Residential Treatment Facilities & Child Abuse – Behind Closed Doors


Making the difficult decision to place a child into a residential treatment facility means putting trust and faith in the hands of a third party. When this trust is broken and even one child experiences abuse or exploitation, it is imperative these facilities are brought to justice.

Welcome to an ongoing series of blogs shining a light on the unspoken abuse going on behind closed doors at group homes and residential treatment facilities in South Carolina and across the United States.

Residential treatment facilities, also called RTFs, offer full-time care and treatment for children experiencing behavioral problems or who have disabilities like autism, Down’s syndrome or cognitive/intellectual impairment. Many parents make the tough decision to place their children in RTFs because they don’t have the essential home and community resources to give their son or daughter the personal and in-depth care they need. Unfortunately, with aggressive or behaviorally challenged children, they can be a danger in the home to other family members.  Even if a child is placed in a RTF due to dangerous behavior concerning other siblings or family members, it may not be within the child’s intellectual or cognitive ability to control.  Regardless of the reason for admission to a RTF, it is an agonizing decision for a parent or guardian.  They want their child at home but due to circumstances beyond their control, they must place their child in a place that advertises or holds itself out as offering needed resources.  Often, these RTFs may seem like a god-send, when in reality, they are a profit driven center housing children in an understaffed facility where abuse is rampant.

RTFs are meant for children who suffer some type of emotional or intellectual disability and need assistance in a closed setting. However, due to a lack of other resources, parents and social workers may have no other choice but to place a child into a RTF. This decision has turned into a nightmare for some parents, as reports of child abuse and neglect begin to surface around the country.

Experts estimate about 50,000 children in the United States currently reside in residential treatment facilities. Many of these children, because of their disabilities or behavioral issues, are unable to advocate for themselves, and parents put their trust in the RTF management and staff to ensure their child is safe – both emotionally and physically. But who is watching the residential treatment facilities?

Abuse of the disabled in residential and group homes

Abuse of mentally ill adults and children in RTFs is nothing new. The advocacy group Mental Health America says in a position statement, “Mental Health America (MHA) believes that, despite improvements, deficiencies in residential facilities for children with mental health conditions are widespread, that the recent growth of non-community-based, for-profit programs is a matter of serious concern, and that urgent action is needed to address issues of quality of care in residential treatment facilities.”

In their statement, the MHA also mentions “ineffective management practices, lack of staff training, misuse of physical restraints and deceptive marketing practices in eight case studies of abuse and death in residential facilities.”

Abusive residential facility staff can use their position of power to commit acts of violence against the vulnerable residents for whom they are paid to care for. Some of the terrible types of abuse in group home and residential environments include:

  • Physical abuse. Children can be subject to physical abuse, including being hit, put in seclusion, and restrained. This can include chemical restraints like sedatives or antipsychotic drugs.
  • Emotional abuse. Verbal abuse can leave lasting emotional effects on a child. When staff is verbally abusive and controlling, a child can become depressed, withdrawn, and anxious.
  • Sexual abuse. Care facilities, especially those for children, are attractive to sexual predators. They can work at these places with little supervision and take advantage of vulnerable disabled children.

As a parent, is there anything you can to do ensure your child is safe from mistreatment?

Protecting your child from abuse and exploitation

You can take certain steps in preventing and protecting your child or teen from abuse in a residential treatment facility if you’re worried for their safety:

  • Visit them on different days and different times, so you can observe all the staff and how they interact with your child
  • Visit without an appointment
  • If possible, teach your child to understand what abuse is, how to say no, and how to report it to a family member as soon as they can.
  • Talk to management about security measures in place to protect your child from staff, visitors, and other patients who may be dangerous.

The best advocate your child has for him or herself is you. When you have no choice but to place them in a residential treatment facility for their best interests, you must fully trust the center and its staff. And if they break that trust in the worst way possible, the abuse attorneys at McGowan, Hood, Felder & Phillips, LLC will do everything we can to ensure they are brought to justice. There is no excuse for abuse of anyone, and we will fight back on behalf of your child.

To schedule your free consultation with one of our South Carolina injury attorneys, call 803-327-7800, or we invite you to reach out to us through our contact page.