Last spring, Sequel Youth and Family Services, a national organization that runs facilities for youth with emotional and behavioral problems, gained attention when a young man named Cornelius Frederick was killed by staff at one of their facilities in Michigan. This week, an APM Reports investigation revealed a pattern of abuse and harm at juvenile treatment centers run by the organization.
In the last two years, eight of Sequel's facilities have been shut down, six of which were under pressure from or amid investigations by various government agencies across the country. Currently, its facilities in Alabama are under investigation, and Ohio is in the process of revoking its facility's license. Normative Services Institute (NSI), a private juvenile facility in Sheridan, Wyoming, is run by the same organization.
As the crow flies, NSI is less than five miles from Phillip Huckins and Jane Clark's ranch - but it isn't easy terrain to cross. Gesturing across the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains, Huckins points out the multiple draws between his home and the juvenile facility.
"I'll tell you what, you can wear a horse out on those hills right there. Pretty easy," he said.
Yet, on May 4, 2018, while out on an early morning walk, Huckins discovered a runaway from the juvenile treatment facility hiding in his corral. The young man was wearing nothing but a tank top, shorts, and socks. No shoes. Huckins told him to come out of the barn he was hiding in, crawl under the rail that was between him and Huckins, and to stay there.
"I kind of felt sorry for him, you know?" said Huckins. "He wasn't aggressive. He wasn't antagonistic. No backtalk. Every time he answered me he was, 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' He was polite."
Huckins walked the boy back to the house. Inside, Huckins called the sheriff while his wife, Jane Clark, made him a hot breakfast. A deputy arrived, identified the kid as a runaway from NSI and carted him away.
While Huckins and Clark said that they knew the boy wasn't a threat to them, they said the experience was unsettling - that someone would cross the same terrain Huckins said could wear a horse out in no time and end up in their backyard.
Like many Wyomingites, Huckins and Clark keep firearms in their home. If the kid had been aggressive, they said things could have gone much worse for him. Huckins said it's on NSI to make sure a tragedy like that doesn't occur.
"I think that his life could have been a whole bunch better than it really is, you know? NSI might have been a good start for that. But something didn't work out," said Huckins. "I would just like to see NSI kind of tighten up their security and do a better job with the kids down there."
Huckins and Clark aren't the only ones that want to see NSI do a better job with their kids. Last summer, Cristina Gorzalka created a Facebook post detailing her family's experience with three NSI runaways traveling along her fence line. Gorzalka did not respond to a request for an interview, but it's clear from the 90 plus responses to her public post that she'd struck a nerve in the community. One commenter said her car was stolen and severely damaged. Another warned that he would, "just lock and load, shoot on site, and let the ones that don't escape learn from the escapees mistakes."
Following the post, Sheridan residents organized a meeting with NSI to voice concerns and ask questions. The public outcry got the attention of the Sheridan County Commission who took the matter up with NSI's management.
At one of the meetings, Gary Flohr, NSI's director at the time, shared plans to improve security.
"We're going to fence the backside of the property where the boys' houses aren't. We're going to put a 10-foot non-climb fence across the back of the property," said Flohr. "That's going to deter them from heading up over that property." He also told the commission he was installing more security cameras.
Commissioner Christi Haswell said that after the changes outlined by Flohr were made, there was a decline in runaways and the community calmed down. From Haswell's perspective, the work of the commission was done.
"You know, if we're not hearing from the community it's none of our business, frankly," said Haswell.
She said that NSI was valuable to the community, and they just want to see the kids, as well as the remainder of Sheridan's citizens, safe.
There are fewer runaways in residents' backyards, but issues at the facility haven't gone away entirely. According to service call data from the Sheridan County Sheriff's Office, fights between youth in the facility have spiked. In 2019, there were 25 calls for runaways and two for violence at NSI. So far in 2020, the numbers have flipped, with six calls for runaways and 28 for violence at the facility.
