A recent BuzzFeed News investigation into the nation’s largest for-profit foster care company revealed deaths, sex abuse, and serious lapses in the training and oversight of foster parents.
The investigation into National Mentor Holdings found instances of long-term sex abuse in Maryland by Mentor foster fathers, widespread problems with Mentor documented by the state of Texas, and at least six deaths of children in the custody of Mentor since 2005.
Mentor trades on the New York Stock Exchange as Civitas Solutions Inc., which reported $1.2 billion in revenue last year. Companies can often seem faceless, but like all public companies, Civitas is governed by a board of directors.
BuzzFeed News decided to find out whether members of the board knew about the problems exposed by the recent investigation, and if so, ask what they planned to do about it.
For some children, it’s a question of life and death.
Sherill Small, a Mentor foster parent in Texas, murdered 2-year-old Alexandria Hill in 2013, smashing in her skull. Mentor had placed the little girl with Small despite warning signs that she wasn’t fit to be a foster parent.
From September through December 2012, Small had taken in five foster children, but every one of them had been removed as “failed placements.” Small, according to an internal Mentor document obtained by BuzzFeed News, “reported feeling stressed out, and will express that she is unable to care for the children in the home.” The Mentor document also warns that personnel from the Texas state Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program “felt the children should not be in the home at that time.” Less than a month after that report, Mentor placed little Alexandria with Small, the foster mother who would become her murderer.
In Maryland, Stephen Merritt, one of several Mentor foster parents at a compound called Last Chance Farm, pleaded guilty in 2011 to sexually abusing multiple boys in his care. Another foster father on same compound, Tracy Grant Bayne, also admitted to abusing a boy. Again, warning signs weren’t heeded. As far back as 2004, a boy had complained to his Mentor caseworker that he was being abused. The caseworker sent him back to Merritt. Police investigated allegations of abuse twice, but didn’t find enough to press charges. A psychotherapist wrote Mentor in 2010, warning of “huge red flags” in Merritt’s interaction with a child. But it would be another year before police finally arrested Merritt and stopped the abuse.
An analysis of Texas data by BuzzFeed News found that Mentor ranked last among large foster placement providers in the state, based on the number of severe violations per home. Texas regulators found more than 100 serious problems in Mentor foster homes in the last two years, including, but not limited to, instances of children being slapped, hit with belts, and struck.
In Georgia, where the state grades child-placing agencies, Mentor’s fared poorly as well. Of the six branches Mentor runs in Georgia, not one scored an average grade above the median in the 10 most recent quarters.
State and local governments have long worked with nonprofits and religious groups to help find good homes for children whose parents can’t care for them. But over the past several decades, for-profit companies have started winning contracts to manage foster care placements. Former Mentor employees said that the pressure to make profits sometimes led to Mentor cutting corners on protecting the children — a charge Mentor strongly disputed in BuzzFeed News' original story. Mentor also said it has helped thousands of children, and pointed to Maryland, where state regulators recently gave the company high marks.
In 2006, National Mentor Holdings was bought for $242 million in cash by Vestar Capital Partners, a giant hedge fund based in New York City. The company went public last year under the name Civitas, but Vestar still owns about two-thirds of the stock. Three Vestar employees sit on Civitas’ board: Chris Durbin, James Elrod Jr., and Kevin Mundt.
When BuzzFeed News called Vestar to ask to interview its employees after the investigation was published, a spokesperson said, “Vestar declined to comment.”
Before the story ran, the spokesperson had provided this statement: “Vestar shares MENTOR Network’s belief that one tragedy within any foster care program is one too many. Mentor’s investments over the past decade to strengthen service quality while expanding programming have been fully supported by Vestar. We are proud to be associated with an organization that has enhanced the lives of tens of thousands of children and adolescents and adults with disabilities.”
Federico Peña isn’t a Civitas board member but he’s a “senior advisor” to Vestar. He’s also a powerful political figure, a former national co-chair of the Obama presidential campaign and a secretary of transportation and a secretary of energy under President Bill Clinton. Reached after the story ran, and told about the problems at Mentor, he said he had not read the BuzzFeed News story. “"I’m not involved in that matter but thank you for the call and I have to go."
Pamela Lenehan, who was elected to the Civitas board in 2008, did not answer numerous phone calls from BuzzFeed News.
Guy Sansone, a healthcare consultant, did not respond to a phone call and email placed by BuzzFeed News.
Greg Torres – former president and CEO of Mentor from 1996-2004 – did not respond to a phone call and email placed by BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News did not reach Patrick M. Gray, an accountant and former audit partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Edward Murphy and Bruce Nardella currently work at Mentor. After BuzzFeed News had started contacting the other board members and before calling Murphy and Nardella, a Mentor spokesperson sent a statement on behalf of the entire board:
“Service quality and outcomes across The MENTOR Network are of paramount importance to the entire Board. We were aware of matters raised in your story, and especially the tragedies in Maryland and Texas. We are also aware of how profoundly the organization has been impacted by these tragedies, as well as the comprehensive actions management has taken in an effort to ensure the safety and well-being of the children and adolescents served in MENTOR’s programs.
“As a Board, we appreciate the challenges associated with foster care, and understand that while no provider will ever achieve perfection, each, including MENTOR, has a responsibility to strive for it in partnership with public agencies. We recognize that the good work of the MENTOR team has enhanced the lives of tens of thousands of children at-risk and adults with disabilities. However, we have also insisted that the organization learn from each mistake in order to enhance its programs and protect those it is privileged to support.”
An earlier version of this story contained remarks attributed to Civitas Solutions board member Patrick M. Gray. In fact, BuzzFeed News did not speak to that Patrick M. Gray but to a different person with the same name who claimed to be a Civitas board member.
Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting to this post.