America’s Peculiar Institutions

(Image taken from: www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/brief-life-cornelius-frederick-warning-signs-missed-teen-s-fatal-n1234660)

Volunteer Writer: T. Etna

Email: rhepburn@umassd.edu

(Superscripted bracketed numbers[*] refer to footnotes in the Reference doc linked at the bottom of the article.  The Reference doc contains specific text from the sources, images, and comments.)

3 weeks before the death of George Floyd, 16-year-old black boy, Cornelius Frederick, was suffocated to death on camera for throwing a sandwich.

(www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/video-shows-fatal-restraint-cornelius-fredericks-16-michigan-foster-facility-n1233122)

Unlike George Floyd, he was not killed by police, but by an industry largely hidden from the public eye.

Cornelius resided at Lakeside Academy, a “treatment facility” for foster kids.  

(www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/brief-life-cornelius-frederick-warning-signs-missed-teen-s-fatal-n1234660)

He was seated at a table and known to be unarmed when staff threw him to the ground and piled on top of him.  

He had been imprisoned at Lakeside for a year and a half, yet he had committed no crime.[1.A] He had no legal means to challenge his imprisonment because he was a minor.  

Kids who ran from Lakeside and told police about beatings were returned to Lakeside regardless of the situation. [2]

Lakeside was nominally “treating” Cornelius for his traumatic life.[3.A] He had found his mother dead when he was 10 years old, while his father was in prison. He had no one to take him in, so he was institutionalized by the state of Michigan.

Cornelius was a “state kid.” One of about 55,000 kids [4] across the country warehoused in institutions for nebulous “behavioral health” reasons.  

These institutions are commonly called “programs” in Massachusetts, especially when they refer to facilities contracted by the MA Department of Children and Families (DCF). Programs range from benign group homes where kids are allowed to attend local public schools, to “secure” facilities indistinguishable from juvenile prisons.  

It is illegal under state [5], federal [6], and international law [7] for social service agencies like DCF to institutionalize kids unnecessarily, but the law does not make any provision for the case when there are not enough foster homes or enough non-restrictive group homes. Practically speaking, social services must find excuses for institutionalizing unwanted children.

These institutions are an industry. They are part of the troubled-teen industry, a fact that may seem surprising, given that the troubled-teen industry is best known for preying on wealthy families.[8]

Nonetheless, this is not a frivolous connection. Sequel Youth, which owned Lakeside, also operates numerous troubled-teen facilities.[9] Lakeside itself accepted both state kids and kids sent there by their bamboozled parents.[3.b]  

As an industry, these institutions have a financial interest in ensuring a continuous revenue stream for themselves. This financial interest is fundamentally at odds with any goal of allowing kids like Cornelius to have a normal life, since the more “intensive” a program, the more it can charge the state. 

Yet the law does not acknowledge any conflict of interest. 

These institutions are officially considered “qualified experts” whose recommendations for continuous institutionalization are given legal weight.[10] The law presumes they are impartial [14], so the kid has no right to demand a second opinion.

It is easy for a predatory institution to give a kid a diagnosis to justify institutionalization because pediatric behavioral health lore contains many questionable ailments [11] such as “oppositional defiant disorder: A pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behavior, or vindictiveness.”  

These are all normal human reactions [12] to being torn away from one’s life and imprisoned indefinitely without criminal charges. 

Americans are supposed to be protected from this kind of thing.  

If these kids were so bad that they had committed a crime, they would be entitled to a jury trial [16] and other due process [17] protections.

These institutions often claim they will keep kids out of the criminal justice system, but it is dangerous to assume that avoiding the justice system is a good thing. For all its flaws, the justice system at least has protections for the accused.  

Preemptive imprisonment for treatment is not the prevention of imprisonment, nor does it prevent the kid from being subjected to brutality, death, or systemic rape.[3.D] and [8] It is merely the criminal justice system, minus any justice.

Alternatively, if these kids were actual mental patients, they would be entitled to a hearing and a lawyer.[20] The state could not involuntarily commit them without proving they were a serious danger to themselves or others.  Mental patients also have many other rights, regardless of their age.[21]  

However, institutions for state kids and troubled teens are generally not licensed as either correctional facilities or mental hospitals. The institutions may therefore simply ignore [22] the protections granted to prisoners and mental patients by statute law.

Concerned family members are often stymied by the fact that regulation is done by a hodgepodge[3.C] of agencies, leading to a strange mess [25] that insiders can exploit to avoid impartial investigation.

In a public record request from 2014, I found numerous instances [28] where the Dept. of Early Education and Care (EEC) allowed an institution accused of brutality and sexual abuse to self-investigate the complaint.  

Needless to say, the institution was not punished for child abuse. The EEC official [26] who repeatedly allowed these sham investigations is still the Residential and Placement Licensor [27] for EEC.  

What is driving this appalling behavior in the industry and its regulators?  Money is a classic motive, so let’s look at the money involved. 

 In Massachusetts, DCF’s 2023 budget allots $337 million [29] for “congregate care,” i.e. programs. This is the largest line item on DCF’s budget, dwarfing the amount spent on foster-parent recruitment ($750K). 

(https://malegislature.gov/Budget)

DCF does not seem to track [30] how many kids are in programs vs. actual foster care, so the per-kid program rates are difficult to infer. But we can get an idea by looking at Lakeside Academy’s rates.  

A document posted by nbcnews.com reporters shows that Lakeside Academy was receiving $427 per kid, per day [31] to “treat” kids from Oregon.

That’s $156,000 per kid per year if Oregon is average.  

Based on the conservative [32] Oregon number, Lakeside made nearly a quarter million on Cornelius alone, until they killed him.

If Lakeside had forced Cornelius to work in a field instead of holding him captive for “treatment,” they wouldn’t have made half as much money.

Lakeside was owned by a for-profit company. However, it is a mistake to assume that non-profits are better.  

A “non-profit” company may invest its profits in itself, and it may pay its top executives handsomely. A non-profit company may also engage in political lobbying. 

That is important because lobbyists control social services to such an extent that their power is explicitly enshrined [33]  in state law.

It should be understood that lobbying is a profession. 

Real lobbyists are not internet advocates or street protesters. They are paid legal experts who attend meetings in the statehouse. They may be former legislative staffers [34] who have gone into the private sector. In Massachusetts, they are supposed to be registered. [35]

Lobbyists do the work of legislators’ staffers. They research and write bills, make alliances, and drum up support for their client companies’ causes. It costs legislators nothing to allow lobbyists to do their jobs for them, so there is a motive for legislators to obey lobbyists even when no blatant corruption is occurring.  

DCF appears to be intensely dependent [36] on lobbyists to secure its funding.  

Lobbying agencies may style themselves as tax-exempt [37] and [38.D] charities collecting tax-deductible [38.b] donations, and receive regular payments from corporations [38.A] and [38.C] they represent. 

To remain tax-exempt, lobbyists may support some easy “good guy” causes.[40] This also gives them political credibility, so they can push big-money legislation for their clients. For example, this [23] lobbying agency requested over half a billion dollars [39] to increase its client companies’ salaries next year.  

Lobbyists can even hijack reform efforts to benefit the very industries being “reformed.” 

“CHINS reform” is an example of a hijacked reform effort. (CHINS = Child in Need of Services, sometimes called a “stubborn child” complaint.)  

In the past, one of the mechanisms for kids winding up in DCF custody was a CHINS designation. 

CHINS could be filed on kids for things like running away from abusers or missing school for untreated medical conditions. CHINS was a designation associated with DYS (juvie), though CHINS kids might later be passed along to DCF programs for repeated, months-long “assessments” (diagnostic imprisonment).  

Needless to say, victims of CHINS had numerous horror stories.  

CHINS was overhauled in 2012 and replaced by CRA (Child Requiring Assistance). 

This overhaul was done by Bill S.2410.[24 S.2410 was written and pushed by a tax-exempt “social welfare” non-profit called the Children’s League of Massachusetts (CLM).[23]

Upon reading the bill, I noticed numerous issues.[24]  

Courts had no obligation to consider if the kid’s actions were justified in light of abuse or neglect. The kid wasn’t even allowed to speak at fact-finding hearings.[24.E] The DYS detention was removed, but replaced by official program detention of up to 45 days.[24.C]  

The problem of endless repeated “assessments” in programs was simply not addressed, and programs were granted the right to file CRAs themselves [24.D], creating a new vicious cycle for kids who fall into this system.  

Arguably worst of all, the kid’s right to a jury trial was completely removed [24.A] in favor of program detentions, which could be arbitrarily justified as the “best interests of the child.”

CLM’s website portrayed a caring attitude to victims of CHINS, so I assumed that these issues with S.2410 were well-meaning mistakes. I called CLM to ask if they would work with me on more comprehensive reform.

(https://web.archive.org/web/20150905140135/%20http:/childrensleague.org/advocacy/chins-reform-law/)

I spoke to Erin G. Bradley, director of CLM.  

Ms. Bradley attempted to convince me that my concerns were unnecessary because programs care about children.  

She highlighted features of DCF programs that I considered to be irrelevant, such as the doors not being locked. I told her it did not matter if the doors were locked or if kids were beaten for going near the doors.  

Ms. Bradley denied that such things ever happened. I said that I had been a program-kid, and witnessed it personally.  

Ms. Bradley immediately stopped being friendly.  

She said CLM would not support any effort to restrict programs or reduce the number of kids in them. I assumed she had misunderstood me. I assured her that I wasn’t trying to throw severely handicapped kids in the street; I just wanted to ensure that DCF kids who could live normal lives were not put in programs unnecessarily.  

