After a child’s death, a 170-year-old Kentucky youth welfare institution is on the verge of collapse
Bellewood and Brooklawn has been serving Kentucky children since the 1850s. But after the death of a child there last July was ruled a homicide, the institution faces an uncertain future.
At Bellewood and Brooklawn’s annual donor’s breakfast, about 150 of Louisville’s well-to-do sipped coffee and orange juice inside the Brooklawn campus gymnasium.
Most donors come to this breakfast every year to listen to uplifting stories from the young people who’ve been served here, and to write checks — sometimes big ones.
“These are all people that care about children,” said Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell, a long-time supporter of Bellewood and Brooklawn. “They wouldn’t be sitting here at this breakfast and giving money and donations to this organization unless they believed in it.”
This year’s event had a different tone. After the death of 7-year-old foster child Ja’Ceon Terry, the institution is on the verge of financial collapse.
State officials say the child welfare system is equipped to handle the need without Bellewood and Brooklawn. But others worry its closure will further strain a system already in crisis.
Longtime organization near collapse
Bellewood and Brooklawn have both been around since the 1850s, housing and caring for orphaned, neglected or abused children, or those with severe behavioral challenges. The two organizations merged in 2012. Bellewood’s campus is located in Anchorage, while Brooklawn is off Goldsmith Lane just outside the Watterson Expressway.
The organization has two kinds of facilities, or “cottages”: Private Child Caring cottages (PCC), which are only for foster youth, and Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facilities (PRTF), which are for kids with severe behavioral issues. PRTFs serve foster kids, but also kids sent for treatment by their own parents.
Ja’Ceon was in the “Pilots” PRTF cottage on Brooklawn’s campus when two staff members put him in a restraint that killed him. The Jefferson County Coroner’s Office ruled the death a homicide and said Ja’Ceon died from “positional asphyxia” — meaning his body was forced into a position that stopped him from breathing.
After Ja’Ceon’s death in July, the state Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) stopped placing children in Bellewood and Brooklawn’s care, cutting off the organization’s main source of revenue: housing and treating kids in state custody.
CEO Abby Drane says the nonprofit has made changes, and she doesn’t understand why state placements haven’t resumed.
“While the Department of Community Based Services tries desperately to find treatment and care for vulnerable children in this state, we faithfully await answers, and continue to remain dedicated and rebuild that trusting relationship,” she told donors from the podium at the breakfast.
Drane said the two employees were “immediately dismissed,” and that the organization has increased training for staff.
Without new placements from DCBS, Bellewood and Brooklawn is operating at a fifth of its normal capacity and has lost almost half of its staff.
Some would welcome a closure of Bellewood and Brooklawn.
In a 2022 NBC investigation, Ja’Ceon’s birth mother and grandfather told reporters it should have closed the day he died.
But Bellewood and Brooklawn board member Lee Baltzell and others say the state can’t afford to close the institution.
“This could be the end of both organizations [Bellewood and Brooklawn],” Baltzell said. “If that happens, where would these kids go? The state needs us.”
The death of Ja’Ceon Terry
Last December, DCBS revoked licenses for three Bellewood and Brooklawn PRTFs. The few details state officials chose to release were vague but damning.
In revocation letters for the Pilots cottage, officials accused the facility of failing to maintain proper staffing ratios, failing to prohibit “cruel and unusual disciplinary measures,” failing to maintain proper documentation of threats or safety concerns, and failing to properly use emergency safety interventions, such as restraints.
“These areas of non-compliance ultimately led to the death of a child,” the letter reads.
In court filings, Ja’Ceon’s’s foster parents allege two staff members put the 7-year-old in a seated hold.
“One staff member drove her knee forcefully into [Ja’Ceon] Terry’s back and used her body weight to push his torso forward almost to the floor,” the complaint reads. “The incident lasted between 4 and 5 minutes.”
Ja’Ceon became unresponsive and was transported by ambulance to Norton Children’s Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead, according to attorneys for his foster family.
Ja’Ceon’s foster parents are suing Bellewood and Brooklawn over his death, saying facility supervisors didn’t properly train employees and waved off prior allegations that staff were abusing children in the facility.
LPM News reached out to Ja’Ceon’s foster family through their attorney, but they did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did Ja’Ceon’s birth mother.
In December, when the state announced its decision, DCBS ordered all children in state custody removed from the three PRTF cottages that lost their licenses.
A placement ‘crisis’
Some say the state needs Bellewood and Brooklawn to stay open. Eltuan Dawson lived at the facility for several years as a child. He said it was a positive experience. Like most kids in PRTF, he entered the program after leaving a psychiatric hospital. Now he’s a consultant in the child welfare sector.
“Our psychiatric hospitals are being overflowed with young people, and they still need a place to go,” Dawson said.
Bellewood and Brooklawn account for a third of the PRTF beds available statewide and about 8% of PCC beds. The institution’s leaders argue a closure would mean a devastating overall reduction in services for children facing severe behavioral challenges.
