For-Profit Mental Health Corporation Report: Sequel Youth & Family Services

Sequel Youth & Family Services is a privately-owned for-profit corporation headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama. It was founded in 1999 by John “Jay” Ripley, a former accountant and auto repair industry executive-turned-entrepreneur.

At its peak, Sequel owned and operated more than 40 behavioral health facilities and programs for adults and children in 20 states and had revenues of $254 million. Their facilities include day/residential schools, foster care, juvenile justice, substance abuse, psychiatric residential treatment, and acute psych treatment.

For-profit mental health corporations like Sequel are in business to make profits for their owners and shareholders and have garnered a reputation for putting profit above patient care and safety. Most of Sequel’s revenue comes from government-funded programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

In the early 1990s, after his oil change business was taken over by another company, Ripley, along with a partner from that business, got the idea to start a new venture—running a juvenile treatment center. Before they jumped in however, they visited one in Pennsylvania to see how it operated. At that time, most such programs were operated by the government or charities but when Ripley got a look at the center’s financial ledger, he discovered just how much money was moving through the place.

He realized that the demand for youth treatment was virtually limitless. Most of the customers were government agencies, probation departments, and social services agencies and that they almost always paid their bills on time. The revenue was far more predictable than, for instance, the burger restaurant chain he’s founded and then sold. 

Ripley laid it out explicitly in this excerpt from a 2015 speech he gave to a group of business students at his alma mater, University of Baltimore:

“In a restaurant, on a day like this, you’re pretty much shut down. I mean, people don’t go outside. It’s raining. It really affects your business, whereas my business with kids in my programs around the country, I’m going to get paid today for all of those students that are in my academies today.”

This is the essence of the for-profit mental health business model: “We get paid, on time, and it’s government money and there’s plenty of it and that’s what makes this the ideal business to invest in.”

This “philosophy” explains how a corporation, ostensibly in existence to provide a therapeutic environment to troubled youth, can end up in the scandalous and disreputable state that Sequel has.

As you will come to understand in the following report, the for-profit model keeps profits high by hiring unqualified, cheap labor (even known ex-convicts), keeping staff-to-patient ratios low to save money, and willfully failing to report patient abuses to the proper authorities, so as to prevent government inspections and citations, which can lead to loss of income.

Ultimately, the plan backfired on Sequel, as it has backfired on other for-profit mental health corporations: Between March 2019 and December 2021, Sequel closed thirteen facilities. In most cases, these closures were due to state- and county-funded child care programs canceling contracts and removing the children from Sequel’s “care,” following the exposure of the dangerous conditions in the facilities—conditions that include neglect, physical and sexual assault and abuse, serious injury, and even death.

 

