More families sue Mesabi Academy owner | WVIA

More families sue Mesabi Academy owner

Last Updated by Eischens, Rilyn on
Eight former residents of Mesabi Academy, a now-closed juvenile correctional facility in northeastern Minnesota, have joined a lawsuit against the institution's parent company, alleging that they were physically and mentally abused. That brings to 11 the number of former Mesabi residents and their families suing KidsPeace Corp., and plaintiffs' attorneys expect more former residents to take legal action.

The case is the result of an APM Reports investigation that revealed institutional neglect, safety violations, improper staff training, and lack of government oversight at the Buhl, Minn., facility. Days after the APM Reports investigation was published in May 2016, officials in Hennepin and Ramsey counties removed more than 40 boys from Mesabi, and the Minnesota Department of Corrections froze new admissions. A month later, KidsPeace closed the facility.

A February inquiry by the St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services Department found five instances of maltreatment at Mesabi Academy in 2015 and 2016. In one, a staff member allowed boys as young as 12 to participate in a "fight club." The department also reported that an employee didn't respond after one boy punched another in the face; that an employee broke a resident's clavicle; and that an employee was sleeping in the gym while residents fought.

In March, three former residents and their families initially filed suit against the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit KidsPeace, according to Hennepin County District Court documents, alleging that the boys at Mesabi Academy suffered injuries due to staff assaults and negligence. The children living at Mesabi Academy experienced "horrific physical, mental and sexual abuse, including: beatings, rape and solitary confinement for weeks without break," according to the lawsuit. The corporation neglected its duty to care for the boys, according to the complaint, and didn't "exercise ordinary care in hiring and supervising" staff who assaulted the boys.

KidsPeace denies any wrongdoing. In court filings, the company maintains that staff contact with the boys was intended to protect the children themselves, other residents or staff. Additionally, the company contends that "staff attempted to intervene whenever staff became aware that any resident was being verbally, physically or emotionally abused by any other resident," according to court documents.

Attorneys representing KidsPeace did not respond to requests for comment. KidsPeace spokesperson Robert Martin said the corporation doesn't comment on ongoing litigation.

KidsPeace owns several treatment facilities in Maine, Pennsylvania and Georgia that provide psychiatric services to children. It also operates foster care services in seven states. Mesabi Academy was its only "secure operation," which means it housed boys who committed crimes along with boys who needed emotional and psychiatric treatment. KidsPeace reported revenue of $37 million and expenses of $31 million in 2014, according to court records.

Jacob Reitan, one of the two Minnesota attorneys representing the plaintiffs, said the eight former residents and their families heard about the lawsuit through word of mouth. "The abuse was so widespread that it just happens that residents know each other, and they're able to share their stories with one another," he said. The plaintiffs are each seeking $50,000 in damages, plus attorneys' fees, court documents say.

Reitan added that more former residents of Mesabi Academy have retained the attorneys' services, though he said he's not sure when these additional parties will join the current suit or file their own. But he expects others will come forward.

The three original plaintiffs were Ayuub Ali, Jacob Torblaa and Tony Chadderdon. The new plaintiffs include Mohammed Abdi, Isaiah Alstad, Trevor Wills and Kamil Barrett. Four other former residents who recently joined the suit are still minors and weren't named in court documents. The boys spent varying amounts of time at Mesabi Academy between 2014 and 2016. Some were sent to the facility for criminal activity and others for psychiatric disorders.

The parties are expected to go through mediation before July, court documents say. A trial date has been set for Aug. 20.

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