The once-ascendant youth treatment company has agreed to shutter its 14th center in the past three years following a state report that found abuse of kids with autism, including one resident who was allegedly whipped with a tree branch.
Sequel Youth & Family Services, the company at the center of a 2020 APM Reports investigation, has agreed to close a New Mexico treatment center for children with autism after a state investigation found abuse, harmful staff behavior, and inadequate supervision of its vulnerable residents.
In one case, the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department found that a staff member used a tree branch to whip a resident. It referred the case to the local district attorney for possible criminal charges. Bernalillo Academy will close its doors by Dec. 22.
Bernalillo Academy is the fifth Sequel facility to close this year, and the 14th treatment center that the company has shuttered in the past three years, following repeated abuse and neglect scandals. Sequel is one of the nation’s largest youth treatment companies.
The 63-bed academy in Albuquerque provided treatment for children with profound autism, including those who were unable to speak and had IQs as low as 50. The facility promised “excellent programs that make permanent, positive changes in the lives of the children and families we serve,” according to its website. But independent monitors painted a very different picture of the facility, which featured an outdoor play area surrounded by a fence topped with newly installed razor wire, according to the state’s report.
“The conditions that we encountered in that facility were horrific,” said Carissa Tashiro, a staff attorney with the independent watchdog group Disability Rights New Mexico. The organization's observations at Bernalillo Academy were cited in the state report. Disability Rights New Mexico is the state's official protection and advocacy organization. Every state has one, and they have independent federal authority to inspect and investigate treatment programs for people with disabilities. “Our monitors encountered a lot of children with physical injuries, bruises, scratches [and] large gashes.”
She said the injuries were the result of fighting among residents, which state regulators found the academy’s staff failed to stop.
Bernalillo Academy also prevented residents from contacting Disability Rights New Mexico, though they have a legal right to do so. Staff at the facility confiscated the business cards the monitor handed out to residents, according to the state report.
The state ordered Bernalillo Academy to correct the problems in July. The following month, a state review found the facility remained out of compliance, and by October, Sequel agreed to begin shutting the academy down.
“[The Children, Youth and Families Department] is working with each child’s providers, treatment teams and their families to find appropriate placements and resources for each child where their health and safety is our primary focus,” the state agency said in a written statement. Sequel did not respond to repeated requests for comment from APM Reports.
It was not the first time that staffers at Bernalillo Academy had been cited for abuse or accused of using excessive force against its residents.
A 2012 investigation by Disability Rights New Mexico found that staffers at the facility, which had fewer than 40 residents at the time, used physical restraints on residents 700 times during a 10-month period. The amount of injury caused by restraints varied over time. A review of just one of those months revealed that 30 percent of restraints injured residents, and a few months later 10 percent of restraints resulted in injury.
One resident at the academy was restrained as many as 49 times in a single month, according to the report.
A state investigation substantiated a claim that a staff member abused two students at the academy in 2012. The staff member left visible bruises on one student’s face and pinched another multiple times. The report found that the staff member acted unlawfully and “menacing” toward the students, who were both severely disabled and unable to speak.
The state agency also found that staff members pushed students into a windowsill and onto the ground in 2012.
Another state inquiry from 2019 found that a nurse on staff was texting and applying ChapStick while assessing a student for an injury. The report also described an incident where staff didn’t stop a child who was trying to harm themselves.
Bernalillo Academy is the fifth Sequel facility to close this year. In May, four state agencies in Illinois announced they were removing all the children in their custody from a Sequel treatment center there. The move followed a report from an independent watchdog organization that found “continuing systemic problems” at Northern Illinois Academy, including inadequate supervision and “abusive” restraints.
Sequel closed facilities in Iowa and Wyoming earlier in the year after California’s Department of Social Services announced that it would no longer send foster children to the company and other out-of-state providers. Sequel also closed a boarding school in North Carolina that catered to girls from wealthy families.
This summer, Sequel briefly reopened a psychiatric hospital in Ohio that had shut down in 2020 under state pressure after a nurse there was charged with assaulting a resident. The company rebranded Sequel Pomegranate as Torii Behavioral Health, but within months it notified the state that the facility was closing again.
Sequel was once on a path to dominate the youth treatment industry in the United States, telling potential investors that the industry was “ripe for consolidation.” The company boasted it had a clean reputation in the industry compared to its competitors, and it had positioned itself as a national magnet for some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.
But in 2019 regulatory agencies in multiple states began to scrutinize Sequel operations more closely and found numerous accounts of abuse. That led to a cascade of facility closures that has lasted three years.
The state investigations also led to greater scrutiny from the media, including APM Reports, which published an investigation last year documenting abuse and mistreatment at Sequel operations nationwide. Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Salt Lake Tribune, KUER in Utah, Vice News, NBC News, InvestigateWest, the San Francisco Chronicle and 10TV in Columbus also investigated Sequel.
The media attention grew after Cornelius Fredrick Jr., a resident at Sequel’s Lakeside Academy in Michigan, died in May 2020 following a restraint. Three Sequel employees were charged in his death. One has since pleaded no contest.
Sequel has repeatedly promised to do better in recent years. The company increased training and internal oversight. It switched to a new system designed to reduce the use of restraints on residents. But those measures weren’t enough to prevent closure of Bernalillo Academy.