By: DeAnna Y. Smith
On May 1, days before George Floyd was killed at the hands of the Minneapolis police, 16-year old Cornelius Fredericks was pronounced dead after being restrained for throwing a sandwich at Lakeside for Children, a for-profit residential treatment facility for “at-risk” boys in Kalamazoo, MI. Lakeside for Children is run by Sequel Youth and Family Services, a national private corporation responsible for housing thousands of children in the United States.
Staff at Lakeside sat on Cornelius’s chest for 10 minutes, causing him to lose consciousness and go into cardiac arrest. Cornelius was sent to a hospital and put on life support. He died roughly a day later.
Cornelius Fredericks, like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others whose lives have been taken at the hands of irreparably broken state systems, was murdered. In this case, not by the police, but by the child welfare system.
The U.S. child welfare system is a regime of public and private institutions, individuals, and courts authorized by the law to intervene in families and remove children from their homes. A large body of research has documented the disproportionate representation of Black children in this system. This research has shown that Black children, like Cornelius, are overrepresented at all levels of the child welfare system--in reports to Child Protective Services, in foster care, and in residential treatment institutions like Lakeside.
This overrepresentation is the result of aggressive policing in Black neighborhoods, a diffuse system of surveillance by mandatory reporters, racial biases in child welfare decision-making, and the misidentification of poverty with neglect.
Children are placed into residential treatment institutions by juvenile courts, welfare agencies, and occasionally, by their parents with the hopes that children will receive medical and therapeutic services.
We must reimagine the child welfare system, starting with residential treatment facilities, which are among the most violent and punitive parts of the system.
What happened to Cornelius Fredericks at Lakeside for Children is not an anomaly; it’s a pattern. Residential treatment facilities for youth have a long history of using violent tactics in the name of disciplining behavioral problems.
Lakeside is currently shut down and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has banned the use of physical restraints, which often result in children passing out and experiencing head trauma and broken bones. But banning physical restraints should not be our end goal. Banning physical restraints doesn’t fix the system that killed a 16-year-old Black boy for throwing a sandwich.
Youth residential treatment facilities have an extensive history of abuses unrelated to physical restraints. In 2016, an investigation revealed that children living in California residential treatment facilities live in unsafe living conditions with lack of food and high rates of sexual abuse. Investigations have revealed similar conditions at youth residential treatment facilities in Iowa.
For-profit residential treatment facilities are not child-caring, child-rearing, or child-actualizing institutions. They are child prisons, and I’m asking that we reimagine child wellbeing without them.
We should be outraged.
Cornelius deserved so much better. All Black children deserve so much better.
Please click here to sign the petition to shut down Sequel Youth and Family Services, the national for-profit agency that runs Lakeside for Children.
DeAnna Smith is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is an urban sociologist with interests in race, family, poverty, and state-violence. Her current research investigates Black parents’ experiences with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) in two Chicago neighborhoods. She is a prison abolitionist and supports the abolition of the current child welfare system.
Questions? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org