Under scrutiny, company that claimed to help troubled youth closes many operations and sells others
Many of Sequel’s behavioral health treatment centers are sold or closed following abuse allegations. But some facilities might have new life under a different name and one of the original founders.
Five years ago, Sequel Youth & Family Services ran a chain of treatment programs that took in and tried to help troubled kids from all over the United States. It was valued by investors at more than $400 million. The company dreamed of dominating America’s $220 billion behavioral health care industry. Today, Sequel has all but vanished.
Following a barrage of abuse scandals and media attention, including a 2020 investigation by APM Reports, the company has shut down close to half of its treatment centers and sold most of the rest to a new company called Vivant Behavioral Healthcare.
In 2017 Sequel operated 35 residential treatment centers in 16 states. It also ran outpatient programs in a handful of others. The company told investors it was “well positioned to serve as industry consolidator,” thanks in part to its “clean regulatory and litigation history.”
But the next year, advocates for people with disabilities started to raise alarm about the way Sequel allegedly treated children. Government regulators and the media took notice.
Sequel shut down treatment centers where alleged abuse surfaced. And the company vowed to reduce the use of physical restraints on children. But despite those efforts, in 2020, a 16-year-old boy died after staff at Sequel’s Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, Michigan, held him on the floor for 12 minutes.
Captured on silent surveillance camera video, the death of Cornelius Fredrick Jr. was compared by some to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police that same year, and the public pressure on Sequel increased. Washington, California, Oregon and Minnesota stopped sending kids to the company’s treatment centers. In the two years since the incident, Sequel shut down 11 of those centers, which followed six closures in 2019. Today the Sequel brand has been removed from almost all its former treatment centers’ web sites.
Sequel settled a lawsuit from Fredrick’s family in December. Neither side disclosed the terms of the settlement.
The latest Sequel treatment centers to close are in Idaho, Florida, and Iowa, all of which had been under government scrutiny in recent years.
In June, Sequel announced it was shutting down its 60-bed treatment center in Mountain Home, Idaho, a city of 16,000 people located about 40 miles southeast of Boise. The operation housed a significant number of children from Oregon, which stopped sending them to Sequel treatment centers in 2020.
Earlier that year, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare wrote a scathing report accusing the treatment center of significant failure in staff oversight and training resulting in “over 100 incidents of aberrant sexual behavior by five children over at least three months, and possibly as far back as seven months.”
Last August, Sequel’s Pompano Youth Treatment Center failed a state inspection that found a range of deficiencies at the 24-bed Florida treatment center. Inspectors said the facility didn’t meet state standards related to programming, education, supervision, and mental health treatment. The facility, which Sequel operated under a contract with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, shut down the following month.
In December 2021, Sequel closed both locations of its Forest Ridge Youth Services treatment program in Iowa. The closure was voluntary, but it came at the end of a difficult period for the program.
In 2020, Emmet County Sheriff Mike Martens contacted the state to complain about the burden Forest Ridge was placing on his department.
“Officers frequently were called to investigate peer-on-peer assaults, sexual assault allegations, staff-on-resident misconduct, and runaways,” the state report on Martens’ complaint noted. He complained that Forest Ridge was admitting children “they were not qualified to care for, were allowing children to prey on one another, and were failing to keep children safe by allowing them to leave the facility unsupervised.”
The report also includes an email Martens sent the state last April: “It is time for a change of how business is conducted. The State of Iowa’s placing some of these young people in this unrestricted environment is frankly absurd.”
The state investigation found no rule violations. The sheriff’s frustrations are similar to those expressed by local law enforcement about Sequel treatment centers in Ohio and Wyoming. Those treatment programs were also shut down in recent years.
But some of Sequel’s operations are continuing under new ownership.
Most of the former Sequel treatment centers that remain open are now controlled by Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, which was founded in 2021 by Jay Ripley, one of three people who founded Sequel in 1999.
Ripley started in the juvenile corrections business in the early 1990s, when he helped start Youth Services International with his boss and mentor James Hindman. Hindman had founded the Jiffy Lube chain of auto service centers, and Ripley worked for him.
After helping launch YSI, Ripley became the chief executive of Precision Tune Auto Care. He returned to youth treatment in 1999, taking over a former YSI treatment center in Iowa. He named his new business Sequel because it was his second foray into the industry.
Ripley sold a majority stake in Sequel to private equity firm Altamont Capital Partners in 2017, shortly after his bid to take the company public fizzled due to insufficient investment. An Altamont press release said Ripley would "remain involved with the business as chairman of the board through its next phases of growth." An SEC filing that year pegged Sequel’s value at an estimated $421 million.
Vivant hasn’t bought all of Sequel’s remaining assets. A nonprofit organization in Kansas will take over a Sequel treatment center there, according to Kansas City public radio station KCUR.
Websites for three former Sequel facilities in Utah and Tennessee indicate that they are now run by Rite of Passage, a company based in Nevada.
And Sequel’s Capital Academy in New Jersey is now controlled by a local company called Willow Grove LLC. A woman who answered the phone at Capital Academy and asked not to be identified said it was not part of Vivant.
Ripley did not return a voicemail message seeking comment, and Altamont didn’t answer an email inquiry.
Vivant, which does not have a website or any listed phone numbers, sent APM Reports an email asking for questions in writing, but it did not answer them. Instead, it responded with a written statement saying, “Jay Ripley and his family formed Vivant with the goal to help youth and adult consumers of behavioral health services” and that the company was “committed to providing ethical and quality treatment services to its clients and their families and communities.”
In Alabama Vivant’s application for a business registration was signed by Ripley’s daughter, Christine Aron, who previously served as Sequel’s vice president of business development.
Vivant is using the change of ownership to fight litigation against the treatment centers formerly owned by Sequel. In a court filing last week in Alabama, it argued that the lawsuit should be moved out of state court because the Ripley family is based in Virginia and an intricate series of business entities that comprise and control Vivant are incorporated in Virginia and Delaware.
Sequel is “playing hide the ball, and they’re trying to avoid accountability and responsibility for [what they did] to these children and our clients,” said Tommy James, an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, who has three suits pending against Sequel facilities now controlled by Vivant.
Sequel received little public attention before Altamont took control of it in 2017, but state regulators reported serious problems at its facilities before the private equity firm took control. Those included sexual abuse by staff, bullying by residents, inappropriate physical restraints and employees sleeping on the job, according to records.
Oregon state Senator Sara Gelser has spent years demanding accountability for Sequel, and she is continuing the crusade against Vivant. “It's like this many-headed Hydra. You cut off the head. You think you're making progress, and then it just comes back stronger,” Gelser said. “How can the same people continue to be trusted with what they say are the most vulnerable kids that we have? … The name isn't the problem. The leadership is the problem.”