Maryland attorney general sues provider of services for disabled students, alleging ‘Dickensian’ conditions

A residential and educational facility for disabled students operated under “Dickensian” conditions, failing to provide children with required medication or appropriate supervision and attempting to cover up assaults, according to a lawsuit filed by the Maryland Attorney General’s office.

AdvoServ Inc. ran a program for people and students with disabilities in Delaware. Dozens of Maryland children with cognitive disabilities and mental illnesses were sent to AdvoServ for treatment and education after the state determined their needs couldn’t be met at home or in their local schools.


But even though Maryland paid AdvoServ more than $230,000 a year to care for each child, the lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges it failed to “provide even minimally adequate care to the children under their protection.”

“Although presenting themselves as a modern, progressive facility able to provide behavioral, medical, and educational services to this special-needs population, the reality was more Dickensian,” the complaint states.


Maryland ended its contract with AdvoServ in 2016. The state planned to sever ties with the company by October of that year but still hadn’t removed the 31 Maryland children in its care when a 15-year-old girl died at the Bear, Del., facility that fall.

The company — whose facilities across the country have a long and troubled history — has since changed its name to Bellwether Behavioral Trade. Representatives did not return calls seeking comment.

The attorney general’s office said the state paid AdvoServ more than $13 million to care for children from June 2015 to October 2016, and is seeking to recover unspecified damages and penalties from the company.

“We allege that AdvoServ failed to deliver services it was hired to provide to the children in its care and that its failures endangered the health and safety of those children,” Attorney General Brian Frosh said in a statement.

Chilling accounts are revealed throughout the 41-page complaint.

A review of the medical records for 10 Maryland children uncovered 717 instances in which a child did not receive prescribed medication, according to the complaint. At times, there was a 20% gap between the staffing plans and the number of staff members actually employed. Even after two AdvoServ residents started fighting each other — including one attacking the other with a knife — the suit alleges the company didn’t increase supervision.

In one incident recounted in the lawsuit, a student banged her head into the wall eight times while a staffer watched and didn’t intervene. Another student, who was supposed to be under constant care, developed “significant bruising and bleeding” from repeated head-banging during unsupervised moments.

The lawsuit also alleges that in 2015, a Maryland child placed at AdvoServ ran away with a staff member and the two had a sexual relationship. A subsequent investigation revealed the staffer had been spending “extensive” time in the child’s bedroom and even though several other adults were aware of the behavior, the facility did not step in.


“Throughout 2015 and 2016," the suit states, "AdvoServ continued to demonstrate a pattern of lackadaisical (at best) or non-existent (at worst) supervision of the children in its care.”