Jyasia Batts was a 10-year-old foster kid in Anchorage when her child welfare caseworker informed her she’d soon be boarding a plane bound for a locked residential psychiatric treatment facility in Texas.
She spent the next two years at the Texas NeuroRehab Center in Austin, where she was the youngest patient.
During that time, Batts seldom talked to anyone in her extended family in Alaska, further isolating her from people who knew her before she entered the system. She was put on so many medications that she “felt nothing,” she said. She tried illicit drugs offered by other kids.
“I came out with more issues than I went in with,” said Batts, now an 18-year-old with pink-streaked hair.
In total, Batts says, the Alaska Office of Children’s Services sent her to three residential treatment hospitals between the ages of 10 and 16.
Kids in the foster care system represent only about a fifth of the Alaska children and adolescents shipped across state lines to residential psychiatric treatment centers in states like Texas, Montana, Idaho and Utah each year.
But those placed by the Office of Children’s Services in residential treatment are especially vulnerable, advocates say: Already dealing with serious trauma, emotional and behavioral issues, they are separated not just from their homes but their home state. Families can rarely visit. Their parents have no legal right to remove them from the facility. State officials thousands of miles away oversee and make decisions about their care.
Children and young adults who have been in Alaska’s foster care system have also emerged as some of the most vocal critics of placements in out-of-state residential psychiatric care.
Some have begun to speak publicly about their experiences, pushing for the right to consent to psychotropic medication and placement in institutions, said Amanda Metivier of the group Facing Foster Care in Alaska.
It’s not a new idea that youth in state custody should have input on decisions like whether they should take medication or where they will live, Metivier said. But it has been slow to take hold in Alaska.
Batts was among a group of young adults who traveled to Juneau with Facing Foster Care in Alaska this spring to lobby legislators.
“It felt good,” she said. “I don’t mind telling my story if it’s going to help somebody else.”
State child welfare officials declined to comment on specific cases.
Decisions to send children in foster care out-of-state are only made after “a rigorous review process," the Office of Children’s Services said in a statement.
"To preserve the confidentiality of all youth, OCS does not comment on any specific conditions which would result in the careful considerations required to send a child out of state,” the statement said.
Batts had first been hospitalized at North Star Behavioral Health Hospital in Anchorage at age 9 after throwing herself in front of a moving car. It was around that time that the state took custody of her from the grandmother she’d been living with.
To this day, she isn’t sure who decided she needed to go to Texas.
When she came home at age 12, she still had the same problems with self-harm that her caseworkers said led to her hospitalization to begin with.
At 14, the state again sent Batts out of state, this time to Deveraux Cleo Wallace, a home for disturbed kids in Colorado. She had more freedom and more responsibility in Colorado. She even worked in a cafe on the center’s campus.
“They respected us more at Cleo Wallace,” she said.
But Batts again had the feeling that she was in Colorado simply because Alaska authorities didn’t know where else to put her. Her last stint in residential treatment ended when she was 16.
By then she was taking 20 medications. She’s now on nine.
Coming home was hard. After years on a locked, controlled residential campus, everyday life bewildered and disturbed her. She was uneasy in grocery stores and other public places.
“I freaked out,” she said. “It took me a long time just to walk near the street because cars are passing me.”
On the closed treatment center campuses, there were no cars.
Batts has lived in the same foster home for the past few years -- the best in more than 50 placements, she says. She graduated from high school and is now doing a paid internship through Nine Star Education and Employment Services.
She wants more scrutiny of decisions to send kids away.
“You shouldn’t be sent out unless they have proof you need to,” she said. "If the person is self-harming, they need help. But try counseling first."
“It never settled with me”
Katrina Edwards of Anchorage was 14 and in foster care when she was sent to the Copper Hills Youth Center in Utah for being “defiant,” she said.
Edwards, who grew up in Anchorage, had been taken into custody a few years earlier by the Office of Children’s Services. Being sent to Utah felt like being separated from her sister and other siblings all over again.
She acted out during her first few months at Copper Hills, out of anger.
“It never settled with me,” she said. “You’re sending me thousands of miles away from any of my family members or people in my support system to come and see me?”
After a while, she realized she wasn’t going anywhere.
“I thought, I might as well start playing the system,” she said.
Edwards began to engage in therapy and talking about her feelings, as the staff there wanted her to. But there was still no exit in sight.
“Whether I was bad or I was good, I was still stuck there,” she said.
Edwards spent a year and seven months in Utah.
Edwards says she was put on medications she didn’t feel she needed, including antidepressants. Once, she says, she was involved in a scuffle and then tackled to the floor by staff.
“They injected me with a needle. I didn’t know what it was. Later, they were like do you understand why we gave you this Benadryl?”
There were at least 30 other Alaska kids at Copper Hills, Edwards said.
Copper Hills Youth Center is owned by Universal Health Systems, the same Pennsylvania-based health care giant that owns Texas NeuroRehab Center and North Star Behavioral Health System.
In response to questions about Batts’ and Edwards’ assertions about their care, Universal Health Services sent a statement through Dr. Andy Mayo, the CEO of North Star.
The e-mail said the company was “unable to provide comment about specific patient diagnoses, treatment or care.”
“Restraint and seclusion are used as a last resort, in order to keep those exhibiting aggressive behaviors from becoming harmful or destructive. Incidents in which restraint or seclusion are employed are rare,” he wrote.
Now 19, Edwards is living in a foster home. She’s eight months pregnant with her first child, a daughter she plans to name Melody Grace.
To her, the most damaging aspect of residential treatment was the idea she carried that “there is something really wrong with me, wrong with my brain.”
Treatment did teach her skills she values.
Every time she moves into a new foster home, she makes posters to hang on her walls: one listing coping skills, another with the details of her morning and evening routine “down to the minute," just like staff taught her at Copper Hills. She says it helps her stay focused.
“Part of the mature me appreciates that I did go to treatment centers,” she said. “But there’s another part of me that’s like, I did not belong there. You could have gotten the message to me here. If a foster family just sat me down and told me I was loved, people want to help me, showed me a different way.”