids at NSI aren't even from Wyoming. The state goes with other options for its own kids. But NSI is still getting a steady flow of residents and money from other states.

Al Letson:

That's Curtis Gilbert of APM Reports. He had reporting help on this story from a team of reporters including Tennessee Watson in Wyoming, Dustin Dwyer in Michigan and Connor O'Neill in Alabama. Sequel declined our request for an interview. In a statement, it said it had, quote, "provided the care and support needed to help our students live productive and fulfilling lives." But it added, "Our successes do not excuse our failures." When we come back, Angela Hunter's son Austin witnessed one of those failures.

Angela Hunter:

Look at the damage that the Sequel facility did to my son. Something broke in him.

Al Letson:

That's next on Reveal. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. For the last year, our partners at APM Reports have led a group of reporters investigating Sequel Youth and Family Services. They uncovered dozens of cases of abuse, improper restraints and decrepit conditions, many of which had never been previously reported. For much of its 20-year history, Sequel has been able to avoid public scrutiny, but last year, one state lawmaker from Oregon started to change that. Lauren Dake, our reporting partner at Oregon Public Broadcast, has that part of the story.

Lauren Dake:

It was 2018 and the state of Oregon had a problem. It didn't have enough homes for its foster kids. For a while, the state put kids in hotel rooms, but it got sued for that. It tried another solution: send the kids out of state. There are plenty of residential treatment centers with empty beds happy to take kids in exchange for hundreds of dollars a day per child. When State Senator Sara Gelser heard about this, she started googling the facilities.

Sara Gelser:

Right, the Senate Committee on Human Services will come to order.

Lauren Dake:

And at a legislative hearing, she told state regulators she was appalled.

Sara Gelser:

Facility after facility turned up reports of licensing violations, arrests, injuries, sexual assaults, inappropriate restraints and other problems. In fact, one of the facilities had so many concerns, that our neighboring state Washington pulled all of its kids out last fall. Our children remain there.

Lauren Dake:

She didn't just google. Gelser contacted licensing agencies and police departments in other states. She asked them to send her the reports on the facilities.

Sara Gelser:

There were things about blood on the walls, blood in the timeout room, sexual assault, oral sex, stabbing oneself in the stomach. It just was all so outrageous.

Lauren Dake:

Most of the kids being sent out of state to Tennessee, to Idaho, to Utah and beyond were in facilities owned or operated by the same company.

Mandy Moses:

Okay, good afternoon. My name is Mandy Moses and I'm the chief operating officer for Sequel Youth and Family Services.

Lauren Dake:

Sequel executives flew to Oregon to defend themselves in front of Gelser's committee.

Mandy Moses:

I am proud to serve in an organization whose mission is to prepare young people to lead responsible and fulfilling lives by providing mentoring, education and living support within a safe, structured and dynamic environment.

Lauren Dake:

The Sequel officials made a case that Sequel's treatment centers were a safe place for Oregon's kids but a couple weeks later, at one of those facilities holding Oregon kids in Utah...

Recording:

St. George police.

Recording:

I work at Red Rock [inaudible 00:36:19].

Lauren Dake:

The recording is hard to hear, but an employee at Sequel's Red Rock Canyon School...

Recording:

[inaudible 00:36:25] they just broke out into many, many fights.

Lauren Dake:

Says kids all over the campus are fighting.

Recording:

We don't have enough staff.

Lauren Dake:

She says there isn't enough staff to handle it.

Recording:

Is there any weapons?

Recording:

No. They're using anything they can find as weapons [inaudible 00:36:36].

Lauren Dake:

She asks for some officers to come out.

Speaker 28:

On the ground. On the ground. Everybody on the ground.

Lauren Dake:

A SWAT team arrived at the school.

Speaker 28:

Get on the ground. Do it now. Get on the ground. Do it now.

Speaker 29:

Stay down.

Speaker 30:

Stay on the ground.

Speaker 31:

Hands behind your back.

