Report: Foster kids sent to Clarinda, Iowa, were abused in facility run ‘like a correctional institution’

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington state foster youths sent to an Iowa facility were allegedly physically abused and kept largely segregated from the outside world, a possible violation of state and federal laws and their constitutional rights, according to a report released Wednesday.

The report by the nonprofit Disability Rights Washington details living conditions of foster kids sent by Washington state to the for-profit Clarinda Academy. Located in the town of Clarinda, Iowa, the facility houses about 200 children between the ages of 12 and 18, according to the report.

Washington foster children placed there told investigators that they were physically restrained by staff, resulting in pain that lasted for days or weeks.

The report contends the academy “runs like a correctional institution.” Children are not allowed to have cellphones and are not allowed routine trips into town. Teens reported they were not allowed to speak to members of the opposite sex. The children are educated at the facility, as opposed to going a school.

In response to the report, the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families said it will stop placing children at the Clarinda Academy.

In a statement, the agency, which oversees foster programs, said it is taking the report’s findings seriously. The agency is working to get Washington children at the Clarinda Academy into other situations by the end of January.

“We thank Disability Rights Washington for bringing these concerns forward, and are engaged in a serious effort to improve the quality of care for children with complex behavioral health needs in Washington,” according to the agency’s statement.

The report also documents that Washington state has been sending certain high-needs foster youths — currently about 80 — to facilities in a dozen other states. That includes placements as far away as Florence, S.C., and Camden, N.J., making it difficult for family or advocates to visit them.

According to state data in late 2017, three-quarters of the contracts for those out-of-state placements were made with a corporation named Sequel, which owns and operates Clarinda Academy, according to the report.

The report has spurred the agency to conduct a broader review of foster children sent out of state. DCYF has been sending teams to meet with each of the approximately 80 children who are placed in other states. The agency plans to create more detailed audits to review the care children are getting in such facilities.

Foster youth placed in out-of-state facilities typically have “complex behavioral health challenges that require 24-hour care not feasible in individual foster homes or have other challenging therapeutic needs,” according the DCYF statement.

The agency faces a shortage of in-state providers to help high-needs foster youths, according to the statement. DCYF attributed that to inadequate pay rates for companies that would provide those services. The agency said it intends to request more funding in the coming state budget “that will allow us to develop adequate in-state capacity over the next 18-24 months.”

After learning of the out-of-state foster placements, Disability Rights Washington in February interviewed all the Washington foster children — about a dozen — living at either the Clarinda Academy or another Iowa facility owned by Sequel, the Woodward Academy, which is north of Des Moines. Those children described segregated and restricted living conditions.

“However, the youth at Clarinda Academy independently reported consistent allegations of verbal and physical abuse, and earnestly complained that they desired to live somewhere else,” according to the report.

Several children didn’t want to be part of the deeper investigation for fear of retaliation. But three children at the Clarinda Academy agreed to participate, and signed releases allowing DRW to access their records, which included treatment plans and restraint records.

Children told investigators that staff “put their hands on you and force you to the ground,” according to the report. “They 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.”

“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, they stated that no one complains because they are told ‘you shouldn’t have gotten put in a restraint.’ ”

Physical restraints at the Clarinda Academy are supposed to be used only as a last resort in instances where physical harm could be imminent, according to the report. But children said they were restrained by staff for actions such as clenching their fists or moving their hands.

Documents accessed by DRW indicated that one child claimed to have passed out after being restrained by a staffer.

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