There simply aren’t enough foster homes to take in children across the U.S. For the for-profit companies that run child psychiatric facilities—like Universal Health Services (UHS), a Fortune 500 company—the solution is simple: lock ’em up. In this Mother Jones investigation, Julia Lurie describes how thousands of foster children have stayed in psychiatric facilities for months and years, even when they’re mentally stable and it’s not medically necessary. Over a yearlong period, Lurie combed through thousands of pages of court filings and medical records and talked to foster kids like Katrina Edwards, who had been in “treatment” for roughly five years in abusive, UHS-owned facilities like North Star Behavioral Health in Anchorage. In this unsettling but important piece, Lurie calls attention to the “symbiotic relationship” between child welfare agencies and companies like UHS, whose sole aim is to fill beds and make billions in profit.

How was it possible, Edwards wondered, that passing thoughts of suicide had landed her in a “mini prison for children”? She says that when she mentioned suicide to her foster mom, she hadn’t meant it literally; she’d meant that she felt miserable and wanted someone to sit down and listen to her. The chaos of the facility felt like the opposite of what Edwards needed.

In recent years, the company has been the subject of several high-profile lawsuits and investigations, including a blistering BuzzFeed News series in 2016 and a Department of Justice probe that resulted in $122 million in settlements in 2020. The claims of these investigations bear a striking resemblance to Edwards’ experience: UHS facilities admitted patients who didn’t need to be there to begin with, failed to provide adequate treatment and staffing, billed insurance for unnecessary services over excessive lengths of time, and improperly used physical and chemical restraints and isolation.

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.