Lauren Dake:

More than 20 students were injured in the fights. The incident prompted an investigation, and Utah regulators found that fighting wasn't the only problem. They uncovered numerous accounts of staff abusing and mistreating kids. A few months later, Sequel closed the facility. The company said it had not consistently delivered on its mission.

Lauren Dake:

The whole thing confirmed Senator Gelser's fears. She wanted Oregon to stop sending kids to Sequel. She would wake up early in the morning before her own children were awake and she would fire off long emails about Sequel to regulators in other states. She blasted the company on Twitter. And when she couldn't stop thinking about the kids stuck in Sequel facilities, she would head out to her backyard.

Sara Gelser:

When we first moved into this house, literally there was a giant pile of bricks. Tons of bricks.

Lauren Dake:

To clear her mind, she would dig out the bricks and take a shovel and punch at the knotted, deep roots. Every time she thought she could finally start planting, there would be another layer of bricks and more tangled roots.

Sara Gelser:

When I was really frustrated, coming out and digging those roots and just getting really sweaty was a really good relief. It was a good way to really think about needing to get in deep to the root of the problem.

Lauren Dake:

It took about a year, but now the garden is full of daphne, scented geraniums and lavender. Gelser calls it her Sequel rage garden. As Gelser kept up the pressure, Sequel knew it was time for a change. The company hired a new CEO, a businessman they drew from a different industry.

Recording:

Today's special guest is the CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, Chris Roussos.

Recording:

Thank you, [Chantal 00:38:42]. Pleasure to be here. Real honor.

Recording:

What is it that inspires you about the business of fitness?

Recording:

Gosh, I've been a bit of a gym rat and a gym goer for years. [inaudible 00:38:52] been a member of 24...

Lauren Dake:

When Chris Roussos made the move from 24 Hour Fitness to Sequel, he promised things were going to get better. After months of damaging media report, he was on a mission to improve the company's image. There was one person he needed to win over.

Sara Gelser:

I was at dinner with my two daughters and my phone rang.

Lauren Dake:

Senator Gelser.

Sara Gelser:

It was, "Is Senator Gelser available?" I was like, "Well, may I say who's calling?" And he said, "Yes, my name is Chris Roussos. I'm the CEO of Sequel and I'd really just like to get to know her. I think she has some concerns about my company." I'm like, "Oh. That's me."

Lauren Dake:

On the phone, Roussos told Gelser he was in the midst of overhauling Sequel. He had installed hundreds of surveillance cameras. He'd been on listening tours visiting the facilities and he had a plan to reduce the use of physical restraints. He asked if he could show Gelser all the improvements he was making. She agreed to meet him in Iowa so they could tour some of the company's facilities together.

Sara Gelser:

So he ended up picking me up at the airport. I bought him a cup of coffee before I came out.

Lauren Dake:

The two spent hours in the car together.

Sara Gelser:

We made a lot of jokes about corn. There was so much corn. And Chris is really funny. I really liked him a lot.

Lauren Dake:

During the first tour, Gelser had a moment where she wondered if she had misjudged the company. The place was nice. The staff was polite. The residents seemed happy.

Sara Gelser:

Sequel is so good at answering the questions and they're so charming. When you go, it's like going to Disneyland. You know how you go to Disneyland and everybody is cheerful and wholesome and smiling and positive? That is the team that greets you. They make eye contact with you. They shake your hand. They're so polite. They're so friendly. They're so positive and enthusiastic and they love the kids. It's just like Disneyland.

Lauren Dake:

But Gelser still had doubts. She decided to stop at one more Sequel facility before flying home. She chose a treatment center in the Chicago suburbs that was charging her state $800 a day per child. This time, though, she wasn't going to go with Roussos. In fact, she wasn't going to tell anyone from Sequel. This visit would be unannounced.

Sara Gelser:

I got there in the midafternoon and it was so different because they didn't know I was coming. They knew who I was. They knew who I was pretty quickly.

Lauren Dake:

Gelser says Northern Illinois Academy was a mess. The walls were filthy and there was a terrible smell.

