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Why a Mental Health Institute for Foster Children Became Known as “The Misery Mill”

Children who stayed at Millcreek Behavioral Health in Arkansas have come forward to say they were mistreated or neglected.

A 16-year-old girl, far right, walks outside her home in Royal, Arkansas, with her 6-year-old brother and her father last fall. The girl was 11 when she was treated at Millcreek Behavioral Health. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

This story was co-published with the Chicago Tribune.

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Millcreek Behavioral Health in Fordyce, Arkansas, has become a common destination for foster children from other states who are sent away for mental health treatment. But dozens of children from Arkansas also have cycled through Millcreek, and they, too, reported mistreatment and violence.

Millcreek and its parent company, the for-profit Acadia Healthcare, declined to comment on specific facilities or individuals but said the company delivers superior outcomes for troubled children. The company said its facilities had never been decertified by any government health program or lost a license.

In a statement provided to reporters, Acadia cautioned against drawing conclusions from “anecdotal, non-representative incidents.”

“A Horrific Time”

The girl described her nine months at Millcreek as “horrific.” She was 11 during her stay there.

Now 16, she said she suffered a broken finger when a girl kicked her and that an employee punched her in the head while attempting a restraint, leaving her with a bruise on her forehead as well as sore ribs.

Fordyce police logs from 2015 contain a one-sentence report based on a call the girl’s mother, Susan Hunter, made about her daughter.

“She has reported abuse from an adult at Millcreek and nothing has been done,” said the police summary. It’s unclear if the report relates to the girl’s complaint about being restrained or another incident. Police declined to comment on whether they investigated.

When the girl came home for an aunt’s funeral, Hunter said, she spotted a bruise on her abdomen and her daughter told her about how she was being treated at Millcreek. Hunter pulled her out of the facility.

What disturbed the girl most about Millcreek, she said in an interview, was watching other girls suffer beatings. One incident started when volunteers brought blouses and two girls started to fight over them. One girl was beaten by the other while workers stood by, Hunter’s daughter said.

Afterward, a Millcreek worker urged the girl and her roommate to deny they’d seen anything, the girl said, adding: “She bribed me with McDonald’s and a pink hair wig.”

“He Got Worse”

In May 2018, Sara Pruitt recalled, Millcreek notified her that the facility was investigating an allegation that a worker had assaulted her 11-year-old son.

A 12-year-old boy climbs in the trees outside his home in Rogers, Arkansas, last fall. His mother, Sara Pruitt, alleges that an employee of Millcreek assaulted him when he was 11. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

But according to Pruitt, Millcreek would not provide details or put the boy on the phone. So Pruitt called Fordyce police.

“An accusation of abuse by a staff member has been filed but no one will let her know what is going on / She wants a welfare check to be performed on her son,” said the one-sentence police report. Police declined to comment on whether there was any follow-up.

After Pruitt made that call, she said, her son was allowed to talk to her. He said a female worker had pushed him down, grabbed him by his hair and put her foot in his back.

Pruitt said her son’s six months at Millcreek were a setback. “He got worse,” she said.

“The Misery Mill”

Stefan Specht, now 24, was shuttled through various foster homes and institutions after both of his parents died when he was a child. He spent eight months at Millcreek in 2012 and 2013.

“Out of the various placements I was in, Millcreek was by far the worst, and to this day I would say Millcreek has been my worst life experience. That place beat out losing my family,” said Specht, now an Academic All-Star at the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College.

Stefan Specht, 24, shown last fall at home in North Little Rock, Arkansas, says he spent eight months at Millcreek in 2012 and 2013. He said residents called the facility “the misery mill.” (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

“The ‘cottages’ were a cozy name for a not-cozy setup. You were around constant chaos,” Specht said. “It was basically impossible to escape guys who would do anything to start a fight. Constant psychological warfare and assault.”

Said Specht: “We called it the misery mill.”

David Jackson is a Chicago Tribune investigative reporter.

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