LIST OF CURRENT AND FORMER SEQUEL FACILITIES

ALABAMA

Sequel of Montgomery – Montgomery, AL

Sequel of Paint Rock Valley – Trenton, AL – CLOSED

Sequel TSI Courtland – Courtland, AL

Sequel TSI Madison – Madison, AL

Sequel TSI Owens – Owens Cross Roads, AL

Sequel TSI Tuskegee –Tuskegee, AL

ARIZONA

Mingus Mountain Academy – Prescott Valley, AZ

Sequelcare of Arizona – Prescott Valley, AZ

Traditions – Chinle, AZ

FLORIDA

Alachua Academy – Gainesville, FL

Charles Britt Academy – St. Petersburg, FL

Columbus Youth Academy – Tampa, FL

Duval Academy – Jacksonville, FL

Union Juvenile – Raiford, FL – CLOSED

Marion Youth Academy – Ocala, FL

Palm Beach Youth Academy – W. Palm Beach, FL

Pompano Youth Treatment Center – Pompano Beach, FL

St. John’s Academy – St. Augustine, FL

SequelCare of Florida – Pinellas Park, FL

IOWA

Clarinda Mental Health Institute – Clarinda, IA – CLOSED

Forest Ridge – Estherville, IA

Woodward Academy – Woodward, IA

IDAHO

Mountain Home Academy – Mountain Home, ID

ILLINOIS

Northern Illinois Academy – Aurora, IL - CLOSED

KANSAS

Lakeside Academy of Kansas – Goddard, KS

MAINE

SequelCare of Maine – Yarmouth, ME

MICHIGAN

Lakeside Academy – Kalamazoo, MI – CLOSED

Starr-Albion – Albion, MI – CLOSED

NEVADA

Sequel Alliance Family Services – Reno, NV

NEW JERSEY

Capital Academy – Camden, NJ

NEW MEXICO

Bernalillo Academy – Albuquerque, NM – CLOSED

NEW YORK

Aaron School – New York, NY

Rebecca School – New York, NY

NORTH CAROLINA

Auldern Academy – Siler City, NC – CLOSED

OHIO

Sequel Pomegranate Health Systems/Torii Behavioral Health – Columbus, OH – CLOSED

OKLAHOMA

SequelCare of Oklahoma – Antlers, OK

SOUTH DAKOTA

Sequel Transition Academy – Sioux Falls, SD

TENNESSEE

Kingston Academy – Kingston, TN – CLOSED

Norris Academy – Andersonville, TN

UTAH

Falcon Ridge Ranch – Virgin, UT

Lava Heights Academy – Toquerville, UT

Mt. Pleasant Academy – Mount Pleasant, UT – CLOSED

Red Rock Canyon School – St. George, UT – CLOSED

WYOMING

Normative Services – Sheridan, WY – CLOSED

 

TIMELINE OF ABUSES

On February 20, 2002, Red Rock Canyon School (RRCS) staffer Darcy Keenan Stowe was found guilty of Unlawful Sexual Conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old. The teen was a resident of the facility twice, during 2000 and 2001, when Stowe was employed there. A lawsuit filed by the teen’s parents in 2004 alleged that Stowe openly conducted a sexual relationship with their son and allowed him to drink, smoke, and cut classes and that other employees at RRCS ignored the affair. Upon his last discharge, the boy moved in with Stowe and her family. Stowe became the boy’s guardian in August 2001, with his parents’ consent. But two months later, the county attorney filed a criminal complaint against Stowe, accusing her of sexual activity with the boy—a felony. Stowe was ultimately sentenced to three years’ probation.[1]

May 2002: Gregory and Moira Lank filed a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit against Red Rock Canyon School over the death of their 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, who was a resident of the facility. While out hiking with two other residents, she slipped and fell down a deep crevice and suffered a massive head trauma. She died three weeks later.

The civil complaint states that on Dec. 25, 2001, four RRCS staff members took 10 students on a hike through the Naming Caves in rural Washington County, Utah. During the hike, Lank and two other students were allowed to hike unsupervised. It further alleged that after Lank’s fall, staff waited about an hour before calling an air ambulance. It was another 90 minutes before the helicopter arrived. School officials should never have "taken a large group of students to a dangerous area" with only one radio and no medical equipment and "Management did not have a plan in place to efficiently handle emergencies or accidents," the suit states. "Because of the defendants' breaches of their duties, Katie Lank suffered extreme physical and mental pain, shock, agony and suffering prior to her death." The case was settled for undisclosed terms in April 2003.[2] 

February 29, 2008: Cynthia and Alvin Robertson sued Red Rock Canyon School, its CEO and other related personnel for negligence, fraud, breach of fiduciary duty and other charges related to abuse suffered by their 12-year-old son, Chase, who had been placed at the facility after becoming despondent over the death of a close relative. The parents charged that the facility promoted itself as “a therapeutic boarding school whose biggest concern was to let each child feel safe and significant while finding worth in himself through a program designed to build on his internal strengths” but that it was actually “dangerous and debauching.” Staff “allowed other students to beat and berate Chase, even to urinating on his clothing and effects.” When his mother asked that he be released, the facility staff talked her out of it by promising to move him to a safer place. Yet they moved him in with two older boys—both adjudicated sex offenders. On the first night, one of the boys raped Chase while he was sleeping. The case was settled in November 2009 for undisclosed terms.[3]  

2012: Staff at Clarinda Academy broke a resident's collarbone using an unapproved physical restraint technique, and were found to have also participated in a cover up of any wrongdoing. Two staff were fired.[4]

