Embattled company to close a second Utah treatment center for troubled teens

A company that runs treatment centers for troubled teens is closing a second Utah facility following intense scrutiny into the staff’s treatment of young people.

Sequel Youth and Family Services will shutter Mount Pleasant Academy within the next month. The decision comes just days after the company announced it will close Red Rock Canyon School, a St. George treatment center that has come under fire following a riot and recent revelations about the number of staffers accused of assaulting students.

The company said in a statement last week that it was closing Red Rock because “we have recognized that we have not consistently delivered on our mission.”

But Sequel said in a second statement on Friday that its decision to close Mount Pleasant Academy is not connected to Red Rock or staffing issues, and instead was based on low enrollment.

“We are considering how to repurpose Mount Pleasant to serve the needs of a broader population of clients,” it said in a statement.

Mount Pleasant Academy is advertised as a 16-bed residential treatment center for teen boys who are struggling with sexual issues, while Red Rock Canyon School is a larger facility that provides residential treatment and schooling for youths ages 12 to 18 — a mix of teens whose parents pay for them to stay there, out-of-state foster children and some who are ordered to be there by a judge.

Sequel said it will now work with families, state agencies and case workers to transfer youths from the two facilities to “an appropriate alternative behavioral health program.”

A number of those young people are Oregon foster children. Child welfare officials there have been forced to find new places for 14 youths — 11 who had been staying at Red Rock and three who had been at Mount Pleasant Academy, according to emails sent to Oregon senators.

Oregon Sen. Sara Gelser is a critic of Sequel facilities, expressing concern that the foster children from her state that have been sent there are not safe. She applauded the closure of the two Utah facilities, but said she’s concerned many of the Oregon youths will just be shuffled to a different Sequel facilities in other states that have the same issues.

Gelser said she wants all of the Oregon foster children brought back to their home state.

“I think it’s a first step,” she said last week when asked about the Red Rock closure. “These problems are rampant across these types of facilities, and we see these issues in other Sequel facilities across the country.”

Oregon officials currently have 60 foster children in out-of-state placements — and nearly all are at Sequel facilities in five different states. This includes two other Utah facilities owned by Sequel that are still operating: Lava Heights Academy, a Toquerville-based facility that focuses on art therapy, and Falcon Ridge Ranch, a girls-only school in Virgin that includes therapy with horses.

Sequel officials said in a Monday statement that those facilities will continue to operate as usual, and there’s “no plans to change the direction of either program.”

Utah authorities had threatened to pull Red Rock Canyon School’s license earlier this year in the wake of an April 28 riot that left several students injured. The school has also been the subject of several legislative hearings in Oregon, and officials in Washington also removed its foster children from the facility citing safety concerns.

The St. George facility has been frequently visited by police investigating staffers for child abuse, drugs and most recently sex crimes, according to a Salt Lake Tribune investigation. Two police departments in two different states are currently conducting investigations that staffers sexually abused students.

California officials recently confirmed they have been investigating the possibility that a Red Rock staffer fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl who had been at the school. St. George police are investigating a separate sexual assault report, but would not release details.

Sequel acquired the four Utah treatment facilities in 2016, during a time when Mount Pleasant Academy had its license threatened after state investigators found the director had not reported incidents of child abuse and had been the subject of multiple “failure to protect” neglect allegations by the Utah Division of Child and Family Services.

That sanction ended in October 2016, and the facility has been in good standing since.

Other Sequel facilities outside of Utah have also been criticized in recent years. Washington officials pulled its foster children from Clarinda Academy in Iowa after an October 2018 report by Disability Rights Washington, which detailed reports of verbal abuse and excessive physical restraints by staff.

Similar reports were documented in police reports at Red Rock Canyon School, and 10 staffers at the Utah school have been charged with child abuse in the last 2 ½ years, with accusations ranging from choking to punching kids in the face.

The most recent staffer charged is accused of punching a 17-year-old in the face and pulling her by her hair during the April 28 brawl. Students and staff members reported to police that violence escalated that evening because the staffer had called a group of young girls “thirsty hoes,” “bitches” and “horny little girls” before ordering them back to their rooms.

St. George police reports detail similar allegations of abuse in recent years. For instance, one girl reported to police in March 2017 that three staff members held her to the ground to remove a photo of her deceased brother she had hidden in her bra, and months later she told police that staff had called her “a little bitch” and told her no one loved her.

A year later, a staffer told police he performed a “leg sweep” on a boy and brought him to the ground because he would not take his shoes off. Another boy reported that same year that a staff member pulled him from his bed because he didn’t want to get up.