Connor Bennett, 15, died on April 11 at Children’s of Alabama hospital. Six days before that, he hanged himself inside the residential treatment center where he was supposed to receive help and support.
For nearly six months leading up to his death, Bennett stayed at Brighter Path Tuskegee, a state-contracted mental health facility for youth. There, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Macon County, staff and other residents subjected Bennett to verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
“Connor and some of the other residents made numerous reports of the sexual abuse he was enduring to facility staff and their supervisors,” the lawsuit states. “Despite these cries for help, staff ignored the reports and chose to do absolutely nothing to prevent the abuse, so the assaults on Connor continued. Connor was desperate and felt he had lost all hope.”
During Bennett’s time there, the lawsuit alleges, he fled the facility numerous times, and staff would rarely notice he was missing.
Bennett’s mother, Ashley Crittenden, is suing the facility, its executive director and its owners and operators for wrongful death.
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Crittenden is not the first to allege abuse in the Tuskegee facility and others like it in the state. Tommy James and Jeremy Knowles, the Birmingham attorneys who represent Crittenden, have three other ongoing cases involving the Tuskegee facility. All of them assert claims of abuse.
“Children are being physically, verbally and sexually abused in these facilities daily,” James said in a statement. “People should be outraged that this is happening in our state and across the country. Something must be done to ensure these children are safe and receive the treatment they need.”
Brighter Path Tuskegee in Macon County has 66 beds for boys ages 12 to 18 who receive therapeutic intervention after being adjudicated by the court. It is one of three facilities operated by the same company in Alabama: Montgomery, Owens Cross Roads and Tuskegee.
Until earlier this year, the facilities were called Sequel TSI, a company that marketed itself as a national leader in providing specialized care for at-risk youth to turn a $25 million profit in 2016.
In 2020, NBC News published a detailed report alleging abuse and negligence at Sequel facilities throughout the country, including in Alabama. In the years since, states including Oregon, Minnesota and Maryland ended their contracts with Sequel.
Alabama has not.
The Alabama Department of Youth Services, DYS, contracts with the Tuskegee facility as a private provider, placing boys there for a maximum stay of 120 days. The Alabama Department of Human Resources also licenses beds in a separate unit of the facility for “intensive care treatment.”
In the last year, though, the facilities have undergone a somewhat confusing restructuring and renaming.
Sequel facilities that remained open in the spring were rebranded as Brighter Path, and the company legally changed its name from Sequel TSI of Alabama to Brighter Path of Alabama. Vivant Behavioral Healthcare is the parent company operating Brighter Path Tuskegee. Its CEO is Jay Ripley, the founder of Sequel.
Despite the name, James considers them to be the same facilities as before.
“Connor’s family hopes holding those accountable who utterly failed to protect him will prevent this from happening to any more innocent children,” James said in a statement.
Bennett’s mother, father and six siblings survive him, as well as a niece and a nephew.
“He cherished his family and had a heart of gold,” the family wrote in his obituary. “In his passing, he was able to save a minimum of four other lives by being an organ donor. His light will forever shine in those lives he has touched.”
This story deals with suicide and mental health issues. If you’re in a crisis, there is a new federal program designed to help. You can call or text 988 to connect with a trained mental health counselor. The $423 million program replaces the National Suicide Hotline. It is designed to assist callers through an immediate crisis and help them find services in their area for follow-up care.
Hadley Hitson covers the rural South for the Montgomery Advertiser and Report for America. She can be reached at email@example.com. To support her work, subscribe to the Advertiser or donate to Report for America.