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Children Face Threats Inside Residential Treatment Centers

Chicago Tribune/Medill Watchdog probe finds pattern of violence, poorly trained staff

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Troubled youth seeking help at residential treatment centers throughout the nation routinely face threats of violence and sexual assault, according to a Medill Watchdog investigation conducted in conjunction with the Chicago Tribune.

The year-long project, which appeared online and in print beginning Wednesday, involved more than 50 current students and recent graduates of Northwestern University. The reporters, working with award-winning Chicago Tribune journalists, combed through more than 66,000 pages of public documents from 260 residential treatment centers in 29 states.

The findings were striking: Inside the facilities, vulnerable children are often injured or preyed upon by older or more aggressive patients. Staffers are commonly inexperienced and underpaid and sometimes injure children who need to be restrained to protect themselves or others, according to the report. The young patients run away by the thousands, often causing potential harm to themselves or to the community.

The report found that many programs provide effective treatment to children suffering from emotional or behavioral problems. But in the worst cases, centers caused further harm to the youth they were charged with helping.

The investigative work is featured on with installments running through Tuesday, Dec. 9. Parallel reports appear in the Chicago Tribune; Medill students contributed to two stories that are national in scope. Stories focusing on Illinois were exclusively written by Chicago Tribune reporters.

In addition to poring over documents, the student reporters reviewed lawsuits, news accounts and corporate records. They also interviewed hundreds of staff and executives within the institutions, as well as attorneys, police officers, state officials, experts and former residents.

“Medill Watchdog’s staff is thrilled we could play a role working collaboratively with Chicago Tribune reporters to expose a significant and systemic societal issue,” said Medill Watchdog Director Rick Tulsky. “Documenting the problem can help improve the lives of vulnerable children.”

In the U.S., hundreds of facilities treat children with emotional or behavioral problems. In the first installment, Medill reporters investigated Provo Canyon School in Utah, one of the nation’s oldest and largest treatment centers.

Among their findings:

  • Since 2011, police have responded to at least 56 reports of assault and 25 reports of sex offenses at Utah’s Provo Canyon School, which cares for up to 274 children.
  • Police reports show boys and girls, as young as 8 years old, hurting themselves, each other and staff members.
  • Sexual activity, both consensual and non-consensual, occurs inside the facilities, according to police reports.

Some treatment centers are run by nonprofits, religious organizations and for-profit corporations. But most are funded by taxpayers; children are usually placed by school districts, court systems and social welfare agencies.

Medill Watchdog, an investigative journalism program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, is dedicated to identifying systemic problems in public institutions and holding officials accountable. Since the program’s inception in 2012, Medill Watchdog has published six other investigations in partnerships with the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times Chicago Edition, WBEZ, Chicago News Cooperative and WGN-TV.

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