When Home Hurts: A Turn to Tara Special Report

A News 12 Turn to Tara investigation exposes a serious treatment gap in the mental health system, leaving thousands of vulnerable students at risk.

Tara Rosenblum and Lee Danuff

May 30, 2024, 8:39 PM

Updated 48 days ago

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Part 1: When Home Hurts
A yearlong Turn to Tara investigation into a suburban foster school has exposed an even wider, more urgent breakdown in the mental health system that is charged with upholding the well-being of 22 million people.
Senior reporter Tara Rosenblum's investigation began at the Cottage School - a more than century-old residential treatment center for “troubled” children - where troubling behavior is nothing new.
The school is tucked away in the well-manicured Westchester town of Mount Pleasant.
It sits on a more than 150-acre sprawling campus, with Ivy League elegance on the outside. Inside the school, students say they are fearful, including a former student named "Jane," who did not want her identity revealed due to fear of retaliation.
JANE'S STORY

"I was always fighting,” she says. “I had to do stuff that I didn't want to to basically protect myself."
Until 2018, Jane was one of 160 children - mostly from New York City, Westchester and Long Island - placed by family courts or government agencies at the residential treatment center run by nonprofit JCCA with public and private funding.
It was the nation's "first" cottage-style orphanage, set up with the mission to care for troubled boys and girls facing abuse, neglect, complex trauma or, in Jane’s case, all of the above.
“My story is kind of chaotic. I had to deal with like a lot of physical abuse,” she says.
Jane says life at the school was even more unpredictable and dangerous than the one she was so desperate to escape.
“People used to fight for little things, for clothes or for money or for drugs,” she says. “We had two riots where everybody on campus just went crazy. People stabbing people. I saw people damaging property, damaging cars."
Another experience months later left her with emotional wounds that have still not healed: the death of her friend Michael Berardino.
“He was complaining that he wasn't feeling good, and the infirmary kept telling him, ‘You're fine, just go lay down in your cottage, take this Tylenol, you should be good," says Jane.
On Jan. 19, 2015, her former classmate and best friend died during a home visit with his mother.
“Michael was my 15-year-old son,” says Samantha Berardino. I’m supposed to have a 24-year-old son right now, and I don’t. I miss him every day."
Berardino says she blames the school.
“One hundred percent, it’s their fault,” she says. "All five of those days that my son went to the infirmary, the words that were reiterated to him were, ‘Stop playing around, nothing’s wrong with you, go back to your cottage, Michael.’”
News 12 reached out to JCCA, which says it can't comment on individual cases such as Michael’s.
TROUBLING DATA
The Turn to Tara team has been documenting other troubling outbursts at the Cottage School dating back more than two decades.
The team has been tracking them with our own database, which is how we spotted a spike in incidents in recent years involving increasingly erratic behavior.
This includes:
June 19, 2022: A student caught on camera standing shirtless blocking a local roadway pleading with a passing driver to end his life.
May 27, 2022: A teenager who snuck into someone’s backyard and bit the head off a live chicken in front of a child.
May 23, 2023: Apparent video of a vicious assault of a 15-year girl on campus - recorded by her roommate and allegedly witnessed by a staff member.
“She called me from the hospital that morning,” says the student’s mother, Michele Iovanella. “They didn’t even call me.”
FORMER TEACHER SPEAKS

The concern is shared by a former teacher, who reached out to the Turn to Tara team last year after working at the Cottage School for 15 years.
She is also afraid to show her face but wants her story to be widely heard because she believes vulnerable children are at risk.
“We have students getting hurt, hurting each other,” she says. “They're in major danger. There is sexual abuse. Things are not being reported.”
SCHOOL CEO RESPONDS

News 12 took those allegations to Ron Richter, the CEO and executive director of the JCCA.
“I wouldn’t deny that there are times when our staff isn't right on top of the kids,” he says.
The team then asked Richter to address numerous other complaints that Tara Rosenblum found through a public records request.
The data included police reports dating back a decade. It also showed that officers responded to the campus 779 times last year - a more than 20% increase from the year before in 2022, which had 648 and almost a 45% increase from a decade ago in 2014, which had 539.
In 2023, those calls included everything from missing persons, vandalism and violent fights to sexual crimes and suicide.
POLICE INVOLVEMENT

“I fear for staff up there, and I fear for the kids that are on campus,” says Mount Pleasant Police Chief Paul Oliva.
He remembers one student named “Angel.”
“He’s the one that staff put in prone position, and it broke his spine,” says Oliva. “There were no charges and that is really what was concerning and keeps me up at night.”
Oliva also said that the constant volatility is a significant drain on the town's police and ambulance services — with multiple emergency calls every day and little knowledge of what they will encounter when they arrive.
He says it’s one of the reasons why he joined a group of town leaders to demand that the school close permanently.
“I think the system has failed these kids,” he says.
JCCA CEO Ron Richter says the school has no intention of closing down.
ON CAMPUS VISIT TO ADDRESS CONCERNS

