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Advocates Sue Alabama Department of Human Resources for Illegally Placing Children in Foster Care in Harmful Psychiatric Residential Facilities

Montgomery, Ala. – The Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) discriminates against foster children and youth with mental impairments by unnecessarily segregating them in restrictive, psychiatric residential treatment facilities (PRTFs), and by denying them an opportunity to grow up in loving homes and community-based settings, according to a class action lawsuit filed today by child advocate groups. 

The lawsuit targets these placements as violations of the agency’s obligation under federal laws to administer its services, programs and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet the needs of the children in its care. Children segregated into these institutional settings are less likely to achieve permanency and are more likely to age out of the foster care system without the appropriate community-based care to facilitate a successful transition to adulthood.

The Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Children’s Rights brought the lawsuit on behalf of children with mental impairments placed in or at risk of placement in these restrictive settings. This population is disproportionately Black youth. DHR has left many of these children to languish in these facilities for years, despite a medical recommendation that they are ready to be placed in a home. Rather than developing an adequate network of supports and services, DHR often shuffles these children from facility to facility, further isolating them from their families, friends, schools and communities, the complaint states. 

In a letter in 2020, the groups urged state leaders to make sweeping changes to protect foster children placed in facilities run by Sequel Youth and Family Services, after documenting unsanitary conditions and widespread abuse of youth at these facilities. The complaint describes numerous reports of violence against children in facilities across the state, including staff slamming children against walls, punching and slapping children in the face, using chokeholds, and laying on top of children who are being held face down on the ground, causing serious and life-threatening injuries. 

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring DHR to immediately change its policies and practices to ensure that no foster child is unnecessarily placed in these draconian facilities. Advocates also want to ensure children in DHR custody have access to appropriate community-based services, supports, and placements including an adequate number of therapeutic foster homes, among other changes. 

“DHR oversees 19 PRTFs across the state of Alabama, all used to confine hundreds of foster children and youth with mental impairments whose needs could -- and should -- be met in their communities,” said Nancy Anderson, Associate Director at Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program. “DHR’s continued reliance on expensive, institutional placements is an urgent threat to the well-being of these children and youth and wastes taxpayer dollars.  More and better-supported foster families could effectively serve the needs of these children in the community.” 

“Alabama is needlessly institutionalizing children and youth in foster care. The children we represent are cut off from family and community, without access to their school or to a normal teenage life, denied the chance to play a sport, ride a bike, or sing in the choir – to experience the joys of being a child. Instead, they have been subjected to assaults, restraints, psychologically abusive punishments, and filthy living conditions,” said Christina Remlin, Lead Counsel at Children’s Rights. “And this harm is falling disproportionately on Black children. The state must be held accountable for the discrimination and segregation of all children with mental impairments.”

“Not only do these PRTF placements segregate children with mental impairments in violation of federal law, these facilities are all too frequently dangerous settings that put children’s lives at risk,” said Michael Tafelski, Senior Supervising Attorney from the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Families and communities entrust DHR to protect the children in its care, not subject them to harsh and abusive conditions that many children have endured. We know that children thrive most when their needs are met in their communities, and the law requires it. It’s time Alabama take action to end this unlawful and abusive practice.”