KNWA investigation reveals years of licensing issues at children’s treatment facility

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Problems for Piney Ridge Treatment Center extend well beyond the licensing issues in 2020.

Whether at work or at home, Barbara Barnard has a caring touch.

“I have been a nurse for ten years,” she said.

She says two of those years were spent at Piney Ridge Treatment Center, a residential treatment facility for kids with behavioral disorders; work that comes with challenges and risks.

“I had my neck cut. I’ve been punched in the head twice, got a concussion twice,” Barnard said.

The state has rules for treatment facilities to, in part, help minimize those risks. But, a KNWA investigation reveals the facility has failed to meet minimum licensing standards at least 40 times in the past four years.

It happens every single day that these kids are (restrained), they’re re-traumatized at the hands of people who are supposed to be taking care of them.

bARBARA BARNARD, FORMER PINEY RIDGE TREATMENT CENTER EMPLOYEE

Reagan Stanford with Disability Rights Arkansas knows the cases better than just about anyone.

“These places bill themselves as specialized treatment centers for kids and there is nothing really specialized about any of them,” Stanford said.

She helps monitor all of the state’s psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

“It’s a very noisy chaotic environment,” Stanford said.

A lot of the problems Stanford sees boil down to one thing: staffing. State law requires one staff member for every six patients during the day.

At night, the ratio is one per eight. But that was not always happening at Piney Ridge.

In 2020, DHS reported during an inspection that 12 staff were on the roster but only five were actually working when inspectors showed up.

In 2018, a patient ran away while the facility was out of ratio. Four staff were supervising 21 patients. But, after a fight broke out, one of the staff members took a patient back inside, leaving other patients with a lack of supervision.

2018 runaway while out of ratio

Believed patients created a diversion to help someone escape

“They’re not trained. They come in off the street. They get like so many hours of training, a lot of it they read on their own,” Barnard said about the staff at Piney Ridge.

We’ve uncovered multiple reports over the past few years showing employee qualifications and references were not verified and background checks were not completed for some employees at the time of inspection.

In 2019, DHS had Little Rock non-profit AFMC conduct a broad “inspection of care” at Piney Ridge which included investigating complaints. It found 35% of staff sampled had no current crisis-intervention training. 75% did not have proof of current CPR training. 25% did not have a child maltreatment check.

Piney Ridge brought on a new CEO this year. Justin Hoover declined an on-camera interview but tells KNWA Piney Ridge serves children and adolescents struggling with sexual behavior disorders and mental health issues. He says most of the patients have tried all other treatment options to no success.

The following incident is courtesy of a report in 2017. These details might be considered sensitive to some readers.

A DHS incident reports show the severity of some of these cases. One report claims a patient “undressed in the classroom and rubbed her vagina on [redacted] face & neck, back and front body.” In another report, a patient claims someone had “engaged in non-consensual anal sex and kissing with [redacted] on 2-3 occasions.”

“It becomes an impossible job and somebody is going to get hurt and it’s not going to be the staff usually. It’s going to be the kid,” Barnard says about the difficulty working with these patients while short-staffed.

Other documents show that staff has been rough on the kids in the past.

In 2015, an employee was fired after shoving a patient, breaking the kid’s wrist. In 2019, another person was fired after throwing a kid across the timeout room.

There have also been dozens of reports alleging improper use of restraints on the kids.

“It happens every single day that these kids are, they’re re-traumatized at the hands of people who are supposed to be taking care of them,” Barnard said.

Piney Ridge is allowed to physically restrain patients and, if necessary, chemically restrain them with shots. In a 2020 DHS interview, a Piney Ridge therapist explained when to use chemical restraints, saying it should be “a last resort.”

But, in that 2019 AFMC investigation, 20 patients were interviewed. Every single one said they had witnessed restraints.

Client Interviews

“It has to be traumatic for them. Their peers see them crying. They see them get their shots,” Barnard said.

In 2020, DHS found multiple reports where a kid was calm and quiet but still received a chemical restraint. The DHS complaint survey states “The facility failed to ensure a chemical restraint was not administered without documentation of the attempt to allow time for the client to calm or the use of less restrictive interventions before the administration of a chemical restraint for 10 sampled residents who were involved in chemical restraints.”

The report went on to say that this failure “had the potential to affect 93 facility clients.”

Hoover tells KNWA, “training is always a key focus in residential. We have added positions of milieu managers that will allow for more mentoring and training opportunities.”

Barnard has moved on to a nursing position in community corrections. But in the quiet of her own home, she still thinks of the kids at Piney Ridge.

“These kids, when they leave, they are worse off than when they got there,” she said.

Hoover took over the position in May. Before moving to Piney Ridge, he worked at a behavioral health center in Virginia for six years. Piney Ridge also hired a new COO this year.

Hoover says, “I am passionate about serving this underserved population. Personally, I cannot think of a more rewarding field than behavioral healthcare.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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