Sara Gelser:

Within the first few minutes before the executive director came out, they were kind of having this conversation, probably about what they were going to do with me. I saw a girl in an inappropriate restraint.

Lauren Dake:

Gelser said she saw a teenager with a developmental disability pinned up against the wall. Gelser says she was told that the girl had entered an office and headed toward a fruit bowl without knocking on the door first. At the end of her visit, Gelser walked outside.

Sara Gelser:

I remember I sat down and just started to cry.

Lauren Dake:

Gelser told regulators what she saw. They investigated and declared that the deficiencies at Sequel's Northern Illinois Academy were so serious, they put children's health and safety at risk. But the facility stayed open.

Lauren Dake:

About six months later, Gelser went to another Sequel facility. It was Lakeside Academy in Michigan, the same treatment center where Angela Hunter's son Austin alleged a staff member had assaulted him. The meeting at Lakeside was an attempt by Sequel to ease the state of Oregon's growing concerns. Sequel CEO Chris Roussos was there. His relationship with Gelser wasn't friendly anymore.

Sara Gelser:

And I told him, "Maybe you say the right things and I so want to believe you, but these things keep happening so I think you have a problem with your people on the ground because your restraints don't look like what your policies say, your executive directors tell you people have training that they don't have. All these things keep happening and your kids are in danger."

Lauren Dake:

Gelser also issued a warning.

Sara Gelser:

Somebody's going to die. Somebody's going to be seriously hurt, they're going to die in one of these restraints.

Lauren Dake:

One of the kids who was living at Lakeside Academy then was Cornelius Frederick, Jr. He was 16, a ward of the state because his mother was dead and his father was in prison. Kyla James was one of his teachers there.

Kyla James:

On the first day you come in, of course you introduce yourself to all of the kids and ask them for their names. He very sweetly said Cornelius Fredericks and I said, "That is the most elegant I've ever heard." I got a smile, a genuine smile. He had a really beautiful smile and I see it all the time.

Lauren Dake:

In April, Cornelius was siting by himself in the Lakeside lunchroom. He tried to start a food fight. He threw a couple pieces of his sandwich at another boy. It's nothing that hasn't happened in every high school cafeteria in the country, but what happened next wasn't normal.

Lauren Dake:

A staffer shoved Cornelius to the floor and held him there. Seven other employees joined in. They pinned him down for 12 straight minutes. When it finally ended, Cornelius was limp and unresponsive. The staff stood around, tried to sit him up, splashed a little water on him. Some would later say they thought he was faking. It took another 12 minutes before the head nurse finally called 911.

Recording:

Emergency dispatch.

Recording:

Hi, my name's Heather. I'm a nurse at Lakeside Academy and we need an ambulance here.

Recording:

Lakeside Academy?

Recording:

Yep. We had [inaudible 00:44:59] that he was in a restraint and now he's unresponsive.

Recording:

Is he breathing?

Recording:

Yes, but lightly.

Lauren Dake:

Cornelius died at the hospital two days later. The medical examiner ruled it homicide by asphyxiation. The surveillance video circulated on social media. It showed the staff pinning down Cornelius for 12 minutes and waiting another 12 minutes to call 911. Cornelius was Black and his death drew comparisons to the police killing of George Floyd and sparked protests around the country.

Recording:

There's nothing worse than seeing a child that's 16 years old murdered. Nothing worse in the whole wide world. We're not letting our children die no more. Say no more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

No more.

Recording:

We are not allowing our children to die anymore.

Lauren Dake:

The nurse and two of the staffers who held Cornelius down have been charged with child abuse and involuntary manslaughter. Sequel claimed it was cooperating with investigation, but police record show its lawyers tried to prevent detectives from interviewing its employees. In a statement to APM Reports this summer, the company said, quote, "There is no question Cornelius should be with us today." His family has filed a lawsuit against Sequel. Geoffrey Fieger is one of their attorneys.

