Wyoming Youth Home Closure Will Affect Montana Kids
A therapeutic youth home in Sheridan, Wyoming is closing its doors this spring after multiple states have dropped contracts with its parent company nationwide due to reports of violence, abuse and a death at another facility. When Normative Services Inc. Academy closes in March, nearly 50 kids from Montana will need to be transferred elsewhere.
NSI is owned by Sequel Youth and Family Services, a for profit company that runs juvenile treatment centers across the country. Typically, county and state agencies place foster kids, juvenile delinquents and children with behavioral problems in these facilities.
A recent investigation by APM Reports found that Sequel took on high needs kids while keeping costs low in pursuit of profit and expansion. Government investigations from multiple states document physical violence, sexual assault and improper use of restraints. One such restraint used by a Sequel staff member at a Michigan facility killed a 16 year old boy named Cornelius Frederick.
In Wyoming, the Department of Family Services has investigated NSI several times, most notably in 2009 and again in 2016 when DFS intervened to address the dangerous way NSI staff restrained students. There were also complaints from Sheridan residents who live close to the facility.
NSI residents were running away, cutting across people's property, hiding out in their barns and, in some cases, stealing cars.
In 2019, residents took their concerns to Sheridan County commissioners, who asked NSI Director Gary Flohr to address what was happening.
Flohr acknowledged the facility had a runaway problem and outlined NSI’s response.
“So we end up with a lot of kids with high emotions that end up taking off . . . We're going to put a 10 foot non-climb fence across the back of the property,” Flohr said at the meeting.
Commissioner Christi Haswell pushed Flohr on whether securing the perimeter would really solve the problem.
“I just, I think about culturally the kids' treatment there and I think, wow, is a 10 foot fence really going to help treatment of these kids?” Haswell asked.
“Treatment wise it won’t. Safety wise it will,” Flohr responded.
NSI built the fence and complaints about runaways subsided. But calls to local law enforcement continued, now asking for help dealing with violence inside the facility. In 2019, the Sheridan County Sheriff's Office received two calls about assaults among the residents at NSI. In 2020, there were more than thirty.
Sheriff Allen Thompson has a theory about the spike in violence. He says traumatized kids respond to stress with the most basic human instinct: fight or flight.
“And when they take away the flight, then it makes sense that the fight increases,” Thompson says.
Sheridan County officials and Sheriff Thompson cosigned a letter to the Wyoming Department of Family Services asking if the state could intervene.
They learned NSI was in compliance with Wyoming’s licensing requirements.
Wyoming Department of Family Services Director Korin Schmidt says state law places limits on what her department is allowed to regulate, focused on things like room and board and the physical plant: Is the food okay? Can you get out of the building in the case of a fire?
But in terms of NSI’s internal culture or the effectiveness of treatment, the state has limited oversight.
“No, that's really not our job. We are not therapists. We are not clinicians, we are not mental health experts,” Schmidt said in an interview with Wyoming Public Radio reporter Tennessee Watson.
“But I'm wondering if it's something that the legislature needs to review and potentially, you know, expand that list of criteria to give you the ability to hold facilities more to account, or to be able to, to actually weigh in about their therapeutic practices,” Watson asked.
“I do think there's some of the deficit there, you know, some, but we're also in a state where we really do have a lot of respect for that private industry, right, they are a private business. And while we have some responsibility to make sure the kids are safe, there's also people, payers who are paying for that service from that particular facility. And, and they're buying those services. So is that our business then to go in and make therapeutic decisions on behalf of their program?”
In announcing NSI’s March 22 closure, Sequel in a press release said the decision was made after an evaluation of viability, adding the closure had nothing to do with concerns or issues with the facility.
Several states have cut contracts with Sequel in the past year, including California, which regularly placed kids at NSI. Wyoming judges and social workers have also been placing kids in NSI less frequently in recent years. By 2020, there were just three Wyoming kids placed there.
The facility was largely filled with kids from Montana.
