Residential Abuse and Neglect

For years we have been told to not lock our pets in our cars even in cool weather. Public service announcements have flooded the media warning of the dangers that quickly arise causing heatstroke and suffocation.

  • [1] It takes only minutes for a pet left in a vehicle on a warm day to succumb to heatstroke and suffocation. Most people don’t realize how hot it can get in a parked car on a balmy day. However, on a 78 degree day, temperatures in a car parked in the shade can exceed 90 degrees — and hit a scorching 160 degrees if parked in the sun!

But on July 24, 2010 a residential treatment facility in Eastern Pennsylvania left a 20 year old Autistic boy locked in a sweltering hot van parked in the facility’s own parking lot for more than five hours in 97 degree weather. Brian Nevins’ lifeless body was found in the van only after a staff nurse could not find him to administer medications.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that after an outing to Sesame Place in Langhorne PA, a Woods Services counselor dropped off a colleague and two of his clients on campus. She then drove a short distance to adjoining homes where her two clients lived. Only one of her two clients was taken into the facility. Brian Nevins was left in a back passenger seat with locked doors that could only be opened from outside. According to the Inquirer, the unnamed counselor returned to work and finished her shift, clocking out and leaving a few hours later.

While the unnamed counselor, who has been suspended, appears to be the primary focus of the investigation, many questions come to mind regarding the entire facility’s treatment of residents.   In November, a 17-year-old Woods resident died when he was struck by cars after falling from a highway overpass. The Bucks County Coroner’s Office ruled that death accidental.

Pennsylvania law requires that all treatment center residents 21 or under be checked at least every hour whether sleeping or awake. Obviously, the Woods Services facility does not strictly adhere to the law. What other laws are the Woods and facilities like them ignoring? And who is responsible to oversee that facilities adhere to the protective laws put in place?

More and more we are seeing stories detailing abuse of those with disabilities. The Autistic community seems to be a particularly vulnerable target. As Autism often includes communication barriers, victims are often unable to convey such abuse. And when the abuse happens by the people who are entrusted to care for them, it is often too late when the abuse becomes obvious.

Woods Services is not alone in cases of institutional abuse. Earlier in July, an employee at the Falcon Crest Group Home in Delaware was accused of abusing two female Autistic residents. State police charged Bonnie E. Cornish, with two counts of abuse, mistreatment or neglect of a patient or resident of a facility.

According to the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse (CAICA) “there is no federal or state agency, that tracks the number of deaths of youth in residential treatment facilities, boot camps, wilderness programs, behavior modification programs, etc., nor is there any federal or state agency that tracks the number of deaths of youth after they leave such programs.”   [2] However, CAICA does keep a list of known related deaths found at their website.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a statement in February 2009 that outlined its findings of abuse and coverups at residential treatment facilities, nationwide.

  • [3]  “Investigations…uncovered thousands of cases and allegations of child abuse and neglect since the early 1990’s at teen residential programs, including therapeutic boarding schools, boot camps, wilderness programs and behavior modification facilities…the investigation revealed that many teen residential treatment programs have been using deceptive marketing practices and questionable tactics to lure vulnerable parents desperate to find help for their children.”

Woods Services states the following about the program Brian Nevins attended:

  • [4] ”…this Center provides a comprehensive special education program that features close instructional supervision and support. Functional academics are emphasized in addition to behavioral self-management and social skill development.”

It is very apparent that Brian Nevins and the unnamed boy who was struck to death in November were not given “close instructional supervision and support” during their stays at the Woods Services Facility. What is also very clear is that something must be done to end the abuse of our vulnerable populations.