Geoffrey Fieger:

This is what happens when you turn over, you privatize and you turn over facilities that really should be much more regulated and overseen. I'm hoping to disclose to the people of not only the State of Michigan, but the United States that the privatization of these facilities that are run for profit and institutionalized children who have no choice in the matter are being treated as commodities and not as human beings.

Lauren Dake:

After Cornelius died, Lakeside Academy fell into chaos. Students brawled along racial lines. At least 10 ran away. One of them was Austin Hunter, the boy from Minnesota.

Angela Hunter:

He didn't even have shoes on him or anything.

Lauren Dake:

Austin's mom Angela says her son saw what happened to Cornelius. He was there in the lunchroom and he was afraid something like that might happen to him. After he ran away, he broke into a YMCA and a motel. He stole food out of a vending machine. Police found him three days later hiding in the woods. To top it off, he tested positive for COVID-19. There had been a significant outbreak at Sequel's Lakeside Academy. He was one of 41 kids there who caught it.

Lauren Dake:

Austin had already experienced the unimaginable trauma of his early life. Angela says he left Lakeside Academy even more traumatized.

Angela Hunter:

Look at the damage that the Sequel facility did to my son. Something broke in him, and our relationship changed after Michigan. I think he feels like he doesn't trust us or anything anymore, which I don't even... I can tell there's a difference. Not okay. He's not okay. He's not okay and he'll never be okay again. You don't come back from some of this stuff.

Lauren Dake:

Her son is now back in Minnesota and once again, the county's having trouble finding somewhere to send him so he's living in a juvenile detention center.

Angela Hunter:

Wherever he ends up, I'm going to make sure this time. I'm not going to trust that because the county takes them there that it's okay. That's my problem. I trusted too much. I trusted the outside of the place, I trusted the people that were supposed to help my son, I trusted. Now, I'm going to have every piece of paperwork there is and I'm going to be involved in every single thing because I'm going to know. I'm going to drive them nuts.

Lauren Dake:

One thing is for certain. Wherever Austin goes next, it won't be run by Sequel. Angela won't allow it neither will the state of Minnesota. It cut its ties with the company this summer after Cornelius Frederick was killed.

Al Letson:

Lauren Dake is a reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. She's a part of a team led by APM Reports that spent the last year investigating Sequel Youth and Family Services. You can find their complete investigation online at apmreports.org/sequel, including a video reconstruction of what happened to Cornelius Frederick at Lakeside Academy.

Al Letson:

The state of Michigan forced Lakeside and another Sequel facility there to close. The company has shut down a total of eight treatment centers since 2019. Many of the closings happened during investigations or under pressure from government regulators. Ohio is in the process of trying to revoke Sequel's license to operate there. Chris Roussos is no longer the company CEO. He lasted a little over a year in the job.

Al Letson:

Sequel declined our interview request. In a written statement it said, quote, "Without organizations like ours, vulnerable youth with a potential to live vibrant lives will continue to fall through the cracks." It added, "That's why we can and must do better."

Al Letson:

For the state of Oregon, the death of Cornelius Frederick at Lakeside Academy was the last straw. It finally did what Senator Gelser had been pushing for. The state brought its foster kids home. It found places for them in Oregon and like Minnesota, it severed ties with Sequel. But Sequel survives. It runs 29 treatment centers around the country, and dozens of states still send kids to them.

Al Letson:

Today's show was produced by Curtis Gilbert from APM Reports and Lauren Dake at OPB in Oregon. Today's show was a part of a huge reporting collaboration that included Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio, Tennessee Watson of Wyoming Public Radio, Connor O'Neill in Alabama, Natasha Senjanovic in Tennessee, David Fuchs of KUER in Salt Lake City, Daniel Lathrop in Iowa and APM Reports' Audrey Kennedy and Will Craft. Also, thanks to Nomin Ujiyediin of KCUR in Kansas City.

Al Letson:

Catherine Winter edited today's program. Dave Mann and Andy Kruse edited the online version of this story. You can find it at apmreports.org/sequel. Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo [J Breezy 00:52:15], Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado 00:52:29], Lightning.

Al Letson:

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundations, the Democracy Fund and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

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