Sheriff Allen Thompson has a theory about the increase in violence. He said traumatized kids respond to stress with the most basic human instinct: fight or flight.
"When they take away the flight, then it makes sense that the fight increases," he said.
Thompson's theory raises concern about whether the root causes of stress for kids at the facility are being addressed. Thompson said it's a good question, but he doesn't have the authority to evaluate if NSI offers effective treatment. What he can do is keep an eye out for abuse and mistreatment at the facility.
"We have unfettered access to the NSI campus and can ensure through our community or through law enforcement that those types of things aren't occurring there," said Thompson.
Still, Thompson and the commissioners felt limited in their ability to address issues at the facility. Last August, they sent a letter to the Wyoming Department of Family Services describing the situation at NSI as "alarming" and "dangerous." The letter asked if the state could intervene.
Wyoming DFS Director Korin Schmidt wrote back explaining that she shared concerns about the runaways, but the facility was in compliance with licensing requirements, meaning her ability to take further action was limited and that the avenues for oversight were blocked. In a more recent interview, Schmidt said the criteria for compliance are narrow.
"We don't dictate the treatment protocols of any given facility. But we do focus on safety, food, all of those typical things," said Schmidt.
As for an evaluation of NSI's internal culture or the effectiveness of treatment, Schmidt said that's not for DFS to decide. "That's really not our job. We are not therapists. We are not clinicians. We are not mental health experts. We're not therapeutic experts."
The last line of defense to ensure kids are receiving quality treatment at NSI are the adults that send them to NSI, according to Schmidt. The market provides additional accountability. If the services the institute provides aren't satisfactory, then judges, schools, and parents will spend their money to send kids elsewhere.
"While we have some responsibility to make sure the kids are safe, there's also people . . . paying for that service from that particular facility. And they're buying those services," said Schmidt. "So is that our business, then, to go in and make therapeutic decisions on behalf of their program?"
In Wyoming, NSI's customers, so to speak, have spoken. Over the last ten years, the number of Wyoming kids placed at NSI has steadily declined from more than 50 in 2011 to just three in 2020. Nena James, who served as a district court judge in Sweetwater County until October of 2019, said NSI became less of a good fit for kids to be placed in as time went on, so she sent fewer youth to the facility and opted for other placements.
"I just questioned the goodness of their program - the value of their program, I guess," said James. "And I had concerns about them hanging on to the kids too long."
If Wyoming isn't buying NSI's services, then who is?
The facility's biggest customer is Montana. The state's Department of Public Health and Family Services, which oversees juvenile placements, declined an interview. In a written statement, they explained that facilities have to meet requirements concerning treatment and therapeutic interventions. But they didn't give details on how those requirements are enforced.
Though Schmidt said the market helps to keep NSI in check, DFS hasn't been completely laissez-faire in regulating the institution. Most notably, in 2009 and 2016 DFS intervened to address the dangerous way NSI staff physically restrained students. Nate Reynolds, a former Sequel staff member, remembers when the agency took action in 2009.
"Wyoming came in and . . . looked over all of the incidents that happened," said Reynolds. "They offered their critiques . . . They wanted a whole different restraining doctrine that Sequel had never adopted before. And so they went ahead and went through the whole thing."
In remembering his time at NSI, Reynolds said the organization had good intentions and a positive impact when, "everything's clicking on all cylinders. But the minute it's not, then you find the holes, and those become exposed and they become bigger and bigger."
APM Report's recent investigation reveals holes that exist in many of Sequel's other facilities, stretching beyond the scope of NSI. Back in Sheridan, though, the question of who can keep the facility accountable for what happens within its gates remains. NSI management declined an interview, but Sequel's PR firm provided a written statement that said, "The road to healing is often a complex and intricate process, and we are committed to helping our residents succeed."
Just five months ago, Cornelius Frederick was killed by a restraint used by Sequel staff in Michigan. It's unclear who's empowered to prevent a tragedy like that from happening at Sequel's facility in Wyoming.
This story was produced in collaboration with APM Reports.