Children deserve to be safe and have an opportunity for a supportive childhood in their communities, but North Carolina’s misguided use of institutions for youth who need mental health support means on any given day, hundreds of children are locked away in places where many suffer abuse and neglect. Today, federal legislators announced a bill that will create a uniform Bill of Rights for kids who are shut away in facilities, and address system-wide inadequacies.

DRNC supports this necessary legislation, the Accountability for Congregate Care Act (ACCA) of 2021, announced today at a news conference. The announcement follows a disturbing new report by the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) that reveals widespread abuse and neglect at for-profit youth residential treatment facilities in 18 states across the country, including North Carolina. Disability Rights NC staff know that the examples cited in the report are not isolated, as we regularly hear about abuses in psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs) from children and their guardians.

“Facilities are bad for children, and they should be able to get the care they need in their communities, period,” said DRNC CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus. “When that support isn’t readily available, kids’ needs don’t go away, but continue to increase. They and their parents and guardians need them to have safe and effective models of care. That is not what we have currently, and this bill pushes the country in that direction.”

Paris Hilton has spoken publicly about her damaging experiences in these locked facilities and her fame provides an important spotlight on these abuses. For too long, kids in these facilities have suffered in darkness. Personal experiences provide the evidence and witness policy makers need to spur them to act. If you have stayed in a PRTF, DRNC wants to hear your story.

The Act seeks to create a uniform Youth in Congregate Care Bill of Rights, including the following rights:

  • to physical well-being, including
      • to be free from abuse and neglect; Including all forms of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, neglect, exploitation, financial exploitation, and excessive medication; the right to be free from institutional abuse and neglect;
      • to be free from aversive behavioral interventions
      • to freedom from physical, mechanical, and chemical restraint or seclusion
      • to protection against unreasonable search and seizure; including the use of strip searches or cavity searches as a means of punishment
  • to social and emotional well-being, including
      • prohibition of long periods of forced silence, restriction of communication with staff, caregivers, child protective services, law enforcement, or advocates;
      • to have sufficient educational and life skills imparted onto them
      • to reasonable daily access to the outdoors
  • to have essential needs met
  • to individualized and appropriate treatment that is culturally competent, trauma-informed, and most supportive of each youth’s personal liberty and development
  • to be free from abusive, humiliating, degrading, or traumatizing treatment by staff or other youth; including
      • the ability to report mistreatment anonymously without fear of reprisal
      • to access a protection and advocacy agency

DRNC has long recognized the failure of NC to offer community-based services for kids with mental health, developmental, and substance abuse disabilities. Rather than building services that keep kids in their homes and communities with people they love and who love them, NC overly relies on congregate care and sends many kids to expensive psychiatric institutions that purport to be “therapeutic” but are essentially holding tanks that do more harm than good.

DRNC advocates for an end to the overreliance on institutions and congregate care for kids and supports ACCA’s goal of identifying evidence-based strategies to decrease congregate care and to end institutional abuse.

DRNC is part of the national Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system. P&As are empowered under federal law to conduct monitoring activities and investigations where people with disabilities receive services, including Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities (PRTFs). DRNC’s investigators and attorneys have been monitoring and conducting investigations in PRTFs for more than a decade, ever since DRNC became NC’s designated P&A.

Two DRNC attorneys, Joonu-Noel Andrews Coste, and Kristine Sullivan, supervising attorney for DRNC’s Investigations and Monitoring team, worked with NDRN and 17 other P&As on the NDRN report, Desperation without Dignity: Conditions of Children Placed in For Profit Residential Facilities. Coste, Sullivan, and Senior Investigator Kishona Mimms currently lead DRNC’s monitoring and investigative efforts at NC PRTFs and other congregate care settings.

DRNC launched Bring NC Kids Home earlier this year in an effort to bring to light the injustices our children endure in these facilities.