More than four years after Nevada officials shut down a private boarding school amid reports of abuse and neglect, another facility on the same property is facing troubling allegations that have led to intervention, hefty fines and criminal charges.
The Never Give Up Youth Healing Center, isolated in the desert about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, houses patients who suffer from a range of behavioral and psychiatric conditions. They range in age from 8 to 17.
“I have never seen a facility with as many egregious problems as NGU,” said Carissa Tashiro, an attorney with the Nevada Disability Advocacy and Law Center, which has investigated the Amargosa Valley facility.
Never Give Up is housed on the same property as the Northwest Academy boarding school, which state officials shut down in February 2019 because of high arsenic levels in the water and allegations of child abuse. Since the controversial boarding school was closed, Never Give Up has faced its own array of legal trouble, which includes allegations that staff have abused and neglected patients, most of whom receive Medicaid benefits.
State inspectors in recent years have investigated claims that staff have abused patients and unnecessarily — and sometimes violently — restrained children at the facility. Lawsuits have alleged that staff did not do enough to prevent patients from sexually assaulting other children.
In February, the Department of Health and Human Services fined the facility more than $350,000 for failing to correct multiple deficiencies noted in inspection reports dating back to July.
The sanction is on top of an $8,000 fine issued by the health department in September over substantiated reports of unnecessary restraints. In January, Nevada Medicaid sent a letter to Never Give Up stating that it was terminating the facility’s contract because it was found to be in violation of the health department’s corrective action plan.
‘Working closely with the State’
The future of Never Give Up remains unclear. The private residential facility has said it will appeal Medicaid’s decision to revoke its contract, meaning the treatment center could still receive government funding in the future.
In July, the facility’s former chief operating officer, Daniel Cox, sent a letter to parents stating that Never Give Up was working with Nevada Medicaid to increase the money the facility receives as a daily rate, in order to improve “staffing resources and client outcomes,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Nevada Medicaid declined to make an official available for an interview. Through a spokesman, the agency declined to answer specific questions from the Review-Journal, citing an open investigation into the facility. It’s unclear how many children covered by Medicaid remain at Never Give Up, or what the facility’s current daily rate is.
“The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services is continuing to ensure the health and safety of the youth placed at the facility,” Nevada Medicaid said in a statement on March 20. “Nevada Medicaid is actively working with the facility to find service placements for children that remain eligible for residential treatment.”
In a follow-up statement on Friday, Medicaid said it had “no further comment on this matter as it currently relates to litigation” but added that it “remains committed to reimbursing providers for quality care that is provided in a safe environment when rendered to Medicaid-enrolled children receiving services in residential treatment centers.”
Epic Behavioral Health owns the facility, which was run by Cox from 2019 through 2022, according to records from multiple state agencies. Cox is no longer with Never Give Up, and David Levin, the facility’s CEO, has taken over its operations, Levin said during a state Commission on Behavioral Health meeting in January.
Levin could not be reached for comment.
Inspectors in October and November substantiated claims that the facility failed to ensure that patients were not sexually assaulted by other residents, failed to provide proper training to staff and failed to properly document the necessity of restraints, records show.
That same investigation substantiated claims that a child with a fractured foot was not sent for medical care in a timely manner, and that another child lost weight and was malnourished and dehydrated while at the facility.
In the report for that investigation, Never Give Up wrote that it would develop new staff training by Dec. 15. But the letter terminating the facility’s Medicaid provider contract indicated that Never Give Up failed to provide documents required by that date.
Parents were notified in a letter from the state health department that the facility had until Wednesday to remove all children covered by Medicaid, but Never Give Up said in a statement emailed to the Review-Journal that it is appealing the decision and could not discuss the allegations.
“Furthermore, we are working closely with the State to ensure that all clients at Never Give Up are continuing to receive appropriate care for their behavioral and mental health needs,” according to the statement.
Seclusion and restraints
In June, the Disability Advocacy and Law Center submitted a complaint to the state health department detailing its own investigation into the facility.
The group alleged that its representatives had witnessed children with cuts and bruises from restraints. Property damage was prevalent throughout the building, including broken ceiling tiles and hanging cables that one patient allegedly used to attempt to hang himself, according to the complaint.
Staff frequently left children in bare “observation units” without furniture, where the patients were instructed to sit in silence on the ground for unspecified lengths of time. The observation units were used as a disciplinary measure, even though state law says that minor patients should only be kept in seclusion at the order of a physician for up to two hours, depending on the child’s age, according to the complaint.
Never Give Up has claimed in state records that it has addressed the deficiencies found by inspectors, including the use of observation units, and is working to improve conditions for the children in the center’s care. But Tashiro said the Disability Advocacy and Law Center isn’t convinced that conditions are improving.
Tashiro said a complicated web of state agencies, a lack of regulatory oversight and the isolated nature of the facility have made it difficult for parents and officials to hold Never Give Up accountable.
