"It's still not right." An investigation into Lakeside Academy. | Michigan Radio
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"It's still not right." An investigation into Lakeside Academy.

Sep 24, 2020

I met Kyla James in her front yard on a hot day in the middle of a global pandemic. She sat in a chair in the shade of a tall tree, legs folded underneath her.

It had been almost three months since her former student – the one with the beautiful smile and the crazy good computer skills – was killed. Three months of knowing her coworkers were the ones responsible, that all of her former students had been traumatized by it.

She always knew Lakeside had problems. She thought she was helping make it better. Then she saw the report from the state documenting what happened. She learned about the years of violations at Lakeside.

“Even for someone working there, even seeing what I did in being there every day, it was still stunning,” James says. “It was stunning.”

But as she sat there, trying to process it, and describe it, she wasn’t just worried about the past.

It was all still happening.

“Corn is not the only student of ours who has died,” she said.

After May 1, when Cornelius Fredrick died, the state moved quickly to shut down Lakeside, to completely sever its relationship with the company that ran Lakeside.

And all the other 124 boys had to go somewhere else.

James doesn’t know what happened to all of them. But she’s heard enough to worry.

“It didn’t solve the problem,” she said, her voice cracking. “These kids didn’t all magically go to the great facilities, or the great homes. A lot of them are in danger.”

"My safe place for him."

It has now been nearly five months since Cornelius Fredrick was killed. The case made national news, sparked a state investigation, a lawsuit and three criminal charges. But the story of what happened at Lakeside is still far from over.

Michigan Radio collaborated with a team of public radio reporters, led by APM Reports, to investigate what happened at Lakeside, and learn more about the for-profit company that ran Lakeside.

The team reviewed thousands of pages of material, including police reports, financial documents and inspection records.

Cornelius Fredrick is not the only boy from Lakeside who died.

The reporting has revealed years of problems at Sequel facilities in multiple states. Documents from the state of Michigan and interviews with former staff show the problems at Lakeside had been getting worse in the years and months leading up to Fredrick’s death. The state of Michigan, which was Fredrick's legal guardian while he was at Lakeside, kept records of the problems. But it failed to prevent Fredrick's death.

And even now, there remain many questions about the other 124 boys who had been living at Lakeside. 

Much of what James and other former staff have heard is rumor. But we can say this: Of the 124 other boys who had been living at Lakeside, at least eight are now missing, according to the state of Michigan. As of last week, two are in juvenile detention. One is in jail.

And at least one other child, in addition to Cornelius, is now dead.

The other child, he came to Lakeside from Ohio. His name was Daimar Bowden.

“I had him when I was 15, so very young,” says his mother, Damara Harris. “It was a challenge for him and I both.”

Harris says her son had behavior challenges at a young age. He was diagnosed with ADHD. He got in with the wrong crowd and she turned over custody to the state; she says so he could get services, and not end up in jail. 

He bounced around to a few places in his teens, and ended up at Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo last year. That’s where he was in May when Cornelius Fredrick died. 

“He called me to tell me,” Harris says. “He said, ‘Mom, they killed a boy in here. I need you to call the caseworker and figure out how to get me home.’”

When Lakeside closed, Bowden ended up back in Ohio, where he thought he’d be sent home. His mom says when he found out he was going to be sent to another residential center, he ran.

He ran straight into a summer brimming with street violence. It’s affected so many cities, and Columbus, Ohio is no exception. One afternoon, Harris says, the summer caught up with him.

“I worked ‘til about five o’clock that evening,” she says. “As I was getting off the freeway, Daimar was being shot at the same exact exit I was getting off. Not even 10 feet from me.”

The story Harris heard later is that her son got into an argument with a boy he knew.  

“So after they argue, they started walking, and I guess 20 feet apart, the boy turns around, yells at my son, shoots at the ground as a scare, and then he pulled the gun out and shoots my son in his chest,” Harris says. “My baby didn’t even make it five minutes of breathing before he died." 

Now she wants her son to be remembered. She’s trying to focus on the good things he did, the people he helped. His love of music. But sometimes the grief is just too much. 

“It hurts,” she says, breaking down. “Because I tried my hardest the last four years just to make sure he was okay. And those placement centers was my safe place for him. Even though it might have been rough on him, I didn’t have to worry about him dying, I didn’t have to worry about him going to jail."

Sign outside the former Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo.
Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio

"You're not even curious at all?"

The safe place for Daimar Bowden failed him. It failed Cornelius Fredrick. It failed all the boys at Lakeside. 

But from the outside at least, Lakeside didn’t look like a troubled place. 

The campus for Lakeside is beautiful. It is in fact by a lake, in a quiet neighborhood south of downtown Kalamazoo. 

“On the outside, you got the blue Lakeside Academy for children sign and it looks all friendly,” says Curtis, a former resident who asked that he be identified only by his first name. “You know, you drive down the pathway, you got the big old green school bus and the basketball court. You got your activity field. You got your dome. You got your brand new basketball court, the nice classrooms.”

