Congregate Care: Far From Home, Far From Safe
Published December 5, 2021 / Updated December 6, 2021

Congregate Care: Far From Home, Far From Safe

On any given day between 10,000-20,000 children are residing in congregate care facilities across the country. Many of these children are living in states far from home in conditions and with people who are far from safe.

by Susan E. Stutz

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A child looking up with ominous shadows of caretakers around them.

Source: Chelsea Charles for the Washington Post

It is probably safe to say that each of us has either had a troubled childhood or knows someone who did. Half of our marriages end in divorce with the children in those families often being weaponized by one parent against the other. One in eight kids will try illegal drugs this year and although the legal drinking age is 21 in most states, individuals aged 12-20 will consume 10% of all alcohol consumed in the United States. One child is abused every 47 seconds which equates to more than 1800 children who will be abused today alone. And, for those whose sexuality is fluid or uncertain, learning who they are is seen as problematic if they do not conform to what society says is gender normative. All of these events can be very traumatic for the people at their center. And, how we respond to these traumatic events varies for each person but almost all of us need help to make it through the dark times. Coupled with the fact that parenthood does not come with an instruction manual, for some growing up can be a perilous journey. We can look to our own childhood experiences in order to know what not to do, but knowing what not to do does not mean that we know what we should do. For the most part, parenthood is a crapshoot that we hope to win by releasing healthy, happy, miniature versions of ourselves out into the world. But, when that goes wrong, it can be catastrophic. Faced with the challenges mentioned above, many parents turn to residential programs for help with their troubled teens. These facilities are commonly referred to as congregate care and what is happening to our children in these places is nothing short of horrific.

On any given day between 10,000-20,000 children are residing in congregate care facilities across the country. Many of these children are living in states far from home in conditions and with people who are far from safe. Regardless of the reason for being there in the first place, they are lumped together as one body receiving the “treatment” doled out by the facility. This treatment begins with a terrifying visit from transporters in the dark of night. They are usually large men, who burst into the child’s bedroom waiving zip ties or other restraints around, telling our children that they can go the easy way or the hard way, at times, dragging them from our homes. Some are transported across the country to areas that are completely unfamiliar. Imagine what that must feel like. As an adult, the prospect of someone barging into my room in the dead of night is alarming; it can only exponentially worse when it happens to our kids and those who are meant to love and care for them stand by as they are forcibly removed from their homes.

Once at the facility, treatment includes prohibitions against any form of physical contact or verbal communication with other residents, enduring physical restraints that often place their lives in jeopardy, religious instruction that feels more like a battering ram than the love and light they profess it includes, solitary confinement which means no interaction with other people for weeks at a time, and good ole’ fashion terrorism on the part of the staff. And, when our children try to tell us of the abuses they are enduring, the facility tells us to not believe anything they say and that the claims of abuse are just a ruse to escape.  Oftentimes, there is a lord of the flies culture that is created as residents are encouraged to rat each other out in the hopes of an easier life within the facility for themselves. Faced with all of this, our kids have but three choices: fight, flight, or freeze. They can fight back against their aggressor and face exponentially greater consequences as a result, they can try to run away into unfamiliar communities in states far from home, or they can turn inward. Similarly, our children are confessing to crimes and actions they have not committed in order to advance in the program.

When challenges to these facilities occur by families or other interested parties, they are often faced with SLAPP suits which are lawsuits initiated by those with deep pockets meant to wear down and silence the opposition. Furthermore, although many of these facilities receive state and federal funding, there is almost no oversight required. And, just when our kids have completed the program, we are told that they need more and are encouraged to enroll in additional programs. Graduation from these programs does not mean the end. Instead, it results in parents who are encouraged to extend the child’s stay by participating in yet more treatment. This is a billion-dollar industry that hinges on the problems – some of which are entirely normal for every adolescent – that our kids are facing.

What Can You Do To Help

The Accountability for Congregate Care Act of 2021, addresses many of the problems we have highlighted here. If enacted, the Act would have the following outcomes:

  • Address the weaknesses in our therapeutic systems that increase our reliance on congregate care facilities.
  • Provide a Bill of Rights for our youth who at present are living in facilities that have stripped them of even the most basic of civil rights.
  • Create the ACCA Joint Commission to do research in consultation with Federal agencies and experts on issues related to our youth.
  • Provide funding to shore up resources for our kids by developing best practices and reporting procedures.
  • Provide funding for the training of state officials, social workers, mental health officials, and the judiciary.

Although this legislation has not been officially proposed in the form of a bill, we have the opportunity to encourage our legislators to co-sponsor the Act and push for its passage. Send ACCASign a petition urging the passing of the Accountability for Congregate Care Act to sign Breaking Code Silence’s petition and lobby your official for the introduction of this legislation and its passage.

For an in-depth look at one survivor’s experience, read Rachel Aviv’s article, The Shadow Penal System for Struggling Kids, in the New Yorker.

For more information regarding the Act, read Breaking Code Silence’s policy memo.

You can also tune in to Resistbot Live on Sunday, December 5 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time as we listen to and learn from Dr. Athena Kolbe and Dr. Vanessa Hughes of Breaking Code Silence.

Thank you to Elena.

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