(Photo: Gannett)

(This story first appeared in Wilmington Star-News, 12/07/02 by Matthew Prensky)

Crystal Klunk’s daughter suffers inside one of North Carolina’s psychiatric residential treatment facilities — a place that resembles solitary prison confinement more than a care facility meant to help kids with mental health issues, the mom says. Spotty supervision, sporadic treatment and only occasional schooling have been part of the girl’s experience, Klunk said. They have not seen their daughter, who first tried to kill herself at age 10, in months. The staff at their daughter Alexis’ center reportedly has not updated Klunk on the teen’s status.

A six-month investigation in 2021 by North Carolina and Virginia journalists in the USA TODAY Network featured Klunk and other families, plus shocking details of neglect and abuse inside these locked centers. Now, citing the “Locked Away” reporting series, a potentially landmark class-action lawsuit has been filed in federal court against the state of North Carolina.

The lawsuit aims to reduce North Carolina’s focus on these institutions and to shift many children to more appropriate support services based in their home communities. The Middle District Court filing by Disability Rights North Carolina, the state NAACP and the children themselves cite gruesome allegations of kids subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse at these psychiatric centers — reports that were brought to light in the multi-part Locked Away investigation.

Plaintiffs claim there is a systemic effort by North Carolina health and human services officials to warehouse foster children with mental health disabilities in these locked wards. The state’s decisions have failed vulnerable children and wasted taxpayer money on what is a punishing and expensive system of centers, the filing says. The plaintiffs, which include four children and their guardians, want North Carolina to provide adequate and appropriate services in the community for foster kids who need mental health care. It will take an investment in a web of services at multiple stages of a kid’s mental health journey — and could be financed in part with ample dollars the state is currently sending to PRTFs.

Tuesday afternoon’s lawsuit alleges children inside PRTFs are confined to prison-like settings “under the care of a poorly trained and understaffed workforce, where they are subject to broken bones, sprains, bruises, and dangerous physical and chemical restraints; withstand sexual and physical abuse, bullying, and hate speech by both youth and staff; and face mental health deterioration and cocktails of strong psychotropic medications.”

“DHHS is failing hundreds of children with disabilities in foster care, warehousing them in dangerous, expensive, damaging institutions,” said Virginia Knowlton Marcus, chief executive officer of Disability Rights North Carolina. “These children deserve and have the right to a family and place in our communities where they can meet their full potential. Instead, they receive institutionalization and irreparable harm to their childhood and wellbeing.”

USA TODAY Network-North Carolina has reached out to the state Department of Health and Human Services for comment on the filing. The head of DHHS is the named defendant in the lawsuit, representing the state. [Source