Residential treatment for high-needs students has always come at a steep price.
Although the Delaware Department of Education recently disclosed it spends more than $300,000 a month for 17 students to attend residential treatment facility AdvoServ in Bear, the state has spent comparable sums of state money there for decades.
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AdvoServ, a for-profit residential educational program with facilities in three states, serves almost half of all students in Delaware who are in residential care. A recent brochure of the facility talks of 40 years of service – roots that can be traced to the Au Clair School, a former program for autistic children that began on the same property now owned by AdvoServ.
Ken and Claire Mazik opened the school in 1969. Au Clair's story soon drew international attention and reports of a multimillion-dollar movie deal. The story went as follows: The cash-strapped Maziks put everything they had into a racehorse who won big for the school and the children who attended it.
That glowing success, however, turned sour in the late 1990s when The New York Times published a scathing investigation by reporter Nina Bernstein into abuse at Au Clair.
Au Clair roots
Mazik and his wife founded Au Clair 44 years ago as a program for autistic children. A 1979 feature article in the Australian Women's Weekly describes how a winning racehorse named Silk Stockings helped fund the school, which up to then had operated on a shoestring budget. In the article, Mazik spoke of a $5 million movie deal he had made to tell his rags-to-riches story.
Au Clair specialized in helping children nobody else could or wanted to help – similar to the way AdvoServ appears to operate today.
Costs have always been high. In 1979, the cost to send a child there from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. was $16,500 a year, according to the Australian weekly article.
By 1992, Bernstein's article gave the cost as $429 a day for a full-time placement – about $160,000 a year. Based on information provided by individual schools districts, annual tuitions today cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. One district estimate is nearly $500,000.
Questions about Au Clair arose after a team of New York social workers visited the facility to check on 13 children who had been placed there by state agencies six years earlier, Bernstein wrote.
No one had checked on the children in those six years. Team members reportedly found children living in deplorable conditions: trailers reeking of urine and feces. Berstein wrote one deaf boy was weeping silently because his circulation had been cut off by an immobilizing "wrap mat."
When contacted in 2012 by the Cape Gazette, Bernstein said Mazik never disputed her story.
"This is a realm where little changes, and the further kids are sent, the more is charged," she said.
By 1994, all New York children had been removed from Au Clair. Also that year, Bernstein wrote, City of Philadelphia officials warned that unless Au Clair turned nonprofit, it might lose its $3.7 million contract to care for 31 Philadelphia children.
Lobbying for change
The potential loss of government money was the impetus behind Mazik's efforts to change welfare law, according to Bernstein's article.
A proponent of welfare reform in the 1990s, Mazik lobbied for a change to the welfare bill that opened billions of dollars in government contracts to for-profit companies, Bernstein wrote. Before the welfare law was rewritten, only nonprofit organizations could receive government money for the care of vulnerable, high-needs residents.
A website that tracks campaign funding lists contributions Mazik gave to political campaigns, particularly to Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on health, education, labor, and pensions, whose committee was involved in rewriting welfare legislation that allowed for-profit companies to receive money.
Campaignmoney.com shows Mazik gave nearly $40,000 to Harkin from 2000-2012. Mazik also contributed to prominent Delaware politicians: $4,600 to Biden for President in 2008 and $1,200 to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in 2004. Democrats Harry Reid, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller and Charles Shumer also received generous donations. Florida Republicans running for Congress, a state where Mazik started several residential facilities now owned by AdvoServ, received about $25,000 in donations.
Bernstein's article, published in 1997, notes Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana removed the nonprofit stipulation from the welfare bill because, he said, "In these times of limited resources, state and local governments should have the maximum flexibility in choosing what is in the best interest of children."
Repeated efforts to reach Mazik have been unsuccessful.
Jason Miller, spokesman for the Delaware Attorney General's Office, said employees whose tenure corresponded with the time of the Au Clair incident had no recollection of legal action against Au Clair. Vicky Kelly, director of Division of Family Services, said the Office of Childcare Licensing conducted an extensive review of Au Clair after the New York Times article, but found no violations at the level the article described. Nor did the licensing office receive a complaint – from New York officials or anyone else, she said.
There are now 13 AdvoServ sites in Delaware periodically monitored by two state agencies: the Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families.
Andrea Wojcik, spokeswoman for the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, said her department has investigated 22 complaints against AdvoServ since 2011. Two units within the child welfare department investigate complaints: the Office of Child Care Licensing and the Institutional Abuse Unit. She said three of the 22 complaints were substantiated and two are pending; the remaining 17 were unsubstantiated.
Two substantiated complaints involved physical abuse in separate 2012 cases. The third complaint filed in March involved improper discipline.
In the case involving improper discipline, Wojcik said, AdvoServ took appropriate action and no corrective action plan was needed.
“It appears the process was followed to our satisfaction,” Kelly said.
She provided no further details on the case because protections are in place for alleged perpetrators in civil investigations, she said.
The same protection covers the physical abuse complaints. Both employees were terminated by AdvoServ; Kelly said she believes they were placed on a Child Protection Registry to prohibit them from working in a direct care situation with children or other vulnerable people.
The physical abuse complaints involved two employees who were terminated by AdvoServ in 2012, Kelly said. The complaints were forwarded to the Delaware State Police, but Sgt. Paul Shavack could not confirm whether criminal charges have been filed.
Kelly said it is not uncommon for her division to receive complaints against residential facilities. Complaints are a way to show the reporting structure is in place, and the system is working, she said.
"The absence of any complaints would be a red flag," Kelly said.
Still, she did not know how many complaints result in criminal charges; she said only that the majority of complaints are not prosecuted. She said that could be because the burden of proof for her division is lower than what is required by the Delaware State Police to prove a crime has occurred.
“There is some significant group where there is very serious injury to children that meets the level of a crime that is prosecuted,” Kelly said.
In those cases, charges are filed and the person is placed on the Child Protection Registry.
However, the registry is not open for public review, the way the sex offender registry is. Public schools, daycares and similar groups must provide the registry office with the name of the person in question in order to receive information on them.
Negotiations over restraint policy
A year ago, child welfare officials stopped sending students to AdvoServ because of its use of mechanical restraints, Wojcik said. Although restraints can prevent children from hurting themselves or others, she said, restraints can also retraumatize students who have been abused.
Since then, she said, child welfare and AdvoServ officials have met to discuss the use of restraints.
"We are in ongoing discussion with them while they are working to change their policy," Wojcik said.
Robert J. Bacon Jr., chief operating officer for AdvoServ, did not respond to questions about AdvoServ's restraint policy or complaints against the facility.
Cape Henlopen School board member Sandi Minard questioned AdvoServ's use of restraints during a tour of the facility in April. Officials told her restraints typically are not used on Delaware students; when they are used it is for a time period of 15 minutes, she said.
“They said restraints are used to keep people safe,” Minard said.
The facility's use of restraints, in addition to the high tuition costs to educate students there, has prompted Minard and other school board members to evaluate residential placement for Cape Henlopen students.
“I'm definitely going to share with the board what I learned on my visit,” she said. “When we're paying tuitions with taxpayer's money, we're accountable for how the money is spent.”
This is the conclusion of an investigation detailing the high costs of educating high-needs students. Part I ran in the Aug. 16 edition of the Cape Gazette.