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Problems with child welfare services persist after closure of troubled facility

The Santa Fe New Mexican - 1/19/2020

Jan. 19--Allegations against the residential treatment center for troubled youth were horrific: numerous suicide attempts, fights that injured both staff and kids, sexual abuse of children as young as 7.

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department revoked a license for Desert Hills more than a year ago and then ordered the Albuquerque center's for-profit operators to begin shutting it down. The move came after newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took office, vowing her administration would improve the state's child welfare system.

Since the shutdown of Desert Hills, however, state officials and attorneys involved in a series of lawsuits against the center's parent company -- and, in some cases, the child welfare agency -- say New Mexico children still lack access to behavioral health services.

CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock told state lawmakers a few months ago that about 100 New Mexico children were in out-of-state treatment facilities. He cited the state's lack of investment in behavioral health care.

In an interview more recently, Blalock said 23 kids in state custody are housed in out-of-state institutions operated by Tennessee-based Acadia Healthcare, the global firm behind the now-defunct Desert Hills.

In 2020, Blalock said he hopes to bring home all New Mexico foster kids housed elsewhere.

A team of three agency staff members visit children in out-of-state institutions to assess their care and "accelerate the transition plan to bring them back," Blalock said.

"When our children are in institutions, that is the scariest place they can be," he said. "Any time, statistically speaking, when you place a child in a facility out of sight, and you have adults paid to take care of them that have no familiar connection to that child, abuse happens at a much larger prevalence than either in the community or at home."

'The problems at Desert Hills aren't isolated'

Seven lawsuits filed in the state's First District Court against Acadia in 2019 allege physical and sexual abuse of kids ranging in age from 8 to 18 who were housed at Desert Hills. Two of the suits name the Children, Youth and Families Department as a codefendent.

Melody Wells, a spokeswoman for the department, said she couldn't comment on specific allegations in ongoing litigation.

One of the first cases filed against Acadia last year alleges a 7-year-old boy was sexually abused by older youth at Desert Hills in 2017. The complaint accuses the state agency of negligence for allowing him to be placed at the center with aggressive and severely troubled older children.

In another case, a young adult who had aged out of the state's foster care system said he was injured three times at Desert Hills in 2017. The lawsuit said the Children, Youth and Families Department put "him at risk for being victimized."

Attorney Joshua Conaway, who represents six of the civil cases against Acadia, said the possibility of settlements "hasn't crossed our mind."

"The problems at Desert Hills aren't isolated problems," Conaway said. "These are problems that occur nationally. Acadia has approximately 589 facilities and 18,000 beds. In my mind, that's 18,000 opportunities for a child to be harmed with the system they run."

One lawsuit alleges a New Mexico girl in state custody was raped by a staff member at an Acadia facility in Oklahoma.

Included in the seven complaints filed last year are the following allegations:

* A man says he was sexually abused in 2015 at Desert Hills by a female staff member whose family was part of a "cartel," which made him afraid to come forward at the time. He also was beaten at the facility, he alleges, adding that employees "routinely allowed 'free for alls' where residents were allowed to fight and attack each other."

* A teen who says she was sent to Desert Hills for treatment in 2017, when she was 12, claims she "continued self-destructive behaviors" at the facility, such as cutting herself. In March 2019, a 54-year-old male nurse at Desert Hills sent her sexually explicit messages, the girl says.

* A complaint says a 14-year-old girl was beaten multiple times by other residents at Desert Hills in 2017. After one severe beating, the suit says, the girl was hospitalized. The suit also alleges a therapist at the center falsified reports on treatment the girl never received.

Gretchen Hommrich, director of investor relations at Acadia, said the company believes Desert Hills provided high-quality residential care for thousands of patients.

"We cannot comment on pending litigation matters. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously against these unsubstantiated allegations," she wrote in a statement.

'Profits become the driving force'

Three lawsuits have been filed against a now-defunct organization tied to Acadia called Familyworks Inc., which offered therapeutic care for foster children provided by specially trained foster parents.

Hommrich denied Acadia had any connection with Familyworks and said it was wrongfully named in the suits. But IRS tax forms for Familyworks say it provided management services on a more than $1.6 million contract.

The Children, Youth and Families Department shut down Familyworks in August 2018 following allegations of repeated sexual abuse by a longtime foster father. Clarence Garcia, 65, of Albuquerque was indicted in January 2019 on 13 felony counts of child sexual abuse in a case involving six girls who had been in his care. He's scheduled for trial in April.

According to a search warrant affidavit, Familyworks had been placing foster children with Garcia and his wife since 1997.

"I think that Desert Hills and Acadia tried to get away with whatever they could," Conaway said. "We think we can prove at trial that Acadia and Desert Hills placed profits ahead of the safety, well-being and treatment of the kids."

Michael Hart, another lawyer representing youths in complaints against Acadia, places much of the blame for abuse on the privatization of behavioral health care for children who struggle with substance use and other issues.

"These for-profit institutions are treating the most vulnerable children in our society," Hart said. "When the bottom line to investors is what you have to answer to every single day, profits become the driving force."

A plan for more community-based care

The Children, Youth and Families Department partners with 10 residential treatment centers in the state that provide services for youth, with 229 Medicaid-certified beds available for kids who need inpatient behavioral heath care.

Blalock said that's far too few beds. He pointed to other resources the state lacks, such as maternity homes for foster youth with children, and centers equipped to provide specialized services for trafficking victims.

This year, Blalock said, the department will build those services, reform licensing standards for residential centers and ensure youth are placed in such facilities for short periods of time.

He said the department will launch an initiative at the end of February to provide intensive community-based behavioral health services.

The Governor's Office has asked for $28.7 million for the Behavioral Health Initiative, with about $8.6 million allocated to Children, Youth and Families; $2.7 million would help build 10 teams statewide to provide what is known as multisystemic therapy, designed to help juvenile offenders with serious behavioral health issues stay out of detention. An additional $900,000 would fund transitional living programs for juvenile offenders.

The Legislative Finance Committee recommended a smaller figure for the project: $10 million in startup funds and $16 million in recurring funds.

"What we're doing with this is building services as quickly as we can," Blalock said, "because children are suffering because of a lack of access to services."

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