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K. Ricky Watson 

After losing his mother, Cornelius Frederick became a ward of the State of Michigan at age 10. He spent two years at a youth center in Detroit, his hometown, before he was sent to Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo, a behavioral health center operated by a national for-profit company: Sequel Youth and Family Services. There, he was supposed to receive therapeutic treatment to manage his trauma and mental health needs.

In April, Cornelius, along with 37 other children and nine staff members at Lakeside, tested positive for COVID-19. Still, the coronavirus didn't killed him. At age 16, Cornelius suffered cardiac arrest and died, after staff restrained him following an incident in which Cornelius threw a sandwich.

Not only Michigan youth are at-risk. Sequel provides behavioral health services to more than 10,000 patients annually in 21 states, including Texas. Now, the Alabama-based provider is expanding, with locations in Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston through Pine Cone Therapies.

When I first heard of Cornelius’ death on May 1, I felt hopeless. Once again, a black child was betrayed by someone entrusted with his safety.

I have advocated for children over the past 15 years. It is excruciating for me, as a person of color, to see how the deaths of black children have become normalized in this country, as though their precious lives have little or no value.

My despair quickly turned to anger, however, as I learned of a shocking pattern of abuse of young people at Lakeside, reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Allegations include assault, pushing, slapping, choking, scratching, cursing, and bullying, as well as multiple instances of inappropriate restraints. Lack of supervision, inadequate training, and understaffing also were documented.

As a society, we have failed these children. We've treated them like commodities and allowed businesses to profit from warehousing them with little oversight or accountability. We've permitted companies to protect their financial interests, while endangering the the children in their care.

A 2015 study found that efforts to maximize profits have led for-profit youth confinement companies to provide inadequate rehabilitative programming, education, and food. Moreover, poor training and low pay have led to high levels of staff turnover and employees unqualified to do their jobs.

With the right balance of treatment, support, and love from his family and community, Cornelius could have become a lawyer, a teacher, or a community organizer. He could have used his experiences to work for a just treatment system for children. He could’ve been anything he wanted.

Tragically, we’ll never know. We can’t bring Cornelius back, but we can use this opportunity to ensure nothing like this happens again.

We should not allow Sequel, or any for-profit company, to maintain custody or control over children in congregate care. To that end, we have launched a petition that is being delivered to governors of states where Sequel operates residential centers.

It is time to show we value the humanity of our black children and demand an end to corporate financial incentives that perpetuate their confinement and risk their lives.

K. Ricky Watson Jr. is the executive director of the National Juvenile Justice Network, a non-profit organization in Washington, DC, that works with diverse youth justice advocates, families, and allies.

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