August 3, 2012: Red Rock Canyon School staffer Diarra Niccole Fields, 27, was arrested and charged with sexually abusing three male students. The arrest was the result of a 16-year-old resident reporting to his mother that he was in “an inappropriate relationship” with Fields. The boy reported that he knew of another 16-year-old who Fields was involved with. That boy confirmed it and directed police to yet another—a 13-year-old—who Fields was sexually abusing.[5] 

Though he initially denied the accusations, on March 6, 2014, Fields pleaded guilty to felony forcible sexual abuse and was sentenced June 5, 2014 to 210 days in jail and 36 months supervised probation. He is a registered sex offender with the Utah Department of Corrections.[6]

2013: A youth housed at Clarinda Academy passed out the day after being restrained, due to possible head trauma. The child required emergency hospitalization. The staffer who performed the restraint was placed on Iowa's Central Abuse Registry for "founded" allegations of physical abuse.[7]

December 2015: Red Rock Canyon School staffer Jerold Oloti Sua was charged with providing marijuana to a teenage boy at the facility. Other staff at the school reported to police that the boy had been found with the drug. The boy identified Sua to police as the source. Sua assisted the juvenile to smoke the weed and admitted himself to smoking marijuana on the job. Sua was convicted of causing/permitting a child to be exposed to a controlled substance and distributing a controlled substance—both felonies.[8] His sentence has not been verified.[9]

2016: According to as 2016 facility evaluation report by the California Department of Social Services (which sent California foster children to this facility), Normative Services used physical restraints “as punishment, for the convenience of staff and as a program substitution.” One worker improperly restrained a resident and broke the child’s arm. Another lost his temper and punched and kicked a youth.[10]

2016: A report stated that Sheridan County (Wyoming) Emergency Services received more than 55 calls from Normative Services. The facility also had 57 runaways during the same period. Lastly, it stated as well that various Normative Services employees have been in court for felony child abuse, third degree sexual abuse, and aggravated assault and battery outside their duties at the facility.[11]

In July 2017, police arrested Sequel TSI of Madison youth counselor Amanda Williams, 28, on charges that she engaged in sex with a 19-year-old resident. She was indicted in September 2018 for sex acts involving multiple students under the age of 19. She was convicted January 10, 2020 of Second Degree Sodomy involving a 13-year-old boy.[12]

October 31, 2017: Twenty-year-old Mahogany Chambers filed suit against Clarinda for negligence in having hired a convicted felon (Antonio Aranda, mentioned above) who groped and raped her when she was 17 and housed at Clarinda. Chambers had been sexually assaulted twice prior to her admission to Clarinda. The administration assured the girl’s mother that no men would be working in the girl’s dorm, only women. The case appears to have settled in April 2019.[13] 

January 2018: Thirty-eight-year-old Darius Jones, a staffer at Northern Illinois Academy, was charged with three counts of criminal sexual assault on a person younger than 18 and at least 13 years old, over whom he held a position of trust or authority. The child was a resident of the Academy. Jones pleaded guilty on February 22, 2019 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.[14]

March 2018: A former patient of Red Rock Canyon School sued the school for negligence for failure to protect him. The basis of the suit was that the man, who was only 13 when he was admitted to the facility, was sexually abused by then-employee Diarra Niccole Fields.[15]  Fields was criminally prosecuted and sentenced in 2014 for sexual abuse of three juveniles. 

May 8, 2018: Iowa state inspectors received an anonymous complaint which stated that Clarinda Academy had kept eight residents, ages 13-17 in seclusion for one month following an incident in which the teens eloped the facility, injuring two staff members—this is despite facility procedures which call for residents only be secluded for up to 72 hours in they posed a threat and an additional 72 hours if the behavior continued. The complainant also reported that when one of the teens refused to write a statement admitting he was responsible for the assault on of the staff members, he was slammed to the floor and restrained. None of the teens was informed of what they could do to work their way back into the general population.