“I think that what’s happened at NGU is a symptom of a larger problem,” Tashiro said. “I think even if this facility closes, we will experience something like this again in Nevada if we don’t address the root problem.”
In October, the Department of Justice released a report finding that Nevada fails to provide enough services for children with behavioral health disabilities. The report found that the state relies on segregated institutional settings such as hospitals or residential treatment facilities and does not provide adequate community-based services.
The report does not mention Never Give Up, but it paints many of the critiques of the private facility as institutional, statewide problems. Facilities across Nevada were keeping children for more than a year before they were discharged, and some used highly restrictive punishments, such as forbidding patients from talking with other children or delaying patients’ graduations from the facilities.
During the 2020 fiscal year, more than 480 children in Nevada stayed in residential treatment facilities, some of which are out of state, according to the report.
The report ends with a warning from the Justice Department: If Nevada fails to comply with the American with Disabilities Act by providing unsegregated services, then the state could face a lawsuit from the federal government.
Lisa Ruiz-Lee, who previously worked as a director of Clark County’s Department of Family Services, said Nevada should not accept the existence of mental health services if they are not offering quality care.
“A lot of documents say we need to do better when it comes to children’s mental health in the state of Nevada,” she said.
Ruiz-Lee is also a member of the health department’s Commission on Behavioral Health, which has been requiring Never Give Up to present progress updates at quarterly meetings since September.
Dr. Lisa Durrette, another member of the commission, said after January’s meeting that Never Give Up is failing to treat children with the least restrictive means possible. Instead, children are being kept at the facility for months and years on end, as their contact with family members is restricted to weekly phone calls.
“I have a lot of concerns that minimum standards are not being met,” Durrette said. “We’ve never had a situation like this.”
In November, Jason Graham was offered a job by Never Give Up as a residential auditor. His Georgia-based company, Adventuring Puzzle Pieces, trains companies on how to comply with Medicaid standards.
Graham told the Review-Journal he toured the facility for three hours, then immediately declined the job offer. He didn’t believe the facility could ever come into compliance.
He said he witnessed children eating, sleeping and bathing among flies. He said the bathrooms stay locked for 20 hours a day, and some staff members referred to the children as animals. He said he believed the children were “scared to death.”
Never Give Up wanted Graham to help improve its policies in an effort to prevent it from closing, he said.
“This facility is beyond help,” he said. “The staff is beyond help.”
Throughout 2022, Never Give Up reported restraining children more than 300 times, in holds lasting anywhere from 20 seconds to 70 minutes, according to documents provided to Medicaid by the facility.
Physical restraints should only be used as a “last resort,” when children are endangering themselves or others, Tashiro said. But the Disability Advocacy and Law Center alleged that at Never Give Up, restraints were being used on a near daily basis.
State investigators found multiple instances of staff restraining children as punishment, records show. Children were physically restrained for attempting to leave rooms or damaging property.
Records also revealed that staff members repeatedly held children against walls.
In one incident report obtained by the Review-Journal, a staff member wrote that a child “started acting out” during bedtime. A staff member eventually pushed the boy against a wall “to try and give him a chance to calm down.”
The incident report from the facility has a section for staff members to note what should be done differently in the future. The person who pushed the boy against a wall wrote that staff should “be more gentle with such a small child.”
Never Give Up Youth Healing Center is located on the same Amargosa Valley property as the now-shuttered Northwest Academy. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Left_Eye_Images
In 2019, Northwest Academy, located on the same property as Never Give Up, was the subject of a multi-part Review-Journal investigation into a yearslong history of abuse and neglect allegations.
The owners of Northwest Academy, Marcel and Patricia Chappuis, were arrested in February 2019 and initially faced more than 90 counts of child abuse or neglect. The couple took a plea deal in 2021 that significantly reduced their charges.
The same winter that Northwest Academy was closed, Joshua Brown-Hansen was admitted as a 15-year-old patient at Never Give Up. Brown-Hansen, now 18, told the Review-Journal that he spent several months at the facility, during which he reported abuse by staff.
“I got choked once by a staff member,” he recalled in an interview last year. “I did say something. I know I said something. I even told my parents, but nothing happened besides me getting called a snitch.”
Brown-Hansen said he remembers smaller children being slammed so hard by staff that their heads would bounce off the ground. Only one or two employees, called youth mentors, were assigned to watch dozens of children at a time.
Allegations of sexual assaults by staff and other patients ran rampant, he said. State inspectors investigated complaints of sexual assault at the facility in 2019, but many were unsubstantiated, records show.
In one complaint, which was substantiated, an employee showed students inappropriate sexual images in June 2019. The Nye County district attorney’s office did not have a record of related charges being filed against the employee.
Christopher Burleson, a former employee at Never Give Up, was arrested in April 2022 after he was accused of raping a 16-year-old girl and sexually exploiting two other juveniles while working at the facility.
