M arrived at intake covered in scars.
He was a big kid, but the wounds were self-inflicted. For the staff at The Pines residential treatment center, the marks up and down his arms and legs should have been warnings signs about his ambitions.
This March, less than two months into his stay, M dug into his own arm with a plastic spoon. He was supposed to be watched. He wasn’t. The spoon was all he needed to rip himself a primitive bloody hole. “It takes a bit of psychosis for him to cut himself with a piece of plastic as deep as he did,” recalls a current employee.
In interviews, two staffers familiar with M’s case recall him saying he didn’t want his arm anymore. Another said he was suicidal. But he was nonetheless able to hurt himself repeatedly. Staffers recall multiple E.R. trips. “Each time he ripped a staple or stitch out, did no one see that he was doing it?” asks a former staffer, who, like colleagues, declined to speak on the record due to the sensitive nature of the incident. “And why didn’t they try to stop him?”
It’s easy to see how M could get lost. From March to mid-April, according to incident records from the facility, there were 50 fights or assaults among kids—sucker punches, biting, outright brawls. There were also two suicide attempts and 15 incidents of self-harm. At the end of March, two boys, ages 8 and 9, confessed to engaging in oral and anal sex.
With three sprawling campuses in Virginia’s Tidewater region, The Pines is the biggest for-profit residential treatment center in the state. It’s a complex operation that sustains itself on the idea of accepting just about any kid. The sexual predator, the orphan, and the gang member all occupy The Pines’ fortress of smash-proof glass and sky-blue cinderblock.
But in the past three years, The Pines has faced more abuse and neglect allegations than any other RTC facility in Virginia, according to a review of state records. Its campuses have been under constant scrutiny, threats of sanctions, and state orders to correct problems. One staffer described M’s unit as a “dog pen.”
Officials from The Pines, which changed ownership late last year, declined repeated requests to discuss specific incidents turned up in this investigation, saying new management was making changes. “All of the Pines Campuses are safe,” explains a statement sent by Kathy Parker, director of business development for Universal Health Services, its parent company. “We take the safety and well being of each resident very seriously…The Pines management team is continually reviewing clinical programming, procedures and staff training to enhance the provision of safe, effective, and patient-centered treatment.”
As it happens, this story from the far side of Virginia should matter to D.C. residents. Every year, the District spends tens of millions of dollars sending its most troubled children to distant RTCs—and The Pines has benefited like few others. Between 2009 and 2010, the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services nearly doubled the number of kids it sent there. Several other city agencies that tend to troubled kids also use The Pines.
Why keep using the place? City officials were aware of some problems, according to hundreds of emails and monitoring reports obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. But those same documents demonstrate a cozy relationship between the city and the facility, one that persisted despite the countless warning signs.
Other governments moved more quickly. In early spring, well after the management change, North Carolina announced that it had begun the process of yanking its own kids out of The Pines. D.C. agencies, though, have been confused on just how to respond. On May 16, after repeatedly defending the placements in interviews for this story, DYRS announced plans to pull them. “Based on discussions with our partners in the District and the licensing authorities in Virginia, we believe it would be easier for The Pines management to deal with some of their operational and administrative challenges with a smaller population,” says DYRS Chief of Staff Christopher Shorter.
At least one other city agency, though, still has kids at the Pines. And the story of why that is explains a lot about how D.C. cares for troubled kids.
If Virginia officials had their way, D.C. would never have sent so many kids to The Pines. In spring 2009, an agreement with Virginia officials stipulated that the facility would improve its care and work toward “decreasing the number of Out-of-State residents, particularly those with very serious histories of violence or gang activity.”
That promise had no effect on The Pines’ business with the District. A Pines worker was even given a desk in 2009 in DYRS’ offices, according to three current and former city workers. Sources say she handled the heavy paperwork load for the city’s many dealings with The Pines. “She was actually really good—on the business side,” recalls one former official. The in-house Pines staffer left last summer after other RTCs asked for space, and the city decided it couldn’t accommodate all of its contractors.