Following abuse reports, the company has now shuttered a dozen youth treatment centers in the past two years, including its flagship academy.
Sequel Youth & Family Services, once one of the nation’s largest operators of treatment centers for children with behavioral problems, plans to close three more facilities, including its flagship academy, continuing the company’s contraction in the past two years amid wide-spread reports of abuse.
In the past three weeks, Sequel announced plans to shutter Clarinda Academy in Clarinda, Iowa, the company’s original facility; Normative Services Academy in Sheridan, Wyoming, which it had managed for 18 years; and Auldern Academy, a small private school in Siler City, North Carolina. All three are closing due to decreasing enrollment, according to statements from the company and state regulators.
The closures will bring to 12 the number of Sequel facilities closed since 2019. The company has been under sustained pressure from disability rights groups and state lawmakers, and has received a flurry of national media attention, including an investigation by APM Reports, following the May 2020 death of 16-year-old Cornelius Fredrick, who lost consciousness after he was restrained by staff at a Sequel facility in Michigan.
“At Sequel, we continuously evaluate our programs to ensure we are meeting the needs of our clients. Based on a recent review, we made the voluntary decision to terminate our contract with NSI Academy in Wyoming, Clarinda Academy in Iowa and close Auldern Academy in North Carolina,” the company said in a recent statement to APM Reports.
At its height, Sequel operated more than 30 facilities and housed kids from more than 40 states and territories. The company acted as the last resort for county and state governments looking for places to care for children with behavioral issues.
But the company’s treatment of kids became national news last summer when footage of Sequel staff restraining Fredrick became public. The video showed up to seven staff members holding Fredrick to the ground for 12 minutes as he struggled to breathe. He died two days later. Prosecutors charged three former employees with child abuse and involuntary manslaughter, and Sequel closed the facility under pressure from Michigan officials.
In October, a team of public radio reporters across 10 states led by APM Reports published an investigation into conditions at Sequel facilities, finding dozens of cases of abuse, neglect, sexual assault, and the improper use of restraints on children.
Minnesota, Oregon and Maryland cut ties with the company following Fredrick’s death. Since the APM Reports story in October, California and Washington also severed ties with Sequel. California was an especially tough loss for the company. The state was its third-largest source of revenue, according to a 2017 presentation, and has sent more than 1,000 children to Sequel facilities since 2014. As of December, California officials said they had 116 children placed in 12 facilities and pledged to bring them all home by the end of January. That decision likely accelerated the closures in Iowa and Wyoming. Sequel will continue to operate 25 centers in 12 states.
Closing its flagship
NBC News first reported the closure of Clarinda Academy on Friday, and it has been confirmed by APM Reports. The 267-bed academy was Sequel’s largest facility and where the company was born.
The academy opened in 1992, the brainchild of Jiffy Lube founder James Hindman, who had spent part of his childhood in an Iowa orphanage. Sequel, founded by Hindman’s acolyte Jay Ripley, took over management of the facility in 1999.
But like Sequel facilities closed across the country in recent weeks, Clarinda Academy was strained by declining enrollment. “Last week Sequel Youth Corp. notified the Department of Human Services of their decision to close Clarinda Academy due to reduced census,” Matt Highland, spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Human Services, said in a statement.
The number of residents at Clarinda had been declining for years. The facility had 192 residents in May 2018, according to government records. By late last year, Clarinda was down to just 55 residents, 10 of whom were from California, according to a report from the state Department of Social Services. California’s decision to sever ties with Sequel was a hit to a facility that was already struggling.
Hennepin County, Minnesota’s most populous county, pulled its kids out of Clarinda in June 2018 saying the facility wasn’t meeting “safety and well-being requirements for clients.” Four months later, Disability Rights Washington published a scathing report on the culture, treatment and use of restraints at Clarinda, leading Washington to stop sending kids there, too.
A facility in the Bighorns
Normative Services Academy, also called NSI, was Sequel’s first residential treatment center outside of Iowa. The facility was founded in 1990, and its board of directors hired Sequel to take over operations in 2003.
The facility is nestled in the Bighorn Mountains of Sheridan, Wyoming, but most of its residents came from other states. The Wyoming Department of Family Services sent just three kids to the 120-bed facility last year, down from 55 in 2011. As a result, NSI became increasingly dependent on residents from other states, especially Montana and California.
Sequel announced the closing following an evaluation of NSI’s viability, according to a written statement. “This action is being done proactively and is not in anyway [sic] related to any issues or concerns with the care and high quality services provided by Normative Services,” the statement said.
In recent years, NSI has been a source of controversy in Sheridan. Neighbors complained about a rash of runaways in 2019, and Sheridan County Sheriff Allen Thompson became exasperated with the growing number of assaults committed by residents.
“It’s just emotionally and physically draining and exhausting to keep battling this the same concern year after year after year,” he told APM Reports last year. “I’m just at the point now that our staff needs to focus on the residents of Sheridan County that need our services, and NSI as a for-profit entity can spend their money doing what they need to do to make their students and staff safe.”
The private academy
Few investigations into Sequel have so far mentioned Auldern Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in North Carolina for up to 60 girls, grades 8 through 12.
Unlike other Sequel facilities that accept kids from state and county governments, Auldern Academy is a private school, and it operated with little government oversight.
Ripley, the Sequel founder, once expressed doubt about the long-term viability of a facility that relies on private tuition. “The first thing a parent’s going to do when they lose their job is stop paying $100,000 a year to put their kid in a private, therapeutic boarding school,” he said in a 2015 forum hosted by his alma mater, the University of Baltimore.
Though Sequel would not say why enrollment was down at Auldern, Ripley’s fear may have come true. Whether it was economic uncertainty, the Covid-19 pandemic, heightened scrutiny of the company, or a combination of factors, Auldern closed because too few students were attending the school.
“Due to decreased demand for services at this location, we have made the difficult decision to close the Auldern Academy,” Sequel said in a statement to APM Reports.
Even with the recent closures, the company is still acquiring new programs. Early in 2020, the company announced a partnership with Pine Cone Therapies in Texas, and in June, it opened a facility in Arizona.