State takes action against Aurora academy that serves children with disabilities

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct number of students currently housed at the facility. A previous version reflected the number of students placed by DCFS, not the total number of students at the facility.

SPRINGFIELD - Officials from multiple state agencies said Friday that they are cutting ties with a residential school that serves children in state care with mental and developmental disabilities after an independent review documented reports of mistreatment of youth at the Aurora facility.

Northern Illinois Academy is an 87-bed, private residential facility that serves children with co-occurring mental illnesses or autism, mood disorders and developmental delays. It is owned and operated by Sequel Youth and Family Services and receives funding from the Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services and the Department of Human Services.

The 51 students currently at Northern Illinois Academy will be moved to other facilities.

Anthony Penn, executive director at Northern Illinois Academy, did not respond to a request for comment.

The report, dated May 4 from the disability rights group Equip for Equality, found numerous problems with the academy's programming, training and services. Those include inadequate and overextended staffing; insufficient incident reporting, including cases of children running away from the facility; lack of meaningful programming and treatment planning; undocumented and improper use of physical restraint and seclusions; and insufficient adherence to COVID-19 health and safety requirements.

"The top priority of the Department of Children and Family Services is protecting vulnerable children by ensuring they receive the best available support and services," acting DCFS Director Marc Smith said in a statement.

Pursuant to its contract with DCFS, Equip for Equality first conducted a review of Northern Illinois Academy in November and December of 2019. At that time, Equip for Equality noted numerous concerns about Northern Illinois Academy's lack of meaningful programming, unsafe restraint practices, blocking residents from communication devices and a host of other issues.

Following that review, in January 2020, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revoked the academy's certification as a psychiatric residential treatment facility.

In March 2020, however, DCFS found that Northern Illinois Academy had made significant improvements, and the agency lifted a hold that had been in place on new admissions while continuing to conduct intensive monitoring. But Equip for Equality conducted another review in the fall and winter of 2020 and found that many of the same issues persisted.

There are currently 51 Illinois students served at Northern Illinois Academy, including 15 placed by DCFS, 17 placed by public school districts in Illinois, 11 placed by HFS and eightplaced by DHS, according to a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Education.

The Illinois State Board of Education said it also conducted a review of the facility and announced Friday that, effective Aug. 6, it will assign a status of "nonapproved" for Northern Illinois Academy's education services. That means school districts will no longer be able to receive reimbursements for student placements there.

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