Lakeside was founded in 1907. It’s owned by a non-profit. But since 2007, it’s been run entirely by a private, for-profit company called Sequel Youth and Family Services. 

Sequel Youth and Family Services received nearly $9 million in reimbursement payments from the state of Michigan in 2019, according to the state.

Sequel was founded as a company in 1999. It’s privately held, so details about its financials are hard to come across. But in a financial filing obtained by APM Reports, the company listed revenue of more than $200 million in 2016.

It housed thousands of children at facilities in 19 states, including two in Michigan: Lakeside Academy and Starr Albion Prep in Albion. Both are now closed.

Sequel makes much of its money from the reimbursement it gets from states for operating the residential centers. In 2019, Sequel received nearly $9 million from the state of Michigan to operate its two facilities here. 

And the company has a long track record of trouble at centers across the country. Tennessee, Florida, Iowa, Utah, Kansas, Arizona.  

And of course, at Lakeside.

Curtis says he saw some things at Lakeside that bothered him. Sometimes staff could be a little quick to restrain kids who were causing problems. But to him it didn’t seem like anyone else cared. 

“I had tried in the beginning to tell my judge this, this and this… I don’t like how they’re treating these kids,” he says. “And they’re like, welp, oh you really don’t have a choice at this point.” 

Curtis realized that complaining about Lakeside wouldn’t help. So he says he stopped complaining. The goal was just to get out. He, and a lot of the other boys, focused on that.

So, to outsiders, everything seemed normal at Lakeside.  

But the evidence of trouble was there, for anyone who wanted to look.

Since 2018, the state of Michigan investigated more than a dozen complaints about Lakeside Academy. Other states, including California, also had investigations.

The state of Michigan also conducted an inspection at Lakeside every year. Every year since 2016 there were violations, mostly for paperwork, and for not completing staff background checks on time. But every year there was also documentation of how many restraints had been used against students.

In 2016, the state of Michigan documented 321 restraints at Lakeside. The next year there were 495. The next, 595. And in 2019: 796 restraints – an average of more than two per day, and more than twice as many as just four years before.

The number of kids at Lakeside hadn’t gone up. Why were staff using so many more restraints?

We don’t know if anyone from the state asked that question.

And Curtis says Sequel sure didn’t seem interested.

He and others I spoke to say Sequel was barely a factor in daily life at Lakeside. Its name was on the checks. Occasionally there would be emails about a policy, or some training.  Sometimes, a Sequel executive would visit. 

Curtis remembers taking one of them on a tour of the campus. 

“He just kept looking at everything in such like, awe, almost,” Curtis remembers. “Like, ‘Yeah, we built this, yeah look at this, we did this.’ But what is this? You’re here for five minutes, and what about the buildings we didn’t show you? You’re not even curious at all? What about the restraint logs? You don’t want to take a look at that? What about talking to the kids that were restrained? You don’t want to just make sure that everything’s okay?”

We know now that everything wasn’t okay at Lakeside. 

In a statement provided to APM Reports, Sequel said it had provided care and support to thousands of young people in its facilities, but noted, “Our successes do not excuse our failures.”

"We will continue to adjust our practices to ensure that we are providing the best care for our students, which today includes company-wide initiatives to move toward a restraint-free model of care on an ambitious timeline and implementation of a trauma-informed approach," the statement continued.

In June, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said it would revoke the license at Lakeside, forcing the facility to close. It said it would take further steps to ensure Sequel Youth and Family Services would no longer operate facilities licensed by its department. That meant that a second facility, Starr Albion Prep, would also close.

But none of those changes – from the state or from Sequel – came in time to save Cornelius Fredrick, or any of the other boys at Lakeside Academy affected by what happened there this spring.

Former Lakeside staff say the situation at Lakeside got much worse as the pandemic unfolded in March and April.

Classes were suspended, so kids fell out of their regular routine.

And the place was even more short-staffed than usual. Kids were cooped up with nothing to do. 

Records show an increase in 911 calls from Lakeside. Kids were fighting, running away.

And then came April 29.

Surveillance video from that day shows Cornelius Fredrick sitting in the cafeteria, alone at a table, picking off bits of bread and tossing them at a group of boys at the next table.

Two staff members respond, they stand over Cornelius, appearing to talk to him. 

Casually, Cornelius breaks off another piece of bread, tosses it.

Immediately he’s shoved out of his seat. One, then two, then eventually a total of eight staff members hold him down, for more than 10 minutes.

When they finally get off him, his body is limp.

Credit Courtesy of Jonathan Marko

A "sour patch kid"

Will White met Cornelius in the summer of 2017 at a different residential facility, not operated by Sequel, in Detroit. 

“I remember him being one of the bigger kids on the floor,” White says. “And he looked like he would be one of the kids that the other kids follow behind and look to to do stuff. I know that he was a jokester. He cracked a lot of jokes.”

"He liked to talk about it in the middle of the night when he felt like nobody else could hear."

