2023 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Nowhere to go

About the Project

Beginning in 2018, New Mexico began shutting down its residential treatment centers for adolescents. These treatment centers had historically housed the state’s most troubled foster youth, but lawsuits and investigations had revealed widespread abuse and neglect. To make sure the kids still had a place to go after closing the facilities, the state promised to place all children in foster homes and build a new and improved system of mental health care. But neither of those things had happened.

So where were these kids? After more than nine months of reporting, we found a disturbing answer.

The state’s child welfare agency was dumping some of its most vulnerable foster children—teenagers with complex, trauma-related mental health diagnoses— in youth homeless shelters. These facilities, meant to house runaway youth for a very short period of time, do not offer psychiatric care or other services to help high-needs kids. But because the state has nowhere for them to go, these foster kids are spending months or even years in living in shelters. Some spend their entire teenage years bouncing from one shelter to the next, never receiving the mental health care they were promised. These placements are happening hundreds of times a year.

The result: The kids experience one crisis after another. They run away, attempt suicide and spiral out of control. We found that calls to 911 from shelters housing foster children in New Mexico occur virtually every day, leading to arrests, hospitalizations or incarceration, and more trauma.

The first story in our series shows how this process works, through the story of a young man who was picked up at a psychiatric hospital and dropped at a homeless shelter following a suicide attempt. The second takes a close look at the promises that the state made as part of a legal settlement, and how it has failed to keep those promises. The third story broke the news of a sexual assault that took place in the child welfare agency’s office building—a direct result of the practices we had uncovered. The final story reveals what happens when police, not mental health professionals, respond to teens’ mental health emergencies.