Investigation: ‘These kids are at risk of serious injury or possibly even death’

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Children sent to a state-licensed facility for mental health care are subjected to chokeholds and slaps, being pinned to the ground and verbally abused, and regularly leaving the campus, according to an investigation conducted by Disability Rights Ohio.

Disability Rights Ohio Director Kerstin Sjoberg said neither the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services nor the center, Youth Intensive Services, are working to correct the problems.

“If things remain as they are, these kids are at risk of serious injury or possibly even death if something doesn’t happen. We cannot wait for that before we take action,” Sjoberg said. “We are begging, particularly the Department of Mental Health, to use your enforcement authority to help these kids be safe. They don’t deserve to be in this type of environment.”

Child protective services agencies in multiple counties, including Franklin, Summit, Stark, Carroll, and Tuscarawas, send children to Youth Intensive Services, which is in Youngstown.

In the first five months of 2024, there were 31 police reports of children leaving the facility. One kid made it to the bus station nearly 3.5 miles away before police found them. Two other children trying to leave the grounds were left outside in the winter for 20 minutes while employees periodically checked in from the doorway. Off-ground, they’re subjected to dangerous conditions, sexual assaults, and injuries, investigators found.

Since October 2022, Disability Rights Ohio visited Ohio three times, interviewed 28 children and employees, reviewed videos and records and issued recommendations.

Disability Rights Ohio has raised these issues with Youth Intensive Services and the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, which licenses the treatment center. Disability Rights Ohio asked the state to stop admissions to the center until minimum standards are met and if they aren’t, revoke the license.

“The department remains engaged in regular contact with Disability Rights Ohio (DRO) and Youth Intensive Services (YIS) staff. Our team has been working with YIS and they have been responsive and collaborative in addressing concerns,” said department spokesman Eric Wanderslaben. “OhioMHAS will thoroughly review the DRO report and take any necessary steps to ensure that youth entrusted to YIS receive quality care and treatment in a safe environment.”

Sjoberg said the state has taken no corrective action in more than a year.

Disability Rights Ohio is a statewide non-profit with authority to advocate and protect people with disabilities in prisons, jails and other institutional settings.

Youth Intensive Services is licensed for 33 kids, ages 12 to 18, according to Disability Rights Ohio. The state licenses about 60 such residential facilities for at-risk children.