Youths and young adults housed at the Aurora Plains Academy in Plankinton have endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse by employees amid an internal culture of secrecy and limited state government oversight, according to public documents and testimony from former residents and employees of the facility.

A six-month investigation by South Dakota News Watch has revealed a pattern of improper treatment of residents of the intensive youth treatment facility over the past decade that resulted in a variety of physical injuries and emotional trauma. In its review, News Watch conducted a dozen on-the-record interviews with former employees, residents and parents, examined independent reports on youth injuries and obtained complaint and inspection information from the state Department of Social Services.

Aurora Plains Academy is a privately run, government-funded institution that provides housing, treatment and education of residents ages 10 to 20, male and female, who have shown evidence of anger issues, self-harm or sexual deviancy. Residents, most of whom have not been convicted of a crime, are generally sent to the academy unwillingly by officials of the state corrections department, school districts and tribal agencies. The locked facility is owned by Wisconsin-based Clinicare Corp., a for-profit firm that operates four youth treatment centers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota.

The News Watch investigation has shown that:

Some employees of the facility regularly use harsh physical restraints on residents, resulting in facial rug burns, black eyes, bloody noses, bruising and injured limbs. Though employees are supposed to restrain residents only when the residents are a danger to themselves or others, former residents and employees say some employees goad, deride or bully residents into acting out and then take them to the ground from a standing position, sometimes face-first onto carpet or concrete, simply for misbehaving or not following commands. Many incidents are not documented and injuries sometimes go untreated or are addressed only days later. Residents are often blamed by staff for causing their own injuries.

Residents are sometimes over-medicated and become zombie-like; one girl said she was put on 19 medications and others say medications are frequently prescribed and then changed with little diagnosis. Parents say their children’s personalities were adversely affected by over-medication at the academy.

Girls who have stayed at Aurora Plains say employees have touched them sexually, and one former resident said an employee would pinch her breasts and cause bruising during physical restraints.

Friendships and relationships among management and employees have created a culture of protectionism in which violent employees go unpunished, employees who protest are ostracized or fired, and many resident complaints are downplayed or not believed.

Staff turnover at the academy is high, with employees paid low wages, forced to work long hours and subjected to resident-to-staff ratios as high as 12 to one.

State oversight of the facility is limited. State DSS workers rarely investigate complaints of abuse or neglect. In addition, Aurora Plains is subject to only one pre-announced inspection each year by a Child Protective Services specialist within DSS. Records that describe complaints of child abuse or neglect are not available to the public.

David Fritsch, president of Clinicare Corp., was provided a list of News Watch findings but declined an interview request. In an email statement, Fritsch wrote that Aurora Plains is fully accredited and “committed to providing attentive, quality care that leads to positive outcomes for our residents.”

Officials with the state Department of Social Services, which oversees Aurora Plains and other adult and child in-patient facilities in South Dakota, declined requests to discuss specifics of complaints or allegations of abuse. Tia Kafka, spokeswoman for DSS, declined to make any DSS officials available for an interview with News Watch.

Gov. Kristi Noem was presented with News Watch’s findings but denied a request for an interview. Instead, the governor provided News Watch with a written statement via email indicating that she will review the full findings when published and is willing to propose legislative action if necessary.

“The health and safety of our children is one of the most important tasks we have as a society. As a governor, who is also a mom, I take credible allegations very seriously when it involves children,” Noem wrote.

“Incidents involving children at licensed facilities are reported to DSS and reviewed to determine what action will be taken. If changes in that system of checks and balances between the state agencies and private facilities are needed, we need to implement them.”

In a roughly 10-year period from July 2009 to March 2019, a total of 400 complaints of child abuse or neglect were filed against Aurora Plains to the state by residents, academy employees or people outside the academy, according to data obtained by News Watch through a public-records request.

In an email to News Watch, a representative of Clinicare said that 250 of the complaints filed to the state came directly from the facility, and that 100 of those incidents occurred before youths became residents. Phill Trewyn, a spokesperson for Clinicare, wrote in an email that Aurora Plains leaders “identified less than 10 reports that involved injury as a result of staff action such as a restraint hold. And in those cases, it is important to understand that injury sometimes occurs even when a hold is properly executed.”

The state was unable to confirm Trewyn’s data or the claims that abuse or neglect complaints were made before youths entered the facility.

Of the 400 complaints to the state, only 39 were formally investigated by the state. During the past decade, the state issued four corrective-action plans after investigations uncovered problems at the academy. Three of those corrective plans focused on inappropriate physical treatment of academy residents. One plan indicated that residents were physically restrained by academy employees an average of 150 times a month over a three-month period at the 66-bed facility.

Complaints of child abuse or neglect are confidential and not open to public view in South Dakota.

Aurora Plains was the subject of about a third – 400 of 1,298 – of the abuse and neglect complaints filed over the past decade against the 20 youth residential treatment centers, group care centers and emergency shelters licensed in South Dakota, according to DSS data.

While some former residents and employees tell of staff members who care deeply about residents and try to protect, treat and educate them, there are other tales of dangerous physical restraints, unwarranted restraints, emotional abuse and bullying by staff, and a failure of management to protect residents from overly aggressive employees.

“There’s a few people that are there for the paycheck and they have a short fuse,” said Thai Le, who worked at Aurora Plains for five years before leaving in 2018 for a job at another South Dakota youth treatment facility. “They use more force than necessary during restraints and it gets messed up, with some staff doing things more out of anger than for the benefit of the kids.”

