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How reporters exposed abuse at residential programs where California sent troubled youth

How reporters exposed abuse at residential programs where California sent troubled youth

Picture of Cynthia Dizikes
(Photo by AntoinePound via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by AntoinePound via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In the fall of 2019, I took part in the USC Center for Health Journalism’s Data Fellowship with the goal of building an air pollution database that would allow the public to see whether local oil refineries, power plants, gas stations and manufacturers were violating air pollution laws, and if so, whether they faced any meaningful consequences. 

I worked with the USC team to craft public records requests for enforcement data from California’s 35 local air districts. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom focused its coverage on the coronavirus and its impact on the Bay Area.  

My colleague and I started reporting on a tip he had received about dozens of teens who had contracted or been exposed to the virus after they were evacuated from a residential treatment program in Michigan where a boy had been killed by staff.

We soon paired up with a reporter at The Imprint who had received the same tip, and discovered that the private company that had run the Michigan program had long been accused of harming children in its care. 

I refocused my data fellowship to investigate Sequel Youth & Family Services, which provided court-ordered treatment for a majority of California foster youth and teens who were sent out of state after being adjudicated for crimes. 

My colleagues and I consulted with the USC team to help shore up a database we had created from incident reports at Sequel facilities that housed California youth.

To build the database, we requested public documents from agencies in several states detailing alleged licensing violations at Sequel facilities. 

These were provided as PDFs. We then used Google Forms to log every licensing investigation and violation for the eight Sequel programs recently certified by California. This allowed us to tally the allegations of maltreatment. 

We also grouped allegations and findings into different categories, which allowed us to show how frequently children were physically assaulted by staff or placed in improper or dangerous restraints.

The records from the state agencies all differed in their scope and presentation. To create a consistent dataset, we removed several types of licensing violations from our analysis, such as minor maintenance violations. This allowed us to focus on the frequency of staff misconduct, including physical or emotional harm at Sequel-run programs. 

Our first story ran on Dec. 11, 2020 and documented a long history of abuse allegations at Sequel programs used by California. California social services officials had been aware of these problems yet continued to certify these programs, even as other states cut ties with Sequel. 

Three weeks after we sent the California Department of Social Services a memo outlining our findings, the agency announced it would decertify all out-of-state residential treatment programs and bring 116 children back to California to receive treatment closer to home.

Youth advocates had been pushing the state to end out-of-state placements for years, calling the programs inappropriate and harmful for traumatized youth. After reviewing some of the same records compiled by reporters, the social services agency declared the programs “lacking,” citing a long list of licensing violations that included staff members intimidating and demeaning residents and using “excessive force” during hands-on restraints that caused bruises and injuries.

Former residents we spoke with cheered the state’s action, saying they hoped it meant other children would never have to experience what they did in these programs. Youth advocates also applauded the move, while child welfare and probation officials questioned why it had taken the state so long to cut ties with the programs.

Shortly after the decertification announcement, state lawmakers approved $8.1 million for counties to find living arrangements and treatment options for the children returning to California. An additional $5.8 million was in Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed 2021-22 budget to develop therapeutic programs for children with developmental disabilities coming back to California.

The Imprint has continued to cover the fallout, including a story in September about local officials navigating the new reality of finding local homes and programs for youth.

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