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Senators launch investigation into child abuse allegations at treatment facilities

The probe focuses on  four of the biggest companies and organizations running youth treatment facilities, which have been accused of harming children in their care.
Demonstrators protest institutional child abuse at the Capitol on May 11, 2022.
Demonstrators protest institutional child abuse at the Capitol on May 11, 2022.Bryan Dozier / Shutterstock

A pair of senators are launching 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. 

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., sent letters Thursday to the heads of four of the largest companies and organizations operating residential treatment facilities across the country — Vivant Behavioral Healthcare, Universal Health Services, Acadia Healthcare and Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health — requesting information about each location and program they operate. 

The senators asked for documentation on policies for restraining children or placing them in seclusion, the training provided to employees and the number of maltreatment and abuse incidents over the past five years. They also asked for details on contracts, funding sources, complaints and inspections, how the companies spend their money, and how the companies ensure that children in their programs get a proper education

The lawmakers said they want the information by Aug. 4. The letters are the start of an investigation led by Murray, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Wyden, chair of the Finance Committee. The senators chose the four companies and organizations because they run a large number of facilities nationwide and operate programs “at which abuses are reported to have occurred,” according to a spokesman for the HELP committee.

“Kids and teens struggling with mental health, substance use, and other challenges must be able to get the care and support they need in a compassionate, safe, and nurturing environment. Period," Murray said in a statement. "But it’s clear that egregious treatment of young people has occurred in residential care facilities across the country — so we’re demanding answers and accountability."

Child welfare advocates have ramped up pressure on Congress over the past year to crack down on youth treatment facilities, citing investigations by state agencies, watchdog groups and journalists documenting abuse and mistreatment of institutionalized children. 

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One of the letters was sent to Jay Ripley, Vivant’s CEO, and a co-founder of Sequel Youth & Family Services. 

Sequel built a business based largely on charging state government agencies $250 to $800 a day to house minors from the foster and juvenile justice systems, as well as children with special needs. The company closed at least 17 locations in the past five years, following a series of investigations revealing abuse allegations, decrepit living conditions, falsified records and the high-profile homicide of a child at a Sequel facility that has since closed. In response to the investigations, Sequel executives said at the time that the company invested in hiring additional staff and improving their training, and always cooperated with inquiries from state agencies and law enforcement.

Ripley launched Vivant last year and told NBC News that he had purchased several remaining Sequel facilities, but declined to say which ones. Ripley said in an email in November that his new company had signed a nondisclosure agreement, and that only Sequel could say which facilities were purchased by Vivant. 

Ripley did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. In an unsigned statement, Vivant 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.”

Sequel has not responded to requests for comment, and no longer lists contact information or the facilities it operates on its website.

UHS, the country’s largest chain of psychiatric hospitals and another one of the companies the senators are scrutinizing, was accused in a 2016 investigation by BuzzFeed News of holding patients for as many days as their insurer will pay for, regardless of actual medical need. UHS disputed those allegations, and said it had the approval of independent regulatory agencies and accreditors such as The Joint Commission. However, in 2020, the company agreed to pay $117 million in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve claims it had billed for medically unnecessary inpatient behavioral health services.

UHS also owns Provo Canyon School, a private youth treatment facility that has been accused of abusing minors for decades, alarming state lawmakers who have said the institution traumatizes children. Celebrity businesswoman Paris Hilton was placed in Provo Canyon as a teen, and has become a leading activist pushing for tougher oversight of residential youth facilities. The company has repeatedly declined to address Hilton’s criticism, and Provo Canyon has said the facility has evolved in recent years to a “personalized, trauma-informed approach.”

UHS said it is reviewing the senators’ letter.

A report released last year by the National Disability Rights Network raised concern that too many children were being placed in for-profit facilities, where they “are given powerful drugs they do not need, and are housed in vermin infested buildings.” The report described allegations of inappropriate physical restraints of children, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or staffing shortages at facilities operated by all four of the organizations the senators have targeted.

The report cited examples that included an Acadia facility in Montana that injected a 9-year-old with antihistamines as a punishment for misbehavior in 2019, and a lawsuit filed in 2021 — that is still pending — alleging multiple children had been sexually abused by staff at Devereux facilities.

An Acadia spokeswoman said in 2019 that the company’s staff only injects children “when absolutely necessary for the patient’s safety.”

On Thursday, Gretchen Hommrich, vice president for investor relations at Acadia, said in a statement: "We look forward to working with the Senators and assisting in any way we can to improve access and care for all children and adolescents in need of behavioral health care services."

Devereux, a nonprofit, has said it has taken several steps to prevent sexual assaults, including increased training to detect grooming and potential abuse, and increased pay to attract better staff.

Devereux did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.