It’s Time to End the “Troubled Teen” Industry that Tried to Crush Me

“By the time I finally aged out of foster care, I had been in three more placements in two other states, all owned by private companies. More often than not, I was treated more like a prisoner than a young girl recovering from the abusive crimes of my father.”

for-profit private foster care; kids; mental health; trauma; child abuse; troubled teen
“When states pass off their responsibilities to foster children to private contractors around the country, kids are at high risk of abuse and neglect,” writes Muzquiz. (yesy belajar memotrek / Flickr)

When I was about eight years old, my mother was killed in a car accident. My sister and I were then placed in the custody of my father, who grew increasingly abusive toward us. Though we were pressured to keep quiet, the abuse became so severe that I eventually revealed to school staff and a relative that we were being abused.

When I was ten, my sister and I were placed in the care of our grandparents, but were soon ordered by a court to get behavioral treatment at residential facilities due to the trauma we had endured and behavioral incidents at school.

When kids go through traumatic situations like being separated from loved ones or suffering abuse, it’s not uncommon for them to develop behavioral issues as a result of their trauma. But when my sister and I were sent to for-profit facilities in different states, it was the start of a traumatic experience that left me in worse condition than when I first left my grandparents. By the time I finally aged out of foster care, I had been in three more placements in two other states, all owned by private companies. More often than not, I was treated more like a prisoner than a young girl recovering from the abusive crimes of my father.


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Instead of receiving compassionate, quality mental health treatment, I was treated like a disruption to be managed when I acted out. Even when I was able to take part in therapy sessions, I felt like I was being blamed for being abused by my dad and punished for having the courage to speak out.

In one facility (deceptively called “New Leaf”) I was stereotyped for being Latina and constantly put on dishwashing duty when children were assigned chores. One facility responded to my behavior by giving me powerful psychotropic medications that left me disoriented and prone to suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, an autoimmune disorder I had developed—in part due to the trauma I was experiencing—went undiagnosed and untreated. I was passed from facility to facility when they decided they couldn’t handle me anymore and deemed me “unresponsive to treatment”—even though children in these circumstances need stable living environments. 

for-profit private foster care; kids; mental health; trauma; child abuse; troubled teen
“Instead of receiving compassionate, quality mental health treatment, I was treated like a disruption to be managed when I acted out,” writes Muzquiz. (Mayberry Health and Home/Flickr)

Unfortunately, my story is not unique. I’ve connected with dozens of other young people around the country who have also been mistreated  by the “troubled teen industry” that focuses much more on keeping kids compliant than on providing meaningful support and rehabilitation.

Twenty-eight states have privatized at least part of their foster care system. But in 2017, members of Congress documented many of the industry’s failings in a report showing that when states pass off their responsibilities to foster children to private contractors around the country, kids are at high risk of abuse and neglect. I’m sharing my story because I want to show the urgency of reforming these private facilities that are often shielded from public attention.

Making the treatment of vulnerable children a for-profit enterprise has been a terrible decision by our government leaders. These companies are more accountable to their shareholders than to the children they serve or the public, and they benefit from more kids entering the system. They are all too happy to cut corners on living conditions and treatment for the children entrusted in their care.

Since aging out of the foster system I’ve been able to build a successful, stable life for myself with my boyfriend and my dogs. But so many kids are still at the mercy of private residential facilities that do not operate with their interests in mind—and tragically, some children never manage to age out. Last year, a boy named Cornelius Frederick died after being violently restrained at a private facility in Michigan operated by Sequel, whose operations are notorious for mismanagement and abuse.

We need our elected officials to reduce public funding for private residential care contractors and invest in foster care services that are accountable to their communities, as well as preventive measures to address abuse and keep kids out of the system in the first place.

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About

Kayla Muzquiz is a part-time student at Palo Alto College, a community college in San Antonio, Texas, where she is pursuing a degree in Veterinary Animal Health Technology. She is an outspoken advocate for reforming the nation’s child welfare systems.