After this situation was reported to the state, Clarinda staff members created documents to make it appear that they possessed the required services plans for the teens and had forged student signatures on the documents.[16]

June 12, 2018: Starr Albion Prep has been the subject of nearly 60 investigations since 2014 by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. Reports show that staffers in 2018 restrained youths unnecessarily and used unapproved techniques, in one case breaking a child’s thumb.[17]

On August 22, 2018, Amanda Renee McCool, 39, a staffer at Lakeside Academy Kansas (not to be confused with Sequel’s Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, MI), was arrested on three counts of unlawful sexual relations involving a juvenile. Sequel responded by issuing a statement that Lakeside’s administrator had received a report about McCool, who was then placed on unpaid administrative leave, and thereafter resigned.[18]

October 2018: The patient advocacy group Disability Rights Washington (DRW) released a report stating that Washington state foster youth sent to Clarinda Academy were physically abused and largely segregated from the outside world. The report contended that the Academy is run like a correctional institution: children are painfully and routinely physically restrained, not allowed to have cellphones, are not allowed routine trips into town, and were prohibited from speaking to members of the opposite sex. In response to the report, the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families stated that it would stop placing children at Clarinda. In interviews, the Washington children independently reported to DRW consistent allegations of verbal and physical abuse. Though many of the students feared retaliation by staff if they became too involved in the investigation, three of the students opted to allow DRW to access and review their records—which included restraint records. Children told investigators that staff "put their hands on you and force you to the ground," The kids separately and independently demonstrated how staff pull their elbows behind their backs and then force them to the ground by putting pressure on the backs of their knees.[19]

"Every student reported that restraints they experienced were physically painful and frequently resulted in back, shoulder, and neck pain for several days or weeks," according to the report. When asked if they receive medical attention, the kids stated that no one complains because they are told “you shouldn’t have gotten put in a restraint.”[20]

One such student was Jesus Lopez, who was a 17-year-old foster kid who had been through more than two dozen placements. Stressed about his future, he was excited at the prospect of admission to Clarinda, as he was assured he’d receive vocational training there. Instead, he discovered he couldn't leave the campus. Alone and intimidated by the other kids, he felt, he said, like he was in juvenile detention. He tried to escape and was restrained by staff, who took turns pulling his arms back and then throwing him down on the floor. His head hit the floor several times, he said, before he fell unconscious. According to Iowa Dept. of Human Services records, he suffered severe bruising on his forehead, as well as bruising on his arms, legs and back.[21]

November 2018: The Des Moines Register “Watchdog” (investigative journalist) reported that in the previous five years, more than 30 police reports were made involving students and staff at Clarinda Academy—including assaults, fights, forcible sodomy, and rape by staff members, including the following:  

  • In February 2016, a student reported that a 40-year-old night staff member, Antonio DeJesus Aranda, sexually abused her when she was 17. Aranda was charged with three felony sex charges and pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct. He was sentenced to ten years’ probation.[22]
  • In September 2016, a 19-year-old student said he was sexually fondled by a 39-year-old staff member, Jennifer Gay, who threatened him not to tell or he would go to jail, according to a police report. The charges were dropped when the resident, who was charged with several felonies after he’d been released from Clarinda, did not cooperate with Gay’s prosecution. Gay made self-incriminating statements to police. However, these were suppressed on the basis that she made them in response to police misrepresentations that she could lose custody of her children. 
  • In July 2016, staff member Sara Honnald reported being assaulted by a Clarinda patient. Honnald suffered a broken nose and cuts to the forehead. The patient does not appear to have been charged.
  • In August 2017, forcible sodomy and lascivious conduct with a minor was reported involving a 37-year-old staff member and 18-year-old student.
  • On Dec. 5, 2017, a 15-year-old male student alleged a female staff member performed oral sex on him. Iowa Court records show that the woman was never charged.[23]

February 2019: Representatives from the Iowa Department of Human Services interviewed five children at Clarinda, each of who reported feeling unsafe. They all reported a recent increase in youth-to-youth physical assaults and felt the staff was ill-equipped to manage.[24]

February 2019: The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services (DCS) removed 18 juveniles from Kingston Academy and announced that it had suspended admissions to the facility. DCS’ stated concern was the facility’s physical condition. Sequel gave no further specifics, other than that DCS raised concerns about some of the physical surroundings and that an interior renovation was in-progress when DCS pulled the children.

March 2019: Kingston Academy closed.