Richter invited News 12 to the campus to address the concerns.
He places blame on state officials who started placing more severely mentally ill children - not only at the Cottage School but also at similar centers across New York.
He says it's a direct response to the state cutting the supply of pediatric beds in half over the past decade - a trend exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have kids that are schizophrenic, bipolar, disorder, we've had suicidality," he says.
Richter also points out that legally, if a troubled child acts out, their hands are tied because unlike a mental health facility, his staff is not allowed to forcefully restrain a student or even stop them from leaving campus.
"We are not, by state regulation, permitted to lock doors, we are not permitted to gate our campus...we're not licensed to give injectables," he says.
He says the only thing the school can do under the law is to follow the students.
The JCCA formally asked the Office of Children and Family Services three years ago to give authorization to change that and build a wing for children with more serious psychiatric problems.
They are still waiting for a decision.
"Every kid that's here, a New York state judge has determined they can't live at home. So, I feel very strongly that we owe these kids sort of the highest kind of quality care, we're not doing that, and I don't see New York quickly enough advancing solutions," he says.
Richter says that on the whole, the kids at Cottage School are being helped.
"I think that there are some kids that we are failing," he says. "I think 90% of the kids who are at JCCA are being served well."
RESPONSE FROM OFFICIALS

The Turn To Tara team reached out to OCFS to see what it is doing to close the urgent mental health gap and what's taking so long.
It released the following statement that says in part:
The escalating crisis even landed at the top of Gov. Kathy Hochul's 2024 to-do list. In her State of the State address this year, Hochul acknowledged New York's mental health care system has suffered due to chronic underinvestment. She pledged to add 200 more psychiatric bed.
THE FUTURE OF THE SCHOOL

Those plans fall short for the former Cottage School teacher.
"Where is the funding going? This is millions and millions of dollars being sent into this agency where these kids are not getting the proper treatment and therapy that they need. You cannot mix kids on the spectrum with emotionally disabled students or violent students. I'm calling for it to be closed down and maybe another someone come in," she says.
Jane says she hopes those in power will hear her voice and prevent more children from falling through the cracks of a failing system.
"I want people to wake up and realize that the campus does not help children." she says. "I feel like they do a lot more damage than help people."
PART 2: PATH TO PRISON

