GALLATIN, Tenn. (WKRN) — A Middle Tennessee facility for at-risk youth has come under fire for the second time in two months following a second report released by the New Hampshire Office of the Child Advocate (OCA), which chronicled alleged physical, verbal, and psychological abuse uncovered after two boys in the state’s custody were sent there.
Bledsoe Youth Academy, operated by Youth Opportunity Investments, is a 30-bed residential treatment center for troubled boys ages 12 to 17 in Gallatin, according to the center’s website.
In early August, News 2 shared the OCA’s initial findings, which claimed Bledsoe “operates on a culture of fear and humiliation” and fails to provide necessary therapeutic and medical care, adding that its care staff has a “significant lack of ethical treatment and boundaries.”
The new report released by the OCA details additional accusations the two boys were too scared to share during their first interview and the alleged retaliation following the release of the first briefing.
“[The new findings] tell us that this [treatment] is acceptable all the way to the top, and the priority in this facility is not the children,” Cassandra Sanchez, the child advocate for the state of New Hampshire, said.
According to the new report, Bledsoe staff — including the executive director, herself — “incentivized kid-on-kid violence” and encouraged the New Hampshire boys’ peers to “jump” them after the first findings were released because they “snitched.”
In addition, one of the New Hampshire boys reported he was removed from his bedroom and had to sleep on a mattress in the hallway, which he perceived as punishment, the documents said.
Another boy told officials he was “hit hard in the head and abdomen” after someone shut the lights off in the bathroom and entered the stall he was in, the OCA wrote.
Sanchez told News 2 her office worried about potential retaliation after releasing the initial findings, but officials were forced to make the report public in order to remove the boys from the facility. She said she found the allegations of physical abuse some of the most disturbing.
“That was very shocking to know, especially knowing that there were a lot of eyes on the program,” Sanchez said. “The media was watching, we were watching, our state was well aware, and they still felt comfortable enough putting hands on the children and harming them, as well as the actions of the executive director.”
After News 2’s initial story, the new report said a former Bledsoe staff member reached out to the OCA to confirm the allegations. The employee told officials they resigned due to the treatment of the children, adding that when staff expressed their concerns to higher ups, they were ignored.
“When I have that understanding that this is how they operate, I don’t see a reason for them to feel that they should do otherwise,” Sanchez said. “They’re getting away with it; they’re not held accountable; and realistically, they’re getting paid to have children there.”
Sanchez told News 2 the two New Hampshire boys are much happier in their new facilities. However, both are suffering from new trauma caused by their experience at Bledsoe, and they’re concerned for their peers who they had to leave behind.
Sanchez added the only way her office can help the other children at Bledsoe is to continue to shine light on the facility’s conditions.
“We are seeking other ways, including the media, to help get the message across that children are not safe there,” she said.
News 2 reached out to Bledsoe’s parent company, Youth Opportunity Investments, but had not heard back by the time this article was published. According to Sanchez, the company is not conducting an investigation into the allegations.
The Tennessee’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, which is the licensing authority for Bledsoe, confirmed to News 2 it is conducting an investigation. A spokesperson sent the following statement:
New Hampshire’s Office of the Child Advocate made us aware of her findings, and we have worked collaboratively for several weeks. Prior to that, we opened our own investigation in June, and some of the allegations in the NH reports overlap. Our investigation is still open and ongoing, and based on our findings so far including multiple announced and unannounced site visits and interviews with staff and youth, we issued a legal notice to the facility to suspend admissions on August 25. As we learn more and process what we have found, the Department will pursue every action under its statutory authority to ensure the safety, security, and rights of program participants at this facility.
Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) confirmed to News 2 it also has an open investigation into Bledsoe Youth Academy.
“We can confirm additional investigations have commenced in this case, and we are working with the Department of Mental Health who licenses the facility. However, pursuant to state and federal law, we are unable to release case specific information regarding children or families served by the Department of Children’s Services,” DCS’ director of communications wrote in an email to News 2.