April 28, 2019: A riot erupted at Red Rock Canyon School in St. George, Utah. Media reported that 25 students were injured and received medical treatment. Five had to be transported to the hospital for more serious treatment, including one student who required staples to close a gash on the back of his head. Twenty additional students and three facility staff members were evaluated but declined medical treatment. Five students were arrested and jailed on charges of assault, criminal mischief and inciting a riot. Another seven were detained but not arrested. The riot is reported to have been the result of a fight between two students which escalated to involve additional students. Police, medical and SWAT responded to the incident, which lasted two hours.[25]

July 12, 2019: Following a local TV news investigative report on Sequel Pomegranate, Franklin County Children Services (FCCS) conducted a surprise inspection on the facility which uncovered repeated incidents of teen-on-teen, staff-on-teen, and teen-on-staff violence, along with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse and repeated documented events of teens escaping. The news agency also reviewed roughly 400 police dispatches to the facility since 2017 for incidents including fights, disturbances, assaults and allegations of sexual abuse.[26] 

July 2019: Red Rock Canyon School closed after being found in violation of more than ten rules and regulations, as uncovered in a state investigation following the April 2019 riot at the facility. The state Department of Human Resources issued a plan of correction to the facility, calling for 16 situations to be corrected within 90 days and putting it on a conditional license. Though the facility reported that it had completed 15 of the 16 actions, and expected it would handle the final one, it nonetheless closed in August 2019, admitting in a news release that "Over the last few months, in working with the Utah Department of Human Services, we have recognized that we have not consistently delivered on our mission." [27]

August 19, 2019: Madison City Council (Alabama) revoked the business license of Sequel’s TSI Madison youth facility (also known as Three Springs Detention Center) after a series of escapes, including two juveniles who are charged with murdering a construction worker after having eloped from the facility. Three Springs management complied with the revocation, issuing a statement indicating that it was seeking to relocate the 51 children in its care at that time.[28]

August 22, 2019: Inspectors from the Ohio Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services cited Sequel Pomegranate following an unannounced visit to the facility, during which they uncovered issues with children being improperly restrained and noted that the facility had failed to report a sexual assault allegation made during June 2019. The Department required Pomegranate to review all incident reports going back to July 1, 2018, to ensure that the facility staff did not fail to report other issues.[29]

August 2019: Days after the announcement that Sequel was closing Red Rock Canyon School, it announced it would be closing Mount Pleasant Academy, also located in Utah. Sequel asserted that the closure of Mount Pleasant was not related to the state health authority’s citing of numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse of patients.[30]

November 2019: Liz Spellman, a Sequel Pomegranate mental health technician, was placed on administrative leave and later fired following an October incident in which she laid on top of a teen during an improper restraint and also shoved the teen afterward. She admitted to media that “Improper restraints happen every day in there.” A four-page letter from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to Pomegranate alleged that a nurse at the facility kicked and punched the girl while she was being restrained. That nurse admitted to media that she had done it and that it was a mistake. The letter also cited another nurse who failed to render aid. Later media reported that the nurse was also fired.[31] 

November 2019: Former Red Rock Canyon School staffer Atonio Kavea was arrested on charges of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl and fathering a child with her. The girl, who had been a patient at the facility, began an online relationship with Kavea after she was discharged. Kavea would make monthly visits to the girl (then only 14 years old) in Tulare County, CA and take her to motels rooms for sex. He was charged in with two felonies (unlawful sexual intercourse and lewd act upon a child) and was taken into custody of Tulare County Sheriff. The website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows that he was imprisoned at the California Correctional Institution on October 27, 2020 and will be eligible for parole in May 2023.[32]

On November 21, 2019, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that a 15-year-old Oregon boy who had been placed as a foster child at Red Rock Canyon School had filed a lawsuit against the Oregon officials who sent him to the facility. The suit alleges that Red Rock staffers knew the boy was being bullied but did nothing to stop it; staff encouraged patient-on-patient violence; hired unqualified staff; did not conduct background checks, resulting in the hiring of a convicted felon; did not properly train staff; allowed students to restrain each other, including choke holds; and staff mistreated the children.[33]

December 2019: The Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (OHMAS) notified Sequel Pomegranate that it was seeking to revoke its license. A hearing before OHMAS was set for mid-January 2020 for Pomegranate to respond to allegations and defend its license. Franklin County (Ohio) Children Services was also at that time reviewing 11 complaints of alleged neglect and physical or sexual abuse leveled at the facility since August 2019. Following this, Pomegranate’s CEO stepped down.[34]

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