A convicted murderer says he went from being a bullied and scared 12-year-old at the Cottage School in Mount Pleasant to a leader of 3,000 gang members.
News 12 went inside one of America's most notorious maximum-security prisons to talk to Jose Colon, who explains that his time spent at the school started him on the path to prison. Colon is a former high-ranking leader of the notorious Latin Kings street gang who admits to committing heinous crimes. He is currently serving 30 years to life in prison for a double homicide.
In 1998, Colon says thousands of gang members aged 15 to 19 were under his command. He says many of the so-called soldiers were fellow classmates at the Pleasantville Cottage School.
"It's one of the main reasons I'm so geared towards these kids and foster care, because I know that’s the breeding ground," says the Bronx native.
Colon says a judge sent him to live at the center for abused and neglected children in Westchester County when he was 12.
"My real father, I never got a chance to meet. My mother, she was dealing with mental health issues, so I was removed from home at an early age," he says.
And it was there that he decided to join a gang.
"Deciding to join a gang, I believe, had more to do with kind of feeling isolated, feeling by myself. Being removed from my home and placed into this Pleasantville foster care. There was there was a culture amongst the kids. And as a kid, you know, you're impressionable. You want to be able to fit in with the in crowd, and because the campus is approximately 200-, 300-something kids and this is what everybody's doing. You actually fall victim to that peer pressure. And because you live there, you're consumed by it."
He says gang life at the Cottage School was prolific.
He says the first time he held a gun was in 1998. One year later, he fired his weapon during a burglary at a Bronx apartment building, killing an elderly couple.
The bodies of Carlos and Antonia Pena were discovered by their 13-year-old foster child.
"There’s an overwhelming feeling of remorse that I feel when I think about it," he says. "Even when the image is in my head because I have a daughter now."
The daughter is now the same age that Colon was when he was placed at the residential treatment center.
He’s says he's talking to News 12 now to make sure she and any other children don’t follow his path.
"A lot of kids who are in foster care are there because they've dealt with some type of trauma, either from their families, some authority figure," he says. "I wanted to share my story with you because I believe there is somebody out there who is probably dealing with the same thing...they still want to be that that bigger person, they're still looking for those guns, those weapons, those knives that make them want to feel superior or be somebody who they might think they want to be now. But in 10 years, it's not the person you want to be. And it's OK for you to be yourself. You can love yourself."
News 12 tried to reach out to the relatives of Colon’s victims. They were not available to comment on his interview.
FAMILIAR STORY
Colon's story is a familiar one for students sent to live at the two dozen residential treatment centers like the Cottage School across New York as state officials struggle to keep up with the growing demand for pediatric mental health services.
Kathleen Brady-Stepien is the CEO of the Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, which represents providers similar to JCCA - all grappling with an influx of students with more severe psychiatric needs due to the diminished capacity at more intense residential treatment facilities across the state, which went from having 550 beds in 2012 to just 250 currently.
"Under Gov. Cuomo, the state undertook an initiative, really as a cost savings...and to invest in community-based treatment services and supports, which sounds terrific, but we've not seen that be executed in reality," she says.
Brady-Stepien described the consequences as “severe and dangerous” in a scathing letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul last year, warning that children with complex behavioral health needs are falling through the cracks.
"Our facilities in residential foster care were not designed to support those needs...they're not licensed, they're not funded," she says. "It is simply a disservice to them, and we have to do better so we really need the state's support and action to be able to create the capacity that is needed for these young people."
Kayleigh Zaloga, who runs the New York State Coalition for Children's Behavioral Health, agrees and says young lives are on the line.
"We don't have enough money in the system to provide these services to everyone who needs them. So you end up either falling through the cracks or being unable to navigate the system dealing with incredibly long wait times, and their mental health deteriorates in the meantime. So, they end up needing a crisis level of care," she says.
Zaloga says it's a crisis that disproportionately impacts children of color across the tri-state.
"They're overwhelmingly kids of color, kids from poor backgrounds, and there's a level of trauma that they have had to deal with in their lives before they're even getting to the treatment facility where then they are not able to access the level of therapeutic care that they need," she says.
The criticism hasn’t been lost on Hochul, who recently announced a $1 billion, multiyear plan that she hopes will transform the state’s troubled mental health care system.
The plan includes the addition of 200 inpatient psychiatric beds at state-operated facilities and new mental health clinics at schools statewide.
"The ultimate risk is that kids are not able to reach their potential as happy, thriving members of their communities. We see kids who don't get the mental health care they need are more often than they end up in the criminal justice system," says Zaloga.
PART 3: AROUND THE TRI-STATE
Advocates say there are grave consequences resulting from residential treatment centers across New York that have been forced in recent years to take in students whose intense mental health needs far exceed the level of care the centers are licensed to provide.
Consequences include community fury, overloaded emergency responders, broken windows and even shattered bones.
The Turn to Tara team spoke to a Connecticut lawmaker to see if the problem was across the tri-state or just isolated in New York.
“So, what Connecticut did was…create more opportunities for beds because we recognize that behavioral health doesn't turn on a dime,” says Connecticut House Chairwoman of the Committee on Children Liz Linehan.
Linehan fought to institute sweeping changes back in March that impacted group homes across Connecticut.
It included adding more staff and providing funding to build two intensive treatment centers for children in crisis or who have experienced severe trauma.
All the changes that were made in the aftermath of troubling allegations of physical abuse and sex trafficking at the Bridge Family Center in Harwinton, which has since been shut down.
“That home did have a sex abuse problem with staff through DCF, we created laws that require stringent background checks. Hope it was a one-off,” says Linehan.
Linehan is also hoping to deliver better outcomes for at-risk children by increasing the capacity at state-run psychiatric residential treatment facilities known as RTFs.
“We’re opening up some psychiatric emergency rooms for kids,” she says.
This is something that has not been happening in New York in recent years.
“You cannot expect a child who's been through trauma to do well without any trauma-informed practice and helping them get better. And that's what we did in the state of Connecticut, and I think ultimately, that's what the state of New York is going to have to do to solve this problem,” says Linehan.
Linehan says New York’s approach included closing down beds, which is not a holistic approach.
“It’s shocking to me, actually, as a legislator that the thought would be ‘Let's shut down beds so we can help more kids.’ That makes zero sense,” she says. “What we need to do, what New York needs to do, and frankly what every state in the country needs to do is provide services to these kids before they reach that acuity level.”
A newly released report by the Children’s Advocacy Institute assigned the state of New Jersey an “F” grade for failing to protect federal benefits intended for foster youth.
Back in January, lawmakers passed a new law revising New Jersey’s Foster Youth Bill of Rights, which requires children to be notified of their benefits – something advocates say is a step in the right direction but leaves much work still to go.
The students, parents, teachers, school leaders and advocates who the Turn to Tara team spoke to for this project say they all hope their voices will lead to more urgent conversations so that vulnerable children can receive the care they so desperately need.
They also say students will continue to fall through the cracks unless changes are made.


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