CLICK HERE :View Indiana House Democrats' 2024 Economic Freedom Agenda.

Op-ed: Garcia Wilburn: This Child Abuse Prevention Month, I’m calling for accountability for the residential care facility industry

News & Media, Media Releases

The sobering truth about childhood sexual abuse is that it is likely much more prevalent than we understand it to be and instances of it are incredibly underreported. Currently, it’s estimated that one in four girls and one in 20 boys experience sexual abuse before turning 18 in the United States. Beyond the immediate horrors of this violation, victims are likely to experience health struggles throughout their life, including substance use disorder, PTSD, major depression, risky sexual behaviors, future additional victimization and perpetration of sexual violence. It’s a horrible crime with lifelong consequences for the victim.

As the nation takes a moment to reflect on the prevalence of child abuse during Child Abuse Prevention Month this April, I want to point to a growing issue that we are only starting to grasp the full extent of: young adult residential care facilities. In my work as a community researcher, I have worked with teenagers who have experienced the unimaginable – substance use disorder, abuse, neglect, sexual violence, the list goes on. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that without additional regulations and scrutiny, the facilities that are supposed to be helping kids in these situations – residential care facilities – are actually harming them.

From a Netflix documentary (The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping) to federal and state advocacy by Paris Hilton, herself a survivor of various facilities in the so-called “troubled teen industry,” Americans are starting to become informed about the too-often psychologically and physically abusive nature of residential care facilities for children and teenagers. Youth under the care of the state or who are facing significant personal struggles are often sent to these facilities for behavioral therapy, but their experiences in these facilities frequently worsen their psychological scarring.

Here in Indiana, we’ve seen two cases of residential care facilities’ employees taking advantage of the position of trust they have over the children under their care in the past year alone. (The Wernle Youth & Family Treatment Center has had its license revoked; Pierceton Woods Academy is still operating as a licensed contractor of the state.)

As a state representative, it’s my job to craft and amend state laws dealing with the children under the care of the Department of Child Services. In response to the allegations at Pierceton Woods, I worked across the aisle to get legislative language amended into a new law that will address part of the problem at Pierceton Woods. A lack of clarity in state code led DCS to develop factually inaccurate employee materials. Basically, a minor at a DCS-licensed residential care facility is still considered a minor in state law when they are 18, 19 and 20.

Oftentimes, teens who enter facilities like Pierceton Woods stay a few years after they’ve turned 18, but from a legal and ethical standpoint, they are still minors while in the facility. Employees who have inappropriate relationships with residents over 18 are not only acting unethically but may also be committing child sexual abuse. By clarifying this in state code, we have ensured that DCS employees and contractors understand these young people are considered minors under the law. 

While this is a significant bipartisan victory worth celebrating, I know that work remains. What happened at Pierceton Woods and the Wernle Center was awful. There is still a risk that another child at these facilities or the others operating in Indiana falls victim to abuse by an employee and the incident is not handled appropriately. That’s why I believe we need to clarify the protocols DCS must follow during a child abuse investigation.

For example, if it becomes clear throughout the process of investigating child abuse at a residential care facility that DCS wasn’t the first point of contact for the employee who discovered this potential abuse, there must be an audit of that facility's employee handbook and follow-up to ensure the handbook is changed. Per state law, being a mandatory reporter means reporting suspicious behavior to the state first – not up the chain of command at your job. In addition, if DCS finds that a facility and its employees do not have a thorough understanding of the specific laws that apply to them surrounding criminality and child sex abuse, onsite training from DCS needs to take place.

These policies will go far toward creating the culture of accountability that the residential care facility industry sorely needs. Facilities that receive state funding to care for kids should be held to the highest of standards.

Share Article