Gallatin’s Bledsoe Academy reported by New Hampshire officials for alleged abuse
“A culture of shame, neglect and inhumane punishment:” Out-of-state child advocates grew alarmed after checking on boys sent to Tennessee for treatment
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New Hampshire child advocates grew alarmed last month during a visit to Tennessee, where they toured a privately-run facility to check on the well-being of two boys in state custody who had been sent for residential treatment.
What they saw and heard inside the Bledsoe Youth Academy in Gallatin were instances of alleged abuse and neglect so egregious that the two women urgently emailed officials back home before they even left the parking lot.
Kids reported rug burns on their faces from being restrained face-down on carpeting; they described staff promising snacks to kids who attacked “problematic” kids; the visitors witnessed unsanitary conditions, forced labor and acts of deliberate humiliation.
Kids dressed in color coded jumpers: red (for kids deemed dangerous), green (kids facing disciplinary consequences) and tan (suicidal), a practice that the observers reported were “dehumanizing and institutional, but they also violate each kid’s privacy by broadcasting to the community their personal struggles.”
“You are here because your mamas don’t love you,” kids said they were told, according to a report released last week that detailed the visit by staff of the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate. In full earshot of other kids, the report said, one staff member told another kid “you are here because your uncle raped you.”
There is “evidence of a culture of shame, humiliation and inhumane punishment endemic to the program,” the report said. The facility failed to meet even the minimum acceptable standards for dignity and treatment in New Hampshire. “Why would we continue to send them to a program far away that does not align with even our most basic expectations?”
History of allegations against operators
Bledsoe Youth Academy has long been allowed to operate by Tennessee officials despite allegations of mistreatment and poor supervision that have persisted for years at facilities owned by its parent company, Youth Opportunity Investments.
Last year, an administrator at Rosewood Youth Academy, a Youth Opportunity facility in Mount Juliet, was arrested after firing shots at a car filled with runaways. In 2020, a former employee alleged widespread sexual and physical abuse of youth inside Roane Academy, an east Tennessee facility operated by the company. In 2019, Davidson County Juvenile Court officials cited negligence by Youth Opportunity Investments in allowing four juvenile defendants to escape a secure facility.
Allegations of physical and sexual abuse against youth, understaffing, low pay, inadequate employee background checks, insufficient medical care and other problems have been raised by ex-employees and regulators. In Arkansas, officials have barred the company entirely from contracting with the state
“This is just one in a long list of issues that Tennessee has had with placing youth in facilities that are not safe and not meeting standards,” said Jasmine Miller of the incidents chronicled in New Hampshire report. Miller is an attorney with Youth Law Center, which advocates for children in foster care and juvenile justice systems.
Miller noted the allegations brought to light in the New Hampshire report not unique to Youth Opportunity Investments. DCS has also sent kids to treatment facilities out of state that were subsequently alleged to have abused or neglected children, too.
The latest allegations, however, are emerging as DCS leaders continue to advocate for “more beds” for traumatized youth coming into custody as a result of abuse and neglect, or after brushes with the legal system.
“DCS has been talking a lot about how we need more beds,” she said. “Are these the beds we want? If we know a lot of our facilities are not helping young people very well, then why are we not looking at alternatives?”
State opens two investigations
Although there are currently no Tennessee kids at the Gallatin facility, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services said the state continues to contract with three other Youth Opportunity Investment-owned facilities: Rosewood Academy, Walnut Academy, Center for Success and Independence.
The company operates six other facilities in the state, Alex Denis, the spokesperson, said in an email.
Licensed by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Bledsoe Youth Academy remains in good standing, an agency spokesperson said.
The New Hampshire visitors have prompted state action. They reported abuse allegations to DCS, which has opened an investigation, Denis said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services said his agency was made aware of the New Hampshire Child Advocate’s findings, too. The department has independently begun its own investigation of the facility in June, he said.
“Some of the allegations in the NH report overlap,” Matthew Parriott, the spokesperson, said Tuesday. “Our investigation is still open and ongoing. The Department will pursue every action under statutory authority to ensure the safety, security, and rights of program participants at this facility.”
‘Evidence of an unhealthy and demeaning culture’
No one from Youth Opportunity Investments responded to a message left Tuesday.
When questioned on a conference call with New Hampshire officials, leaders of the Bledsoe facility alternately said “the kids were lying, that (the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate) misunderstood their observations, or were met with dismissal, denial, and defensiveness.”
Among the incidents the report highlighted was one witnessed by the New Hampshire visitors while being led on a tour of the facility by its director.
Two kids were wearing green jumpsuits mopping the floor, cleaning windows and collecting trash.
“The Director excused herself to use the restroom and she called to one of the kids to come clean the bathroom better before she was to use it,” the report said. “The Advocates observed the kid enter the bathroom and clean what was pointed out before she entered the space. This is further evidence of an unhealthy and demeaning culture, coming from the top administrator.”OCA-Bledsoe-Issue-Briefing
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