One of the state's largest providers of therapeutic day care for children with special developmental or medical needs announced Tuesday that it is closing all of its centers across the state.
The closure will displace nearly 1,700 children, said Amy Webb, a spokesman with the Arkansas Department of Human Services.
In a letter to the state, Ascent Children's Health Services Chief Executive Officer Debby Willis said the company's locations in Benton, Blytheville and Batesville will cease operations on Nov. 1 and the sites in Jonesboro, Mountain Home, Trumann and Paragould will close Nov. 30.
The company previously announced Sept. 19 that it was closing three centers, in Arkadelphia, North Little Rock and West Memphis, by Oct. 17.
Webb said the company did not give a specific reason for the decision.
The closings come after the resolution of a lawsuit against the company over the death of a 2-year-old boy who was left in a van at the West Memphis facility.
After multiple calls Tuesday to the corporate office of Ascent Children's Health Services, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette received an email with an address that ended in ascentchs.com. The email, which had an attached statement, did not have a signature line and the release was not attributed to any particular person.
"The decision to close our children's treatment centers in the State is one that had to be made from a budgetary standpoint," the statement said. "We have been partners with the State of Arkansas for over 20 years and are grateful for the relationship. While we're having to make these tough budget decisions, we will continue to provide all of our other inpatient and outpatient behavioral health care services in the State. We will work with the DHS and other providers to ensure a smooth transition."
Information about the other services Ascent referred to in the statement was unavailable as of Tuesday afternoon.
Ascent Children's Health Services, which was founded in 1988, provides outpatient occupational therapy, physical rehabilitation, speech and language therapy and mental health services to children with developmental disabilities including autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, according to its website.
The company is a wholly owned subsidiary of Acadia Healthcare Co. Inc. of Franklin, Tenn. Acadia operates a network of 585 behavioral health care facilities across the nation, the United Kingdom and Puerto Rico, according to its website.
The Ascent facilities operate on Medicaid dollars under the state's new Early Intervention Day Treatment program and the Outpatient Behavioral Health Program.
In fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, Ascent was paid about $16.9 million for its various services, according to the state's Transparency.Arkansas.gov website.
"The closure will not change or disrupt a child's eligibility to remain in the [Early Intervention Day Treatment] program, even if the child was grandfathered in when EIDT launched earlier this year," Webb said in a news release.
The Human Services Department will be sending a list of licensed Medicaid providers to parents to help in their search for new providers, Webb said.
"DHS will be working closely with Ascent to ensure the transition for beneficiaries to a new provider is as smooth as possible," Webb said. "The DHS Division of Provider Services and Quality Assurance will work to identify existing Arkansas providers that may be willing to begin providing services in counties that are considered underserved."
The closures have parents scrambling to find services for their children, which is proving difficult, said Renee Johns of Marion.
Her 4-year-old son Jacob has attended the West Memphis facility for the past 2½ years. Jacob, who was placed in her care as a foster child when he was 5 days old, has developmental delays as a result of being a drug-addicted premature baby. Johns adopted him in 2015.
When she heard the news last month that Ascent was closing the West Memphis facility, Johns thought she would be able to enroll Jacob in Kids for the Future in West Memphis, a therapeutic day clinic for developmentally delayed children.
"I am still waiting approval for my child at the new facility and the clock is ticking," she said.
Johns is concerned that Jacob's therapy will have to stop until she can obtain physician referrals for outside services.
"All this takes time. Time in which he won't have the things he needs," Johns said. "They have all these displaced children and not enough room to take them all. Some will have to be turned away. It's a sad reality."
The Crittenden County Circuit Court civil lawsuit against the company was filed in July 2017 by Ashley Smith, mother of 2-year-old Christopher Gardner. Christopher died June 12, 2017, after being left in a transport van at the West Memphis facility for eight hours.
Smith's attorney, Randy Fishman of Ballin, Ballin & Fishman in Memphis, said Tuesday that the lawsuit had been "resolved" but he was unable to say if or when a monetary settlement had been reached. The civil case is sealed. Smith sought $135 million in damages.
"We can only report to you that it has been resolved," Fishman said. "I don't feel one way or the other about the closure of the facilities. I represent the client and it has been resolved."
Scheduled for January is the felony manslaughter criminal trial for Kendra Washington, Felicia Ann Phillips, Wanda Taylor and Pamela Lavette Robinson, former Ascent employees who were charged in Christopher's death, said Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Thomas Young.
"We wanted to wait until the civil case was over," Young said.
Police said the Ascent workers signed documents showing that Christopher was taken inside the West Memphis day care center, even though he remained on the van.
Authorities found Christopher in the back seat of the 15-passenger van. He had freed himself from a child seat and taken off his shirt and one shoe. Rescuers found his body sitting upright in a seat across the aisle from where he first sat.
Reports from the Child Care and Early Childhood Education Division -- a component of the Arkansas Department of Human Services -- previously cited the company's Trumann, Batesville, Mountain Home, Arkadelphia and West Memphis facilities after it was discovered that the alarm systems meant to prevent children from being left in vans were found to be inoperable, disabled or otherwise flawed.
The alarm system was working at the West Memphis facility when Christopher died.
State Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro -- who was chief executive of Ascent from 2004 until his retirement in 2017 -- said previously that employees "did not follow company policies and procedures, and if they had, this tragedy would not have occurred."
In 2017, Sullivan sponsored Act 576, which stripped a state commission of its authority to regulate child care centers.
When contacted Tuesday, Sullivan said he was not aware that the company was closing all of its facilities.
"When I left the company, I left the company," he said.
In late July 2017, a child at the North Little Rock facility was left unattended outside.
Both it and the West Memphis facility were placed on a one-year probation status by the state.
The Arkadelphia facility had several incidents last year with children being improperly handled by the staff, resulting in caregivers being fired after two incidents and behavior guidance training for workers after a third instance, according to Human Services Department reports.
Webb said families of children being served at any of the closing centers may qualify for state child care assistance.
The state's Early Intervention Day Treatment program kicked off this summer after two therapeutic preschool programs, known as Child Health Management Services and Developmental Day Treatment Clinic Services, were combined.
"DHS will reach out to beneficiaries to ensure they know what options are available to them in their areas," Webb said.
A Section on 10/03/2018
Print Headline: Day care provider shutting in state; special-needs kids displaced