FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Arkansas’ foster care system spends millions for services at a troubled residential treatment facility for kids.
Fallon Martin relates to the kids at Piney Ridge Treatment Center.
“Coming out of foster care, I lost my mom to colon cancer. I became that rebel, defiant youth and I didn’t have no one to help me,” she said.
Kids with similar stories fill the halls of Piney Ridge and Martin did end up there, though not as a patient.
“I wanted to help other kids. I wanted to be that person I wish I would’ve had,” she said.
She says she worked there in 2019.
“I wouldn’t let my dog go there, honestly. It was gross,” Martin said.
But she toughed it out hoping to make a difference for the kids.
“They have a chance to change and they’re going to be in our society one day, so why not help them change now before it’s too late,” Martin said.
After a while, she said she felt like that was not everyone’s goal. Her former colleague, Barbara Barnard agrees.
“They are being used for money. They are being used. Their wellbeing is not at the forefront at all,” Barnard said.
Disability Rights Arkansas attorney Reagan Stanford helps oversee residential treatment facilities across the state.
“There’s no incentive for these facilities to permanently invest in correcting these issues because there are no consequences. They might get cited but there is no penalty for that,” she said.
If Piney Ridge were a public facility, KNWA would have access to more detailed financial information. But the facility is owned by a private company, Acadia Healthcare, which operates 229 locations in 40 states. It reports financial information on a consolidated basis, rather than by each individual facility.
Access to Piney Ridge’s financial records is limited, however, a number of foster kids end up at facilities like Piney Ridge and the Arkansas Division of Children and Family Services pays those bills. Those financial records are public records.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, KNWA found documents showing DCFS pays Piney Ridge $350 a day to take in a foster kid, or nearly $11,000 a month. But a patient’s stay can extend well beyond a month.
One foster child spent 780 days at Piney Ridge from 2018-2020, costing the state $273,000. And that is just one patient. Piney Ridge can house about 100 children at any given time.
Since 2015, DCFS paid Piney Ridge nearly $4 million dollars to treat foster kids.
“They don’t want the kids to get well. They don’t want the kids to get well because it is a cash flow for them. It is not set up for treatment,” Barnard said.
“Our stance now is that the current facility is not set up. It cannot be a therapeutic environment the way it is set up,” Stanford said.
So where does that money go? Employees have their own opinions. In 2019, DHS contracted Little Rock non-profit AFMC to inspect Piney Ridge. In that inspection, 10 staff members were interviewed. Seven mentioned the need for more staff or better pay.
“It was just a revolving door constantly,” Martin said. “A lot of our kids were starting to complain because we had lost a lot of therapists and they weren’t getting their therapy sessions that they were supposed to.”
“Staffing is a challenge across the board in our industry,” Piney Ridge CEO Justin Hoover said.
Hoover took over the CEO position earlier this year after Piney Ridge received a Letter of Reprimand. He addressed the staffing issue in a June Child Welfare Agency Review Board Meeting. He said he is trying to improve the workforce with competitive pay, sign-on bonuses and more.
“Free meals to our staff. We’re doing 60-90 day check-ins with all of our new employees. We’re doing anniversaries. We had a food truck out here last month,” Hoover told the board.
Another big investment is maintenance costs. KNWA uncovered DHS documents that show pages of needed repairs just in 2019. A Piney Ridge representative said in another CWARB meeting earlier this year that they have spent more than a million dollars on the facility this year.
Hoover declined an on-camera interview but tells KNWA, “Children in need of this level of care can have destructive behaviors, which is consistent with the traumas they have experienced.”
For Martin though, the changes came too late.
“It got to the point where I felt like I wasn’t part of the solution anymore. I was helping the problem,” she said.
She quit earlier this year, unable to help the kids as she had hoped.
KNWA reached out to the Department of Human Services to ask why it continues to put foster kids in Piney Ridge despite the years of issues. DHS Dep. Chief of Communications Gavin Lesnick sent back a written response saying, “We would not hesitate to move children from a facility if we believed the situation was unsafe. In this case, the facility is working to address the issues that have been identified, and we will closely follow its progress.”