Officially, the state says it isn't worried about the reduction in capacity. In an email, DCBS spokesperson Susan Dunlap said the department’s new focus on child abuse prevention means the state is removing fewer kids from their homes in the first place.
The number of children in state custody spiked in 2020 to more than 10,000. By April of this year, that figure had fallen to 8,455 children in out-of-home care. The vast majority of them are in foster homes. Just 9% of them are in residential treatment or a psychiatric hospital. An even smaller number of those youth are in PRTFs.
“The cabinet is committed to placing children and youth in facilities in which there is confidence that the kids’ health and safety is prioritized,” Dunlap wrote.
Dunlap also highlighted a new program called Intercept that provides “intensive in-home wraparound supports and services to youth with significant behavioral health needs.”
“With Intercept serving and supporting youth in out of home care, many youth who might have been placed in a residential treatment setting are able [to] live in a home, in the community, or with a family,” Dunlap wrote in a March 3 email.
But just weeks earlier, DCBS officials painted a very different picture for state lawmakers.
Speaking before a House legislative committee on February 15, DCBS Executive Advisor Mary Carpenter said the shortage of placements was so bad, some children were temporarily sleeping in DCBS offices.
“We started noticing in May or June of last year a trend in really not being able to find placements for our youth who have unmet sort of complex needs,” Carpenter told a House budget review committee. “We call these high-acuity youth.”
Carpenter said when a child is removed from a home, social workers have to refer each child more than 60 times on average before finding placement. In a single month, up to 95% of children are rejected by providers, either because they have no room, or because the agency believes the child’s behaviors are too severe to be managed with the resources they have.
LPM called five different PRTF and PCC providers across the state. All of their PRTFs were full and had waiting lists ranging from three months to one year.
Many PCCs were also at full capacity or nearing it.
“It is a severe crisis,” Sunrise COO Andy Fisher told LPM. Sunrise runs several PRTF and PCC cottages across the state. Each of its three PRTF cottages on the Woodlawn campus in Danville has a waiting list. The longest wait is for the Lowe cottage, which serves boys ages 14-17.
“If you were to place a child on that waiting list today, it would be about a year before that bed would be available,” Fisher said.
The lack of PRTF and PCC has led to an increase in foster children being sent to facilities out of state or having to linger in emergency rooms, psychiatric hospitals, or even spend a night on a cot in their social worker’s office, according to Carpenter. Sometimes, kids who can’t get treatment end up in the juvenile justice system, Carpenter said.
The shortage also means there aren’t enough spots for children seeking PRTFs who are still in their parents’ custody. Those kids typically stay in their home environment if they can’t find PRTF treatment for severe mental or behavioral issues.
For providers, space for new kids isn’t limited by the number of beds — it's limited by staffing shortages.
For example, Sunrise’s PCC for girls in Glendale has eight empty beds, but Fisher said the center can’t take any more children because they don’t have the personnel.
Julie Raia, Chief Strategy Officer for CHNK Behavioral Services, said her organization, formerly Children’s Home of Northern Kentucky, has two whole cottages sitting empty at the Burlington campus. The beds are meant for girls who need PRTF, but there’s no one to staff them.
“We get calls consistently from Cincinnati Children's Hospital, Sun Hospital, and many other referral sources, calling saying, ‘Are you taking girls yet? Are you taking girls yet?’” she said.
For now, CHNK has to tell them no.
Fisher and others say without an increase in Medicaid reimbursement rates, they aren’t likely to solve the staffing shortage any time soon. That means treatment availability will remain scarce.
“If other facilities were to close,” Fisher said, “that would create even a greater crisis than we're already in.”
Meanwhile the campuses at Bellewood and Brooklawn, which are designed to serve more than 150 residents, are operating with just 27 kids. About half of them were sent by their own families to the two PRTF cottages that kept their licenses.
The other half are foster youth. DCBS stopped new placements after Ja’Ceon’s death, and removed foster youth from the PRTF cottages that lost their licenses. But they left behind 22 kids in Bellewood and Brooklawn’s PCC cottages. As of April,13 foster children were still there.
For now, without the state funding that comes with new foster placements, the only thing keeping Bellewood and Brooklawn afloat are donations, according to Baltzell.
“That in itself is not good for children,” Baltzell said, adding that the remaining personnel are working extra hours to maintain the legally required ratios of staff to residents.
“We're having to be creative in how to do this and be able to sustain it,” she said.
Baltzell says the donations they have will last until the fall. After that, the future is uncertain.
Editor's note: Asked about the discrepancy between DCBS' March response to LPM suggesting the state is not worried about a possible reduction in PRTF and PCC capacity, and the department's presentation to lawmakers in February describing a placement shortage, a DCBS spokesperson sent the following statement, after our deadline:
"We continue to work to identify licensed facilities that meet the needs of children and youth with special needs including residential psychiatric treatment. More licensed providers offering PRFT treatment and all levels of treatment, including PCC, are needed. The cabinet will identify facilities with capacities with licensure that aligns with the need of the child."
This story has been updated to reflect that PCC stands for Private Child Caring.
Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.