According to former residents and staff at the academy, many incidents of violence go unreported or are not investigated by the academy or the state, and treatment of injuries is sometimes delayed in order to shield employees who were abusive.

State licensing requirements under the “Protection of Residents” subsection state that “each resident has the right to be free from restraint or seclusion, of any form, used as a means of coercion, discipline, convenience or retaliation.”

Yet former residents and staff told News Watch that some academy staff routinely use restraints, physical force or seclusion to punish or hurt residents who upset them.

“They will taunt you just to stir up trouble,” said LaDawn Bruguier, now 23, of Yankton, who spent two years in the academy starting when she was 14. “They want a response so they can use excessive force. They put us in holds for any little thing we did that they thought was not OK.”

Lauren Schroeder rushed to get her son out of Aurora Plains in 2015 because she felt that something wasn’t right with the boy’s treatment.

On their way home, they stopped for a bite. As Schroeder watched, her son pulled up his shirt to reveal obvious injuries both new and partially healed.

“He took off his shirt and he had fresh rug burns on both sides of his collarbone, and he had bruises all over his body,” Schroeder recalled.

Schroeder’s son told his mother that during only five months at the academy, employees had thrown him face-first into a wall, tackled him to the floor, squeezed him so hard he couldn’t breathe and pummeled his legs with elbow punches.

The injuries were documented in a forensic examination conducted a few days later by an investigator with Child’s Voice, a child medical-evaluation center within Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls. 

The boy told the investigator that on one occasion, an academy employee took him to the ground and lay on him, preventing him from breathing.

The physical exam of the boy “revealed a large bruise by his right shin and a red, scabbed over area on his left shoulder,” the Child’s Voice investigator wrote in a confidential forensic report obtained by News Watch. “Injuries are consistent with his disclosure of being elbowed in the leg and being placed in a hold while on the floor.”

Schroeder said she contacted local law enforcement, the Aurora County State’s Attorneys Office and state child-protection officials and hired a private investigator, but that no one was ever held accountable for her son’s treatment.

Schroeder also took her son to the Aberdeen Police Department, where an officer took photos of the boy’s injuries and detailed his findings in an April 17, 2015 report. “I took several photos of bruising on [the boy’s] shoulders, arms, knees, shins and hands,” officer Curtis Kline wrote. “Most of the bruises were purple and varied in size from dime-size on the arms to baseball-sized on his knees and shoulders.”

Schroeder believes a culture of silence and protectionism is allowing abuses to continue unabated at the academy.

“I think there’s a lot of things happening there that are being covered up,” she said.

The academy, located northeast of Plankinton, is on the site once known as the State Training School, which became infamous in South Dakota as the youth boot camp where 14-year-old Gina Score died in July 1999 when she collapsed after a forced run and was left to lie in the hot sun for hours before getting treatment. Score’s death led to a financial settlement and juvenile-justice reforms.

Over the years, the state has moved away from running intensive in-patient youth treatment facilities. Meanwhile, private for-profit firms and nonprofits have stepped in to run them.

According to Michael Winder, spokesman for the state Department of Corrections, the state closed the training school in 2001. Clinicare began operating the academy in January 2007 and the state sold the facility to the company outright in October 2017, Winder said.

Aurora Plains is licensed to house 66 people ages 10 to 20, with 48 beds for males and 18 for females, according to the facility website. 

The academy is mainly funded through the Medicaid program. In fiscal year 2018, the facility was paid $7.34 million in government funds, with $4.1 million in federal funds and $3.2 million in state funds, according to Kafka. 

The facility, according to the website, treats 40 diagnosed conditions, including alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, disruptive behavior, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, problematic sexual behaviors and Tourette’s syndrome.

The latest corrective-action plan filed by the state against Aurora Plains in March 2017 required the facility management to “improve restraints so they are safer for staff and residents.” A June 2013 corrective report revealed during a two-month period, about 312 restraints were used on residents of Aurora Plains, about five per day on average.

While former employees and residents of Aurora Plains say many violent restraints and physical injuries are either whitewashed by the staff involved or go completely unreported, the injuries suffered by 10-year-old Ender Murray resulted in a rare criminal charge. After misbehaving, an academy employee threw him face-first onto the ground and mashed his body into the carpet. Ender suffered a black eye, a nosebleed and rug burns on his shoulder, knees and limbs. During the restraint, the investigative report notes, Ender cried out and wet himself.

Emily Mitchell, Ender’s mother, said Aurora Plains employees changed their stories in court to soften the violence of Ender’s restraint, and the charge against the employee was dismissed.

“My son is a sweet boy, and when he’s nice, he’s really nice, and when he’s not nice, he’s not very nice,” she said. “But no matter how awful that boy behaves, it doesn’t justify what they did to him and how they covered it up.”

Former employees interviewed by News Watch said youths who fought or tried to hurt themselves or others were often justifiably and safely restrained until calm. However, unwarranted physical restraints were also common over minor infractions such as talking out of turn or not immediately obeying commands, they said.

Jessica Lee, who spent two years at the academy as a teen, said one employee was particularly violent. “He would try to break my arm and pinch my boobs every time he had me in a restraint,” said Lee, now 24. “He would leave bruises on our boobs because he would pinch us so hard.”

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