White calls Cornelius a "sour patch kid" – rough on the outside, sweet in the middle. Cornelius was in the foster care system because his father was locked up and his mom passed away. He missed his mom, but he didn’t like to talk about it. 

“And the only time that he talked about family-related anything, or what was really going on with him was midnight,” White says. “He liked to talk about it in the middle of the night when he felt like nobody else could hear, like none of the other kids could use it against him in an argument or something like that.” 

There were ways he kept part of his story hidden. But there are also ways the system made him invisible. In official records, there isn't even agreement on how to spell his name. In its report on his death, Kalamazoo Public Safety spells his last name "Frederick." In one court document, it's "Fredericks." In another it's "Fredricks." On one of Cornelius' Facebook pages, the spelling is "Fredrick," which is also the spelling that White remembers, and the spelling used by the Kalamazoo County Medical Examiner.

To many of the people who knew him, he was just Corn. He was good at math, White says, and former teachers say he was a genius at computers. 

He was a big kid, and sometimes he had problems. But in Detroit, before he went to Lakeside, White says staff didn’t have to restrain Cornelius. They could talk him down.

At Lakeside, things were different. 

"We moved rapidly" 

On April 29, after he was restrained, after he was taken to the hospital, JooYeun Chang got a text. She is the head of Michigan’s Children’s Services Agency, which means she’s in charge of the foster care system in the state.

When she found out what happened at Lakeside, she drove to Kalamazoo.

She went to stay with Cornelius Fredrick in the hospital. Staff had already reached out to his family.

“But we didn’t know how long he had,” Chang says. “And I didn’t want him to be alone. It was terrible enough that he had suffered in that way, but I didn’t want him to have to be alone in the hospital.” 

She was there, she says, when Cornelius’s aunt arrived. And when Fredrick’s siblings called on FaceTime to say goodbye to their brother.

Cornelius was pronounced dead less than 48 hours after the restraint.

That day, a Monday, word spread among the boys still at Lakeside. And, according to police reports, the situation descended into “utter chaos.”

Some students ran. Others stayed and started fights. Groups broke along racial lines. Latino kids fought Black kids. Police called it a riot, and used pepper spray on the kids.

But that wasn’t the end of it. In the following days, more kids ran away. 

That week, 911 call logs show 58 calls from Lakeside, an average of more than eight a day.

Chang says she lost all confidence that kids could be safe at Lakeside. 

“So we moved rapidly to move all of our young people into a safe facility or back with their parents, which many of them ended up in family settings,” she says. “And then we worked with all the other states who had some young people there.”

A total of nine states had boys placed at Lakeside, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. California alone had 41 boys there.

Michigan had 47 boys placed there under the foster care system.

Of those 47, eight are missing. Two ran before Cornelius died, and six since, according to the state.

For the rest, the state says more than a dozen boys are in new group homes. Five are in independent living. Four are back with their parents. Four are with other relatives. Two are in foster homes. One was adopted. Two are in juvenile detention. One is in jail, all as of last week. 

The state also announced policy changes to try to prevent this from ever happening again. It says it will ban restraints, at all facilities. And it released a nearly 900-page report with detailed recommendations for reforming the system.

Chang says one fundamental question is how the state can help prevent kids from going into the foster care system in the first place.

"No plan"

But none of this will erase what happened to the 125 boys who were at Lakeside.

And we still really don’t know how the boys are doing, or what help they’re getting.

But the people who used to work with the kids at Lakeside have heard stories. Stories that leave them worried.

“Some students have been placed back home and there wasn’t time for the team to decide if this was a good place for them,” says Kandace Lavender, a former administrator at Lakeside. “It was just almost like – ‘Who’s available? Who’s available to take them right now?’”        

Lavender says she’s heard from a few of the kids she used to work with there. One told her he was dropped off at a motel. Another told her he’s now just staying on people’s couches. 

“There was no plan, there was no strategy,” she says. “There was no time for that.”

The way Lavender sees it, the boys’ needs didn’t come first. 

“It’s not right,” she says. “It wasn’t right, and it’s still not right.” 

We know it’s not the first time these kids were harmed. Just like we know Lakeside isn’t the only place that harmed kids.

Fourteen years ago, in 2006, a non-profit group called Children’s Rights sued the state of Michigan over its foster care system. A report released in 2008 examined the death of five children who died while in that system. The report said Michigan’s foster care system was “deeply flawed.”

“Even when licensing violations or child maltreatment are identified in foster homes, MDHHS continues to place children in them,” the report concluded.

The deaths investigated in that report all happened at foster homes. But the children at Lakeside were part of the same system. Many ended up at Lakeside, at least in part, because no one could find a foster home for them. Even as the state documented problems at Lakeside, it continued to send children there.  

The state is actually still under court oversight from that 14-year-old lawsuit. There are thousands of pages of research, there have been years of reforms.

And still Cornelius Fredrick died.

And still 124 other boys had to live with the fallout. 

Eight of them are now missing. One is dead.

This is not over.
 

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