A Guide Produced by the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment (CAFETY)
Download PDF Guide Here
Family Tip Sheets
- Tip Sheet for Families Considering a Residential Program – Brief
- Tip Sheet for Families Considering a Residential Program – Expanded
Youth Tip Sheets
Young people who receive services in the mental health and other child serving systems such as foster care and juvenile justice are often the most susceptible to institutional mistreatment and abuse. This risk is particularly high in isolated residential programs where there is limited contact with family and community. For those still in residential programs or about to enter into a residential program we advise that you review the Youth Tip Sheet developed by the Building Bridges Initiative and use the questions provided in that document. If you're not satisfied with the way your questions are being answered this guide may be helpful to you as you figure out what you can do about it. While this guide is designed with residential programs in mind, the same process can be used for any service that you as a young person may receive, as we know that it isn't just residential programs where young people are mistreated and abused.
Step 1: Educate Yourself About Your Rights and the Quality and Appropriateness of Your Treatment
Just because a treatment worked doesn't mean your rights weren't violated, and just because an experience you had was unpleasant doesn't make it abusive. Educate yourself about the laws in your home state and the laws in the state where your program is or was located. Some practices may be legal, but are still practices that programs wish to hide, for example an overuse of restraint and seclusion. Learn about what the best practices are that have been identified through research such as the use of sensory devices, shorter lengths of stay, and extensive interaction with your family and community, among many others.
Step 2: Find Fellow Alumni/Classmates Who Can Validate Your Experience
Sadly, one reported instance of abuse can be easily dismissed as sour grapes or a faulty memory. There is strength in numbers. Through the use of personal networks or even online social networking websites such as Facebook and Myspace, it is now possible to easily connect with people who you were in programs with.
Step 3: Figure out if Your Program is Acting in Good Faith
This is probably the hardest step. Working with programs is usually more effective than being adversarial with them. Negative experiences are not always the product of intentional harm or even the stated practices of the program itself. Sometimes your negative experience is the product of a rogue staff member or practices that have already been reformed. It's worth trying to engage the program directly with your concerns. At the executive level of the program staff should be receptive to any critiques you have about the program. Depending on what your concern is, when possible if you can work with the program to make the necessary changes you may find that to be effective, particularly if those practices you are most concerned about are or were legal. However, for programs that have no intention of making any of the changes that you seek from them, it's possible that by working with the program you only serve to legitimize an abusive program. If executive staff dismiss you, or if in your or your group's opinion the program is dragging you along, or if the practices in question were in fact illegal and the executive staff has not taken appropriate action against employees who committed those illegal acts, it may be time to campaign against the program.
Step 4: Aggressively Let the Truth Be Known
If your program won't work with you, or if the acts that the program committed are so atrocious that they need to be held accountable, it may be time to start a campaign against the program. Your most powerful weapon is the truth. The most effective campaigns so far have been successful just by getting the stories of alumni into the public sphere, discouraging families and agencies from sending children to those programs. An attractive coherent website helps, especially for programs that rely on the internet to generate referrals. Having a website with a name that suggests the program in question isn't totally on the up and up, and that generates enough web traffic to appear high on a Google search can be devastating to that program.
Some examples of campaigns that are known to be successful in impacting the facility or facilities in question are:
Some examples of campaigns that have been successful in generating media attention:
Step 5: Working the Chain of Command
Probably the most important element of effective advocacy (as opposed to venting) is understanding the chain of command, and the authority that comes with each level along the chain. Everybody has a boss, or someone that they answer to. Program line staff answer to program administration, program administration answers to the executive director, the executive director answers to the agency that licenses the program, and the agency who licenses the program answers to the general public. At each level there may be multiple layers. For example, the person in charge of licensing a program may be part of a division of a larger agency, and they may have a boss that can be appealed to. There may be multiple levels of line staff, or multiple levels of program administration. No matter what your concern, you have the right to go up the chain of command. Depending on what the issue is, it may be in your best interest to start on a higher level.
Step 6: The Truth is Your Friend
If your cause gets the attention of investigators you have to be careful with how you present your story. Whenever you work with investigators, tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Stick to the facts, don't embellish, and don't treat your opinion as a fact.
Case Study #1 – Mount Bachelor Academy
A Series of Fortunate Events
Less a campaign and more a series of fortunate events that came together, the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY) was instrumental in the closure of Mount Bachelor Academy.