Montana’s Youth Court Services sent 43 kids to NSI in 2020. Officials say limited in state options outside of detention centers, a long working relationship with staff and that NSI is a Montana Medicaid enrolled treatment facility make it a viable placement option.
Montana Youth Court Services Bureau Chief Tom Billteen said via email that NSI and other Sequel service programs have provided good placement options in the past because of proximity and that longstanding professional relationship.
Michele St. George is Jefferson County's juvenile probation officer. She placed kids at NSI in the past and says she also relied on that positive working relationship with staff. She says that she's never seen any adverse conditions at NSI, adding she's witnessed it help kids that she's placed there.
“I've had really mostly positive interactions with Normative [NSI]. I've actually witnessed one kiddo trying to run away when we were dropping off the youth and they just, they had staff following the youth and, you know, talking with the youth and trying to bring them back to a good place. And they tossed the youth back onto campus,” St. George sasid.
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services enrolls facilities in the Montana Medicaid program. DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt says therapeutic group homes must meet service requirements in order to get that enrollment status, including clinical assessments, monthly treatment team meetings, engagement with legal guardians and therapeutic interventions.
State officials say they were not aware of any negative conditions at NSI. The state largely relies on licensing requirements from Wyoming as proof a facility is providing services required by Montana Medicaid.
Shereen White is senior staff attorney with Children's Rights, a youth advocacy organization. She says that states need more oversight and monitoring of Sequel facilities and other youth treatment facilities.
“We want to be sure that the certification, licensing and monitoring processes are such that when things are happening to youth and harm is uncovered, that there are consequences, right? So we want to be able to see that licenses are revoked and decertification occurs and that programs and facilities like Sequel are shut down,” White says.
Students YPR spoke to say they didn't get the help they needed and were sent to NSI.
Izeyah Mcquiston was 14 when he was sent to NSI in 2019. Now in the Flathead Valley, he plays Dungeons and Dragons with his friends during lunch. He worries about his family's financial struggles and he describes himself as fiercely loyal but impulsive.
He was sent to NSI by his probation officer for probation violations and he needed help with anger management. He says he witnessed violence at the facility and that he himself was beaten up while he was at NSI.
He says he witnessed improper restraints and he also saw a lot of kids running away.
“The staff there were threatening. We had a couple occasions where they would punch a kid. They put kids in restraints for no reason. Staff members didn't really care what you did to each other,” Mcquiston says.
Krystal “Annette” Pottshad just turned 17 when she was sent to NSI in 2017 by her parents from Colstrip. She was struggling with suicide and had a drinking problem at the time. She says her parents weren't equipped to handle some of the problems that she was having.
She says because she was older, when she got to the facility she tried to take younger kids under her wing to protect them from the violence that she saw. She says she also experienced improper restraints, saw fighting and ran away a couple of timeless while she was at NSI.
“They used restraints over our head to like, be more powerful and make us scared of them. And there would be some times where we'd say ‘no’ to doing something and we'd get thrown in a restraint for like nothing serious. And it was traumatizing,” Pottshad says.
“In all honesty once I got out of there my drug addiction and drinking and all that stuff got a lot worse. And I didn't, I didn't get the proper help there that I should have gotten.”
In announcing NSI’s closure, Sequel says it will work with families, state agencies and caseworkers to transfer students to different therapeutic programs.
Tom Billteen with Montana Youth Court Services says that there is money set aside for each judicial district to bring kids back through the juvenile delinquency intervention program and that each transition plan is going to be assessed on a case by case basis coordinated with the youth's treatment team.
Some of those options for those kids include home placement, a lower level of care or a facility with comparable services. Billteen says Montana Youth Court Services started working with chief juvenile probation officers the day of the closure announcement and they're going to stick with Sequel's timeline of finishing the process by March 22.
Billteen said Youth Court Services relies on DPHHS to conduct the licensing and that “if and when there are issues that come into question with these programs, we will continue to work closely with our partners to address them.”
Tennessee Watson is a Wyoming Public Radio reporter. As a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism, she's reporting on juvenile justice in Wyoming.