Two UHS facilities are at the center of a scandal that’s rocked the behavioral health system for juveniles in Illinois.

A five-part investigative series launched by the Chicago Tribune in December 2014 found that children in residential treatment centers across the state were being “assaulted, sexually abused and running away by the thousands.”[1]

Two of the most troubled facilities, the Tribune reported, were UHS’s Rock River Academy in Rockford and John Costigan Residential Center in Streamwood.[2]

Most years since 2009, the Tribune reported, “Rock River ranked among the top two Illinois facilities in the rate of dispensing emergency tranquilizers.” The other facility was UHS’s Costigan Center.[3]

UHS closed the Costigan Center in 2013, and the Tribune’s report focused most intensely on Rock River, a 59-bed home for girls with mental health and behavioral issues.[4] The Tribune interviewed 20 former residents of Rock River, who almost uniformly described it as “violent, chaotic and under-resourced.”[5]

The Tribune series motivated state lawmakers to introduce legislation protecting at-risk youths in state care[6] and prompted both of Illinois’ U.S. senators to demand action from federal officials on behalf of institutionalized children.[7]

The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department also indicated that it was considering action against the facilities identified in the Tribune report.[8] Such action against Rock River would be in addition to another federal investigation that is examining clinical practices at it and 20 other UHS facilities. (Click here for more on that investigation.)

Soon after the Tribune series appeared, Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) put an intake hold on Rock River and sent monitors to ensure the welfare of its residents.

Then, in late January, UHS officials announced that they were closing Rock River.[9] In announcing the closure, the facility’s administrators said DCFS’s intake hold was unfair and criticized the Tribune’s reporting as “focused on isolated cases and old allegations.”

But the Tribune story about the closure cited recent DCFS data showing that Rock River “remained among the most troubled facilities in Illinois by several key measures of harm to juvenile wards.”

According to the Tribune, “During the five-month period from July 2014 through November, for example, Rock River had the highest rate of youths manually restrained by staff among the 52 residential treatment centers measured by DCFS. The rate of these physical restraints at Rock River was nearly eight times the median for all Illinois facilities.”

As the Tribune noted, “Rock River also had the second-highest rate of self-inflicted wounds by residents and the second-highest rate of wards sent to a psychiatric hospital. In addition, it had the third-highest rate of wards detained by police or charged with crimes, and the fifth-highest rate of alleged aggressive acts by wards.”

But a recitation of statistics doesn’t do justice to the reportage in the investigative series. Following is an excerpt from the Tribune’s December 8 story about a runaway from Rock River who was drawn into prostitution.[10] (Click here for the Tribune’s full “Harsh Treatment” series.)

The central Illinois truck stop was chilly and dark on the November morning last year when Mary Bohanan was arrested for prostitution.

Handcuffed in a Bloomington police squad car, the 19-year-old squirmed in her tight miniskirt and crumpled knee-high boots. Blond-tinted curls fell around her face and dark liner rimmed her tired eyes. It was just after 5 a.m.

As police frisked her pimp, she expressed fear that he might spot her through the squad car window and punish her for getting caught. “I’m scared. … He can see us?” Bohanan asked the arresting officer, according to the police video of the scene.

The young woman offered to truckers for $20 was a juvenile ward of the state who endured a history of abuse before being placed in 2012 at Rock River Academy in Rockford, where officials pledge to keep youths safe and give them a shot at a better life.

Instead she fell into a world of sexual exploitation that seems to be accepted as a fact of life at some of the large residential treatment centers that get millions of taxpayer dollars each year to care for Illinois’ most destitute and troubled young wards, a Tribune investigation found.

The prostitution emerges against a backdrop of violence at the facilities where the threat of sexual coercion is common, residents frequently square off in fights, destroy property, abuse medications and attack peers or staff, government records show.

Teenagers who were prostituted told the Tribune they would run away to escape the turbulence and brutality — then do what survival required on streets where they had no money or life skills. At the facilities, experienced residents introduced others to pimps, escort websites and street corners. Some disappeared into this world and never returned.

Rock River promises close supervision and intensive therapy to youths with behavioral and mental health problems, but state records show that Bohanan was repeatedly attacked by tougher girls — punched in the face, hit with a chair and taunted by a peer who poured a carton of milk on her bed.

“The kids do what they want, and the staff can’t control them,” Bohanan told the Tribune. “To me, it’s like a game to survive. There’s fighting, there’s sexual acts going on with the peers. … Girls come out worse and have more mental problems.”