Some history is in order. In 2006, CAFETY helped collect data for a qualitative survey that assessed whether or not abuse in private residential programs was frequent. One of the programs that many former students had been at, who responded to the survey, was Mount Bachelor Academy.
In 2007, one of the members of CAFETY was approached by several students from Mount Bachelor Academy during one of their “Lifesteps” in Portland, Oregon. This member of CAFETY had the opportunity to interview students who described the program as “cult-like”.
In January 2009, CAFETY received word that Mount Bachelor Academy was to be the subject of a Supreme Court case, that involved many of CAFETY's allies including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, as well as the National Disability Rights Network actually taking the side of the parents to be reimbursed by their school district for sending their son to Mount Bachelor Academy, in effect legitimizing the program.
Mount Bachelor Academy already had an established Facebook and Myspace group. We wanted to reach out to former students who had been at the school at the same time as the student who was the subject of the Supreme Court case to see what kind of treatment was being provided at the school at the time. Our goal was simply to educate the disability rights community what exactly it was that they were advocating for and to use the opportunity to educate people about concerning practice in private therapeutic boarding schools.
Former students shared with us clearly inappropriate practices such as sleep and food deprivation and coercive, humiliating “treatments” such as girls being called sluts and whores, as well as one practice where students prior to doing community service in Pioneer Square, were forced to spend some alone time in the most dangerous areas of Portland, alone under the bridge for the drug users, and in the prostitution district for the girls considered sexually promiscuous.
Be the Pebble that Gets the Boulder Rolling Down the Hill
As a small organization there wasn't a whole lot of impact we could have in this situation, but we could try to convince other larger organizations to take the issue up as their cause. CAFETY encouraged the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law to write an Amicus Brief that would state the concerns that CAFETY had about Mount Bachelor Academy. Rather than write an Amicus Brief, the Bazelon Center instead put out a press release that expressed their concerns about Mount Bachelor Academy. The press release got wide attention, spreading to the entire mental health advocacy community. By using the Supreme Court case to make the actions of the school the issue, we were able to educate a much wider audience than if there had been no Supreme Court case or if we had tried to do it all by ourselves.
Luck Favors the Prepared
After a search of former Mount Bachelor Academy students for the Supreme Court case, we already had a number of alumni on our contact list. About three weeks after the press release, a staff member at the school approached one of our other partners the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) with concerns about the treatment of students at Mount Bachelor Academy.
ASTART members guided the staff member in how to appropriately file a report with the State agencies responsible for investigating abuse and neglect in Oregon, the Department of Human Services and Disability Rights Oregon, the state's Protection and Advocacy group. Once in the state agencies hands, members of CAFETY and ASTART conducting outreach to inform former alumni of the ongoing investigation and to provide expert testimony to the investigators.
Meanwhile all this was happening, a news reporter that CAFETY has contacts with was preparing to write an article on Mount Bachelor Academy for the Supreme Court case, ended up writing an article about the abuse investigation on the Time Magazine website, giving the story national attention.
Eventually, after more than six months of investigating, the licensing agency in Oregon, the Department of Human Services, suspended the license of the school, and the school’s parent company Aspen Education Group, chose to close the school down rather than make the recommended changes that would have allowed the school to stay open.
Case Study #2 – The Family Foundation School
Following more or less the process described above, members of the Family Foundation School Truth Campaign, did realize that their treatment violated human rights, did make efforts to engage the school administration to make the necessary changes, and more or less felt that their concerns were being ignored or dismissed, such as the school failing to obtain a license as a treatment facility or abandoning the use of transport companies, or installing a phone line where students could comfortably call CPS.
In the fall of 2009 the Campaign distributed a mass mailing to the residents of Hancock, New York informing them that there was a school in their midst that was abusing kids. The school responded calling the accusations in the letter lies and exaggerations. And then the campaign went merciless, dredging up every incriminating fact that they could find about the school, blasting it broadly over the internet, in effect trying to win a “Google” war against the school, making it nearly impossible for any parent who would research the school online to not come across the school's troubling history.
In addition to its public awareness campaign, the Campaign also reached out to the State licensing bodies. When one agency ignored their concerns they went to another agency that they thought might be receptive and would have the authority to challenge the other agency's stonewalling.
Today the school stays open, but its enrollment has decreased substantially from the start of the campaign.
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