Out of left field, she accused me of interfering with parental rights. 

“Those are our kids,” she said.

I told her that programs were companies, not parents, so parental rights were irrelevant because those were not the programs’ kids. 

“But they are,” she said.  

Finally, she told me in no uncertain terms that she worked for the programs. In her own words, “We work for them. We represent them.”

I found out later that a program 18 that made me scream “I can’t breathe” [41] twice in 3 days was one of Ms. Bradley’s clients.[38.E] 

CLM claims to have led efforts to reduce restraints in programs. We should not be surprised that it is still legal [42] under MA statute law for program staff to use “I can’t breathe” restraints on kids.  

The police reform bill [43] of 2020 only bans specific “chokeholds” by cops; it says nothing about other forms of suffocation,[44] and it does not even apply to program staff.  

However, the police reform bill does mention CLM. The organization used this bill to take control [43.b] of school resource officers. 

Personally, I do not believe that either BLM protesters or cops wanted program lobbyists to be given government power.

Ms. Bradley herself is no longer the director for CLM. She is now running for office [34] under her own name. Her campaign site flaunts both her CLM tenure and her position as a staffer for MA Senate President Karen Spilka.

And what about Cornelius?

Only two of the people who restrained him were charged with his death, although the video clearly shows that more than 2 staff actively participated.  

Both men are free on bail.  

Currently, one of the criminal trials is set to start on Nov 16th, 2022.[45] But even if these staff members are punished, it won’t really change anything, because they were simply acting as they were expected to act  [46] in a culture where corporations make money by asserting parental rights over human beings.

Ultimately, the problem will not end as long as America mindlessly accepts the idea that “behavioral health” [47] is a good reason to steal an innocent person’s life.  

Ironically, although the programs present themselves as enlightened and modern, they are profiting from some extremely old patterns of human societies.  

Many of the kids in DCF programs are parentless due to the War on Drugs. They are in essence enemy war orphans, and enemy war orphans are a class that has been viciously exploited throughout human history. 

Exploitation disguised as paternalism is nothing new, either. The original “peculiar institution” presented itself the same way. If that sounds melodramatic, tell it to Cornelius.

Cruel, deluded modes of thinking do not belong exclusively to past generations.  

But if a moral argument does not appeal to you, consider that the people who killed Cornelius were being paid with taxpayer money. A troubled-teen industry (TTI) website has helpfully compiled a list of social safety nets that can be scammed [32] into giving money to their programs, which cost up to $700K per kid per year.  

Your taxes must necessarily go up [39] to pay for these programs. Private insurance companies also contribute to TTI, which means that TTI is inflating insurance premiums, too.

It would have been cheaper and far less tragic for the government to have given Cornelius a $20K-a-year stipend and a list of apartments that would rent to a minor, and left him alone to figure out his own life.  

He might have failed, yes. But at least he would have had the chance to live as a human being.  

“Emancipated minor” used to be an obtainable legal designation. If kids are not wanted by any family, they should be emancipated automatically, and any further association with DCF should be voluntary.  

Does that sound extreme? Look at the alternative. Look at the waste of money and life that happens when we let people like Erin Bradley say “these are our kids.” 

And if you are a victim of this industry, here are some things to consider.  

First, if you are younger, you may not yet realize how much the programs lie to both the kids and families. Breaking family bonds is part of the industry’s business model. It helps shield them from lawsuits since most college-age people will find it difficult to get a lawyer on their own.  

Second, be very careful about your words and emphasis when you talk about these things. I once worked with a girl whose sexual abuse allegation was dismissed by authorities because she used common-but-misleading program terminology on social media to describe one of the physical assaults on her. She also said that she wanted to shut down the school, which the DA chose to take as evidence that she made the whole thing up. Because of this, her case never even made it to court. Your best policy is not to make public statements without a lawyer’s approval,[48] not even under a pseudonym, until your case is over.

Third, the statute of limitations for almost every abuse expires when you are 21 (in Massachusetts), so if you want to strike back legally, you should start a lawsuit before then. It is possible to get a lawyer [49] on contingency (no fee unless you win), it’s just very hard to do it on program/TTI cases. Even getting to speak to a lawyer is like winning an audition; it’s difficult and draining. You might have to choose between getting justice for your past and having a decent future. If so, choose the future. But if you just want to be involved, there are survivor groups [50] out there.  

If you are a state kid, don’t be put off by the fact that the first big wave of anti-TTI activism was focused on private schools, not foster kids. That’s just an economic effect. It is caused by the sad fact that movements without money behind them seldom go anywhere. Any anti-TTI activist with any sense knows that this is your issue [8.A] too.  

I hope some of the UMassD student population are state kids who got out of that underworld.

Reference Document for the footnotes.

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