Government agencies pay at least $7 million a year to a Rockford psychiatric center that promises to treat and shelter troubled girls, including dozens of state wards with traumatic histories.
But in the first four months of this year, at least 24 girls ran away from the Rock River Academy, more than double the number during all of last year, according to a Tribune review of police reports and Department of Children and Family Services records.
Two 17-year-old state wards disappeared in April and remain listed as endangered runaways on the Web site of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The risks these teens face while on the run are underscored by other cases in the previous year. In December, a 17-year-old state ward informed staff at the facility that she had been raped "by a man she had met while on run," according to a DCFS report. Another report states that a 16-year-old state ward who ran away for several days told staff in August 2009 that she had been sexually assaulted several times by an older man who offered her shelter.
Both of those teens managed to run away again. The girl who in December told staff she was raped also left in February, March and April. Six days after that fourth incident, she somehow got a facility key from a staff member and used it to slip out a back door, according to a DCFS report. She has been missing since, records show.
Under state laws, residential centers such as the 42-bed Rock River are not fully locked, and patients cannot be forcibly detained unless they are a threat to themselves or others. The centers are expected to prevent runaways through close supervision and through programs and activities that make the youth feel they belong and are valued.
Rock River says on its Web site that it "builds a secure and trusting environment." In a statement to the Tribune, facility officials said Rock River "not only provides excellent treatment, it delivers positive results."
Surrounded by cornfields on a well-kempt, 27-acre campus, Rock River is one of 10 comparable residential treatment centers that handle young Illinois wards with severe mental health challenges. It is run by Psychiatric Solutions Inc., the nation's largest for-profit behavioral health firm.
At least two of the firm's Illinois psychiatric centers have been the subject of an expanding U.S. Justice Department probe that began in 2008, when the Tribune documented a series of sexual assaults of youth at PSI's west suburban Riveredge Hospital. DCFS has not placed a juvenile state ward at Riveredge since then. Justice Department lawyers also have subpoenaed DCFS records about a company facility in Streamwood. PSI and its executives have not been accused of wrongdoing.
In April the Tribune sought records from Rockford police and state agencies about runaways from Rock River. That month, facility officials told the Tribune in a statement, Rock River independently launched "a new comprehensive action plan ... to deter runaways" by training staff and creating a "safety quality council" to analyze the incidents.
Since then, "the number of elopements has decreased dramatically," the facility said.
DCFS spokesman Kendall Marlowe said his agency is monitoring Rock River closely and is implementing a new data-collection program to track the number of days state wards go missing from residential treatment centers because of runaways, arrests or psychiatric hospitalizations.
"Youth stop running when they have good reason to stay," Marlowe said. "We're measuring the quality and holding providers accountable for improving their results."
Some of the girls who ran from Rock River this year were located by Rockford police and returned the same day, including two 12-year-olds who fled through the gymnasium door in March, records show.
But some young women stayed out much longer. Two state wards — one 15 years old and the other 17 — went missing for nine days, until they were picked up by Peoria police some 130 miles away.
A mentally disabled 15-year-old girl who disappeared April 24 was found by Rockford police about three weeks later drinking at night outside Lincoln Middle School with an adult woman who had a criminal record, the Tribune found.
In April, when police brought two runaways back to Rock River, the girls remained agitated, and one punched an employee, a DCFS report said. Rock River staff tried to secure both girls using "emergency team control techniques," but the tussle continued until the girls were given shots of the psychotropic drugs Ativan and Haldol, the records show. The medicated girls were taken to a hospital by ambulance on stretchers — one with fluctuating vital signs, the records show.
It is difficult to compare runaway rates among Illinois youth centers because children's problems can vary by facility, as well as varying over time at any given center, said University of Illinois at Chicago clinical psychologist Alan Morris. DCFS' comparative data also do not distinguish between attempted and actual runaways.
The center with the highest rate so far this year was a small, eight-bed unit for males age 16 and 17 with conduct disorders and severe runaway behaviors, run by Lawrence Hall Youth Services on Chicago's Northwest Side. But one youth was responsible for 28 of the 61 runaway attempts or incidents there, and none of those lasted overnight, Lawrence Hall CEO Mary Hollie said in an interview.
Rock River was second-highest with 52 reported runaways or attempts during the period from Jan. 1 through June 22. Its rate per resident was more than 10 times that of the facility with the lowest rate: the 35-bed Maryville Scott Nolan Residential Treatment Center in Des Plaines, which reported three runaway incidents or attempts during that period, according to DCFS records.
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