Kentucky does not need to institutionalize young children. Too much goes wrong.

·3 min read

On June 4, Ian Sousis, a foster child, ran away from a residential treatment center in Kentucky. Four hours later, his body was found in the Ohio River. He had accidentally drowned. Ian was nine years old.

On July 17, Ja’Ceon Terry, a foster child, died in another residential treatment center in Kentucky. The cause of death is unknown. But we do know this: Ja’Ceon was seven years old.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.
Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

People are asking lots of questions about these specific cases. But so far, no one has asked the most important question of all: Why is Kentucky institutionalizing such young children?

Institutionalization is, by far, the worst form of “placement” for any child. The data on the rate of abuse in institutions is alarming. There are so many scandals involving entire chains of McTreatment centers that Congress has just launched the latest in a long line of investigations.

There have been no allegations of abuse in the two Kentucky cases. But even when institutions are not physically abusive, the inherent emotional torment of tearing children from everyone they know and love is compounded when children are institutionalized. (And let’s be clear: No matter how pretty the grounds or how the “cottages” are configured – these are institutions.)

That is reason enough to shut them down. Because abundant research tells us that residential treatment doesn’t work. Period. Full stop. There is nothing residential treatment does that can’t be done better by providing wraparound services either to a child’s own family or, when placement really is needed, to a foster family. When home-based placements fail it’s not because institutionalization is the only option – it’s because families didn’t get this kind of support.

In Ian’s case, for example, his grandparents had custody since he was an infant. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism. No matter where he was, he ran away a lot. All the grandparents needed was therapy for the child and help to be sure he was never out of someone’s sight. Had they been rich they easily could have purchased both. But they’re not rich. So they had to turn to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which offered no alternatives except institutions – and took control of where Ian would live.

Why does Kentucky do it? Odds are the Cabinet will claim they have no choice. They’ll whine about a “shortage” of foster parents and claim that there’s nowhere else to put young children like Ian and Ja’Ceon.

But Kentucky doesn’t have too few foster parents; Kentucky has too many foster children.

Kentucky tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average, even when rates of child poverty are factored in. If Kentucky stopped tearing apart all those families needlessly, there would be plenty of room in good, safe foster homes for children who really need them – and no need to ever institutionalize a child such as Ian or Ja’Ceon.

Unfortunately, most of us have been conditioned by 50 years of “health terrorism” — using horror stories to misrepresent the true nature of the problem — to believe that “child abuse” always means children beaten, tortured or murdered. In fact, it almost never does. Far more common is the confusion of poverty with neglect.

That false impression may run especially deep in Kentucky, because of the repeated claim that Kentucky leads the nation in “child abuse.” But there’s no evidence for that. The very document used to make that claim specifically warns against making state-by-state comparisons because there are vast differences in what states consider abuse or neglect and what caseworkers “substantiate” — and enormous subjectivity in those decisions.

This is usually where someone says something like: “How dare you quibble about numbers! Even one child death is one too many.”

But if we confuse understanding numbers with “quibbling” then we keep making the same mistakes over and over. That only increases the chances that children will die – children like, for example, Ian Sousis and Ja’Ceon Terry.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform,