The mother of a 15-year-old Alabama boy who died days after sustaining self-inflicted injuries at a youth psychiatric treatment facility claims in a wrongful death lawsuit that her son was trapped in “a living hell” — but his pleas for help were ignored.
Connor Bennett, who died in April, was held for about six months at a former Sequel TSI facility in Tuskegee, a place the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Macon County, describes as “scary and dangerous despite being a place for the most vulnerable and troubled children.”
“The facility was a living hell for Connor,” the lawsuit states, adding that “violence was rampant” and there was “little to no supervision.”
“As a result, on numerous occasions, Connor was horrifically brutalized sexually, physically, and emotionally by other residents,” the lawsuit states. “He was living an unimaginable nightmare and always feared for his safety.”
Bennett, according to the complaint, “suffered from behavioral issues” that prompted the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) to take custody of him in September 2021. A month later, he was dispatched to the Tuskegee facility.
The facility, which started operations in 1998, describes itself as a residential treatment facility that provides “comprehensive, challenging, and therapeutic services for adolescent males ages 12 to 18. Boys are assigned to the program by the Alabama Department of Youth Services following a court decision. It has since been rebranded under the name Brighter Path.
Bennett “made numerous reports of the sexual abuse he was enduring to facility staff and their supervisors,’’ according to the lawsuit.
“Despite these cries for help, staffing ignored the reports and chose to do absolutely nothing to prevent the abuse so the assaults on Connor continued. Connor was desperate and felt he had lost all hope,” the lawsuit claims.
He escaped the facility several times during his monthslong stay and the lawsuit states that “staff would rarely notice he was gone.”
On April 5, Bennett sustained self-inflicted injuries at the facility, the suit states. He was still alive when he was found but died six days later at Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham.
Now Bennett’s mother, Ashley Crittenden, is seeking unspecified damages from Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, the company that operates the Brighter Path Tuskegee facility, as well as other unnamed individuals who allegedly failed to monitor what was happening or “failed to intervene when Connor Bennett was being physically and sexually abused by other residents.”
There was no immediate legal response from Brighter Path and, when an NBC News reporter called the facility in Tuskegee and asked to speak with a spokesperson, the operator hung up.
The suit was filed by attorneys Tommy James of Tommy James Law and Jeremy Knowles of the Morris Haynes law firm. Both have filed previous lawsuits against Sequel.
James said in a statement Wednesday that the Tuskegee facility and facilities like it are a part of the “troubled teen industry,” a multibillion-dollar network of for-profit youth residential facilities where widespread abuse and neglect have been revealed.
In January, the same lawyers sued on behalf of another teenager who said Tuskegee staffers fostered a “culture of violence” by not intervening when residents fought each other, The Montgomery Advertiser reported. That lawsuit is still ongoing.
Brighter Path operates several psychiatric residential treatment facilities for youths in Alabama, which are licensed and certified by both the DHR and the Alabama Department of Youth Services.
In July, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore,. launched an investigation into abuse at facilities that house children with special needs and mental health issues as well as children from the foster care and juvenile justice systems.
“The United States Senate recently began investigating the largest companies operating these facilities across the country,” the lawyers said in a statement. “The Senate investigation includes Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, the parent company that operates the Brighter Path Tuskegee facility. The CEO of Vivant is Jay Ripley, the founder of Sequel.”
Vivant is named in the lawsuit, but not Ripley. NBC News has reached out to Ripley for comment.
In July, Vivant released an unsigned statement that said: “We will review the letter and work with Chairman Wyden and Chairwoman Murray as we share the same goal of providing quality services and care to children and youth in residential treatment centers.”
Bennett, according to the lawsuit, was subject to constant mistreatment by staff.
“They frequently antagonized him and other residents and instigated fights among them. The staff was also physically aggressive towards Connor,” according to the complaint.
Bennett grew up in Mobile and there was no mention of Sequel in his obituary.
“He cherished his family and had a heart of gold,’’ the obituary states. “In his passing, he was able to save a minimum of four other lives by being an organ donor. His light will forever shine in those lives he has touched.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.