Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Congress investigates teen boot camp abuse

October 10, 2007

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WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct. 10, 2007 (NBC) -- Desperate to help their troubled children, many parents have turned to so-called wilderness boot camps.

But a new study out Wednesday by the federal government warns that thousands of kids are being abused in the mostly unregulated programs and at least ten have died. Some lawmakers want the federal government to step in and stop what they call institutionalized child abuse.

The problem goes back at least to the 1990's, when Aaron Bacon died at a boot camp in Utah. Concerned about his pot smoking, Aaron's parents sent him for what they thought would be wilderness self-awareness. In fact, his father testified Wednesday, Aaron was force marched and starved to death.

Aaron's father, Bob Bacon said he suffered "twenty one days of ruthless and relentless physical and psychological abuse and neglect."

The government study released Wednesday found ten boot camp deaths.

Gregory Kutz of the General Accountability Office said, "Many of these kids died slowly while program management and staff continued to believe that they were faking it."

Erica Harvey collapsed and died at her Nevada camp in 2002.

Security video shows 14 year old Martin Anderson after being beaten in a Florida program last year. He died after the beating. Eight employees are on trial for manslaughter in that case.

The new study says parents of troubled teens are desperate.

The websites of camps like Alldredge Academy are reassuring. The programs look safe. But Alldredge was ordered closed after the suicide of 14-year-old, Ryan Lewis, who earlier slashed his arm.

Ryan's dad Paul Lewis said, "Ryan was ignored and consequently at 730 on a cold rainy night, desperate, alone and abandoned our son hung himself."

Alldredge has reopened.

An association of residential programs says it's cracking down. Jan Moss, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs said, "Clearly we still have a very long way to go."

Right now it is the states that regulate, or don't regulate, these tough love programs. Some lawmakers want to change that so that all boot camps are regulated.

GAO finds abuses at 'tough love' camps for troubled kids

By Ken Dilanian, USA TODAY
October 10, 2007

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress from both parties reacted with outrage Wednesday to wrenching testimony from parents of children who died in residential programs for troubled teens, saying a federal law may be needed to remedy a lack of oversight.
"I can't think of any testimony that we have heard in this committee that has caused a greater sense of anger and sorrow," said Democrat George Miller of California, chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor, moments after hearing three parents recount the deaths of their teenagers in wilderness therapy programs designed to help them.

Rep. Buck McKeon, the ranking Republican, said he does not like to expand the role of the federal government, "but there are some times when it has to happen."

VIDEO: Parents detail torture at boot camps

Several states don't regulate private wilderness programs, boot camps and therapeutic boarding schools, which enroll thousands of children each year and have been the subject of what the Government Accountability Office (GAO) called "widespread" allegations of abuse and neglect. No law prevents operators who have been disciplined in one state from setting up shop in another — something investigators say happens often.

Jan Moss, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, said the industry wants state regulation. Her group represents 180 facilities that serve 16,000 children.

"Among our goals is the complete elimination of the abuses and neglectful practices we have heard about today," she said. "Clearly, we have a long way to go."

The GAO on Wednesday presented the committee with the results of their investigation into the industry. The congressional investigative agency selected 10 deaths to examine in depth and found reckless practices, inadequate training and misleading marketing. It also found what Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa., called "horrific" examples of abuse.

"If you walked in partway through my presentation, you might have assumed I was talking about human rights violations in a Third World country," said Gregory Kutz, a GAO investigator.

Kutz said there is no comprehensive nationwide data on deaths and injuries in residential treatment programs. The GAO identified 1,619 incidents of child abuse in such settings that were reported to the Department of Health and Human Services in 2005, but reporting is voluntary and not all states comply. Auditors found thousands of allegations in lawsuits, websites and state records, he said.

"Examples of abuse include youth being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or feces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground," Kutz said, adding that one teen was reportedly "forced to use a toothbrush to clean a toilet, then forced to use that toothbrush on their own teeth."

In several cases examined by the GAO, staff was untrained to detect medical emergencies. "As a result, many of these kids died slowly while program management and staff continued to believe that they were faking it," Kutz said.

Kutz spoke forcefully, more in the manner of a prosecutor than a government auditor. Among the slides he presented to lawmakers was the grisly photo of a 15-year-old California girl who was left for 18 hours on a dirt road after collapsing from dehydration in 1990.

The three parents who testified — Bob Bacon, Cynthia Harvey and Paul Lewis — each choked up as they told of sending their troubled teenagers against their will into "tough love" wilderness programs. Each warned parents to avoid such programs until government rules can assure parents they are safe.

"His mother and I will never escape our decision to send our gifted 16-year-old son to his death," Bacon said, speaking of son Aaron, who died from an untreated perforated ulcer after weeks of punishing physical activity with very little food. "We were conned by their fraudulent claims and will go to our graves regretting our gullibility

Tough-Love Teen Camps A "Nightmare"

The Skinny: Inquiry Into Boot Camps For Trouble Teens Finds Many Abuses, GAO Report Says
By Keach Heagy
CBS News
October 10, 2007

For years, people have complained about abuses at so-called boot camps and other wilderness programs where frustrated parents send their troubled teens to get straightened out.

Today, USA Today gets a sneak peak at the findings from the first federal inquiry into the programs, and the results reveal a lot of tough love -- minus the love.

The Government Accountability Office cataloged 1,619 incidents of abuse in 33 states in 2005, according to a study to be released later today. It also looked at a sample of 10 deaths since 1990 and found untrained staff, inadequate food or reckless operations were factors. In half of those cases, the teens died of dehydration or heat exhaustion.

