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Friday, February 12, 2016

Editorial: Who is Looking Out for These Kids?

From The Des Moines Register

February 7, 2016

Twelve days ago, dozens of law enforcement officers descended on Midwest Academy in Keokuk and Montrose (Iowa) to execute search warrants. The warrants stemmed from alleged sexual abuse involving a staff member and a former resident at the facility for teenagers.

The Iowa Department of Human Services was called to assist and conducted dozens of child abuse assessments. A state probe is ongoing, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has a separate investigation underway and the public is left with many questions.

The editorial board's first question: What the heck is Midwest Academy?

Iowa lawmakers should be asking that question too. Regardless of the outcome of investigations, this type of private facility for children raises concerns that should be addressed. Iowa should not be home to youth facilities subject to no oversight, accreditation or licensure by the state. We have an obligation to protect children.

Midwest Academy advertises itself as a “therapeutic boarding school” for “struggling teens” dealing with everything from anger and delinquency to substance abuse and emotional problems. It offers “a safe and secure environment in which adolescents can receive academic support, counseling and therapy,” according to its website. It is the kind of place sought online by desperate parents who have tried everything else to help a troubled child.

Yet this facility is not a school accredited by the Iowa Department of Education. That means it is not required to meet specific standards and guidelines or report educational information to anyone. (Scattergood Friends School, a boarding and day school in West Branch, for example, does have state accreditation).

Though the facility claims to have an affiliation with the Keokuk Community School District, the superintendent told an editorial writer last week that the teens "are definitely not attending school here," and the district does not receive any state funding for them.

The academy is also not a designated psychiatric medical health institution for children. It is not a residential treatment center, group home, shelter home, child care facility, or any other juvenile facility identified in Iowa Code and subject to state oversight. It is not even registered as a “boarding home” with the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.

The Iowa Department of Human Services also does not oversee the facility, but it has broad authority to conduct evaluations when the abuse of a child is alleged. Though other media outlets are reporting claims about children being sent home or "removed," DHS will not confirm that.

While this private facility flies under the state’s radar until there are allegations of abuse, the Federal Trade Commission 
cautions parents about such programs. They go by a variety of names, including wilderness therapy programs, boot camps and therapeutic boarding schools.

“The programs are not regulated by the federal government and many are not subject to state licensing or monitoring as mental health or education facilities, either,” according to the FTC. It references a 2007 report to Congress that found thousands of allegations of abuse in residential programs, some of which involved the death of teens.

Government investigators identified “boarding schools” as programs that “often enroll youth whose parents force them to attend against their will.” Wilderness schools promising to rehabilitate teens can cost as much as $438 per day.

The Midwest Academy website does not reveal the cost of tuition on its website. It does, however, direct parents to a company offering loans with interest rates as high as 36 percent. Staff would not answer questions about cost — or anything else — posed by an editorial writer. They were advised by their attorney not to do so.

According to the academy’s website, youths have access to services provided by a mental health counselor and social worker, individuals we were able to confirm are licensed by the state. Several “teachers” are identified by only first names, so we could not confirm licensure. There also does not appear to be any medical professional on staff. Are the “struggling” teens prescribed medication? By whom? Do employees undergo background checks? How many kids live there, and where are they from?

No state agency can answer any of these questions, because none of them is responsible for any aspect of this private facility. That creates a situation ripe for abuse. A residential facility essentially taking custody of “struggling” children should not fly under the radar of government in the 21st century.

Cautions on Private 'Boarding Schools'

The Federal Trade Commission advises parents to diligently research any private residential treatment program they’re considering for a child. These programs, offering everything from drug treatment to military-style discipline, are frequently not monitored by any government entity.

Parents should confirm claims about staff credentials, education credit transfers and endorsements. "Accreditations” may be membership organizations that do not conduct site inspections or evaluations of the programs.

Below are some of the questions the FTC advises parents to ask representatives of any program being considered. The commission also encourages parents to confirm answers.
  • Are you licensed by the state? If so, get the name of the state agency and confirm. If the program cannot provide an agency, consider it a red flag.
  • Do you provide an academic curriculum, and do you have teachers certified or licensed by the state?
  • Do you have a clinical director, and what are his/her credentials?
  • Do you conduct background checks on employees?
  • What are the criteria for admission, and how are any pre-admission assessments conducted?
  • How do you handle medical issues, and is there a licensed nurse or doctor on the premises?
  • How do you define success, and how is it rated?
  • How do you discipline youth?
  • Can I contact/speak with my child when I want, and can the child contact me when he or she wants?
  • What are the costs, what do they cover, and what is the refund policy if the program doesn’t work out?

Teen with Depression Commits Suicide 

A report to Congress from the Government Accountability Office found cases involving serious abuse, neglect and deaths at private, residential programs for teens. The report includes photographs of the exterior of a “boarding school” (also called “academies”) visited by government investigators. It had video monitoring, fencing and wire mesh over the windows.

“Case 5” in the report involved the death of a 14-year-old male. His father told government investigators his son had been diagnosed with clinical depression, attempted suicide twice, was on medication and was being treated by a psychiatrist. After consulting with experts, they enrolled him in a private West Virginia treatment center and boarding school that cost $255 per day. From the GAO report:

“According to the parents and court documents, the victim committed suicide six days into the program. On the day before he killed himself, while participating in the first phase of the program (“survival training”), the victim deliberately cut his left arm four times from wrist to elbow using a pocket knife issued to him by the school.

After cutting himself, the victim approached a counselor and showed him what he had done, pleading with the counselor to take the knife away before he hurt himself again. He also asked the counselor to call his mother and tell her that he wanted to go home. The counselor spoke with the victim, elicited a promise from him not to hurt himself again, and gave the knife back.

The next evening the victim hung himself with a cord not far from his tent. Four hours passed before the program chose to notify the family about the suicide. When the owner of the program finally called the family to notify them, according to the father, the owner said, 'There was nothing we could do.'"

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