The 16-year-old reported that Burleson took her into an empty dorm room in October 2021 and forced her to have sex with him, according to his arrest report. He also was accused of forcing a 17-year-old to perform sexual acts, and he forced a 14-year-old with a history of sexual abuse to answer inappropriate questions “for the Defendant’s sexual gratification,” according to a criminal complaint.
At least three other adults associated with Never Give Up are facing criminal charges, according to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office. In September, Renette Clay was charged with child abuse and neglect for allegedly striking a teenage girl so hard her jaw dislocated, according to court records and the Sheriff’s Office. A warrant for Clay’s arrest is outstanding.
The Sheriff’s Office arrested Chester Miller in May on suspicion of child abuse neglect and indecent exposure, although formal charges have not been filed against him. In August, prosecutors charged Robert Hutsell, a former Never Give Up employee, with sexual assault against a child under 14, lewdness with a child under 14 and sexual conduct with a child under his care. He was accused of assaulting and inappropriately touching a 13-year-old and “laying his body upon” a 16-year-old, court records show.
Miller declined to comment when reached by the Review-Journal on Friday. Attempts to reach Clay were not successful.
Attorney Damian Sheets, who represents Burleson and Hutsell, declined to comment on his clients’ cases.
Less than a year and a half after Northwest Academy was closed, Never Give Up began facing lawsuits alleging that patients were sexually assaulted by staff and other patients. Three of the lawsuits are still active in Nye County.
Patricia Daehnke, an attorney representing Never Give Up, did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuits.
One lawsuit alleged that a 14-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a staff member in September 2019, and that Never Give Up failed to notify the Nye County Sheriff’s Office when the girl first reported the alleged assault. Court records show that the facility filed an answer to the complaint in June 2021.
Another lawsuit, filed on behalf of Madelyn Arrand, alleged that when Arrand was 14, she was sexually assaulted by multiple girls in a dorm at Never Give Up. Arrand, now 18, said the girls moved the cameras to assault her, and that staff didn’t believe her when she reported it.
The Review-Journal typically does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission, but Arrand has allowed the news organization to use her name.
Records show that Never Give Up filed an answer to Arrand’s complaint in August 2021.
After she reported the assault, Arrand said, she was put in an observation unit for nearly two days with the other girls. A therapist she spoke to called the police, and her parents pulled her out of the facility shortly after.
Arrand said she was sent to Never Give Up because of anger issues and behavioral problems. But her problems continued after she was released from the facility, and she felt like a “different person.”
“It was horrible,” she told the Review-Journal in a phone interview on Thursday. “It did nothing for me. It actually made me worse.”
Ongoing arsenic issues
Flint Jackson, a former employee at Never Give Up, told the Review-Journal that the children in his care were under-supervised and left in unsafe conditions. He left the company in June after only six months of work.
He claimed that the food was regularly expired and “inedible.” Patients who were diagnosed with psychological disorders saw a therapist once or twice a week, and were otherwise confined to a classroom, he said.
Jackson also believes that the allegations that led to Northwest Academy’s closure haven’t been addressed.
“Right off the bat, the arsenic issues are still there,” Jackson said.
The facility brought jugs of water in for the children to drink, but patients still showered in water that had shown high levels of arsenic and fluoride as recently as September, according to state water inspectors. Jackson, Brown-Hansen and Arrand all said patients had burns or rashes from the water during their time at the facility.
According to records from the Department of Environmental Protection, the water treatment system on the property is still the same system that Northwest Academy used. An environmental protection notice that Never Give Up was required to post on campus as recently as July warned that the public water system had not been compliant with drinking water standards since 2017.
As of April 2022, the facility had three times the acceptable amount of arsenic in its water. Records show that Never Give Up was working to update its water system last fall.
In June, former Nye County District Attorney Chris Arabia said his office began investigating the facility in 2019, but prosecutors didn’t receive enough information from the Sheriff’s Office to move forward with the investigation.
“Back in the early stages of that case, my office met with detectives and we suggested a plan for getting better evidence and no agreement was reached about implementing that,” Arabia said.
The Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly declined to comment, citing an open investigation.
The Department of Child and Family Services said in August that it would take at least nine months to produce records related to Never Give Up, and it declined to answer specific questions regarding the facility.
Dispatch log records show that over a 2½-year period ending in June 2022, the Nye County Sheriff’s Office received 95 calls for service from the facility. Eleven of the calls were reporting alleged sex offenses, seven were for alleged child abuse, and seven reported assault on the property.
One report details a call to deputies in September 2020 by a nurse at Summerlin Hospital and Medical Center who reported that a girl had intentionally swallowed screws in three separate instances in order to get out of the facility.
“The girl has been doing everything in her power to get sent home,” the report states.
Contact Katelyn Newberg at email@example.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Contact Sabrina Schnur at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter.
Article written by Katelyn Newberg and Sabrina Schnur #ReviewJournal