SPRINGFIELD – Officials from several state agencies announced Friday that they were severing ties with a home school serving children in government care with intellectual and developmental disabilities after an independent review documented reports of youth abuse at the Aurora facility.
The Northern Illinois Academy is an 87 bed, privately owned, residential community that serves children with co-occurring mental illness or autism, mood disorders, and developmental delays. It is owned and operated by Sequel Youth and Family Services and is funded by the Child and Family Services Division, the Health and Family Services Division, and the Human Services Division.
Northern Illinois Academy students are being relocated to other facilities.
The May 4th report by the Disability Rights Group Equip for Equality identified numerous problems with the programming, training, and services of the Northern Illinois Academy. These include inadequate and overburdened staffing levels; insufficient reporting of incidents, including cases of children running away from the facility; Lack of meaningful programming and treatment planning; undocumented and abusive use of physical restraint and seclusion; and insufficient compliance with COVID-19 health and safety requirements.
“The Department of Child and Family Services’ number one priority is protecting vulnerable children by ensuring they receive the best possible support and services,” DCFS Acting Director Marc Smith said in a statement. “It is unacceptable for a facility not to meet the strict standards of DCFS and for our team to take steps to carefully and carefully transfer our supervised youth to other facilities that provide the nurturing and supportive environment our children deserve.”
Under their contract with DCFS, Equip for Equality, the state-appointed advocacy group for people with disabilities, conducted an initial review of the Northern Illinois Academy in November and December 2019. At this point, Equip for Equality was raising numerous concerns about NIA’s lack of meaningful programming, unsafe retention practices, retention of residents from communication devices, and a host of other issues.
Following that review, the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revoked the Northern Illinois Academy’s certification as a psychiatric inpatient treatment facility in January 2020.
However, in March 2020, DCFS found that the Northern Illinois Academy had made significant improvements, and the agency lifted a ban on new admissions to the facility while continuing to conduct intensive monitoring.
However, Equip for Equality conducted another review in the fall and winter of 2020 and found that many of the same issues persist, including unsafe and abusive restraint practices that sometimes resulted in bodily harm, insufficient discipline in response to abuse of staff, and failure to abuse the Report hotline.
Anthony Penn, executive director of the Northern Illinois Academy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Illinois State Board of Education announced that it has also conducted a review of the facility and announced Friday that effective August 6, it will grant the Northern Illinois Academy education services “unapproved” status. This means that school districts there can no longer receive reimbursements for student internships.
“The problems documented by Equip for Equality are deeply worrying,” state education superintendent Carmen Ayala said in a statement. “As a result, and as a result of the regulatory review by ISBE, we are revoking the facility’s approval and helping school districts convert their students to better learning environments before the next school year.”
There are currently only 15 students living at the Northern Illinois Academy. The agencies responsible for the students in the facility said they would immediately begin moving the students “gradually and neatly” into other settings.