"This nightmare has remained an open secret for years," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, who has designed a bill to encourage states to enact regulations. "Congress must act, and it must act swiftly."

Investigators counted thousands of cases of abuse, using Web sites and news reports. Five of the 10 programs where teens died are still operating.
The GAO didn't release names, but USA Today pieced together a few of the cases from news reports.

In one particularly haunting case, Anthony Haynes, 14, died in 2001 while at American Buffalo Soldiers boot camp in Arizona. Children there were fed an apple for breakfast, a carrot for lunch and a bowl of beans for dinner.

Haynes became dehydrated in 113-degree heat and vomited up dirt, according to witnesses. The program closed, and the director, Charles Long, was sentenced in 2005 to six years in prison for manslaughter.

U.S. Rep wants fed probe of Mo. boot-camp death

By Megan Boehnke

WASHINGTON -- A powerful U.S. House member called today for the Justice Department to look into the death of a 15-year-old boy at a Missouri “boot camp” in 2004 following release of a report that pointed to evidence of abuse.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the Education and Labor Chairman, asserted during a hearing that conditions in many residential treatment programs – better known as youth boot camps – are “inhumane.”

He said he hopes the Justice Department will examine the fatality at the Thayer Learning Boot Camp and Boarding School in northwest Missouri considering that no criminal charges ever were filed.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, studied the Missouri case and others for a report released on Wednesday.

The GAO said it had found thousands of allegations of abuse at the boot camps and closely examined ten cases in which teen-agers enrolled in the programs had died, including the case at Thayer.

“Ineffective program management played a key role in most of these deaths, Greg Kutz, who led the investigation, testified. Advertisement

Kutz said later in an interview that the Missouri death was “one of the worst three” of the cases.

Roberto Reyes, of Santa Rosa, Calif., had been at Thayer Learning Boot Camp and Boarding School in Kidder, for less than a week when he died after being bitten by a spider in November 2004, according to his autopsy. The Caldwell County coroner said at the time that the autopsy concluded that the death was an accident and said Reyes could have been bitten before he arrived at the camp.

The GAO report presented to the committee yesterday said Reyes had more than 30 cuts and bruises on his body when he died. The staff had interpreted Reyes’ symptoms – including falling down frequently, complaining of muscle soreness, vomiting and involuntarily urinating and defecating on himself – as rebellion.

After complaining of illness, Reyes was forced to the ground and held there on several occasions, according to the report. On one occasion, he had a 20-pound sandbag tied around his neck when he was too sick to exercise.

Reyes was placed in the “sick bay” the morning of the day he died, where a staff member checked on him mid-afternoon and found he had no pulse. The staff then called 911 and Reyes was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

A state investigation found that Reyes might have survived if he had earlier medical attention and that records at the camp may have been falsified. No criminal charges were ever filed, though Reyes’ parents filed a wrongful death suit that was settled out of court for about $1 million, according to the GAO.

Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby abducted: Devlin Gets Life Sentences in Abuse Case

By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD, Associated Press Writer
3 hours ago

ST. LOUIS - The long trail of pain inflicted by Michael Devlin drew toward a close with him describing in court how he assaulted an abducted boy, seemingly oblivious to the anguished parents seated in the courtroom for his confession.

Devlin has received dozens of life sentences after pleading guilty to child kidnapping and sodomy charges in state proceedings related to his abduction and sexual abuse of young Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby.

After recounting some of his acts during testimony given just feet away Shawn's weeping parents Tuesday, Devlin faces additional charges in federal court Wednesday morning. He is expected to plead guilty to charges of videotaping himself torturing Shawn after kidnapping him, and transporting the boy across state lines.

The hearing will be the last in a series of proceedings this week that revealed how he kidnapped Shawn and turned him into a captive who was forced to follow Devlin's horrific orders to stay alive.

Devlin also admitted abducting and abusing Ben before both victims were discovered alive in Devlin's apartment.

The hearings were part of an elaborate deal his attorneys struck in four jurisdictions where Devlin was charged with more than 80 counts, including sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder.

Devlin's life sentences assure he will spend the rest of his life in prison. He is expected to serve his time in the state prison system.

Devlin said through his attorneys that he accepted his punishment because he knew what he did was wrong _ a statement quickly dismissed by prosecutors and the boys' families.

"He pleaded guilty because he does not want the world to know the full extent of what he did," said St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch.

Prosecutors laid out new evidence showing that Devlin tortured Shawn during his first days in captivity and made the boy promise not to flee in order to stay alive. It was a "devil's bargain" that kept Shawn under Devlin's sway for more than four years, even when the boy had phone and Internet access, said Shawn's stepfather, Craig Akers.

"We know now the details that made him not run away," Akers said after the hearings.

Devlin pleaded guilty to six counts at a Washington County hearing Tuesday, accepting the maximum sentence of three life terms in prison plus 60 years for kidnapping, sexually assaulting and attempting to murder Shawn in 2002.

During that hearing, Devlin admitted in graphic detail how he abducted Shawn in 2002 and described the point at which Shawn apparently turned from a kidnap victim into a powerless captive.

After Shawn was abducted at gunpoint while riding his bike in rural Washington County, Devlin took the then-11-year-old boy to his apartment in suburban St. Louis where he repeatedly sexually assaulted him. Days later, Devlin took Shawn back to rural Washington County in his pickup truck, apparently intent on killing the boy.

He said he pulled Shawn from his truck and began to strangle him, but Shawn resisted.

"I attempted to kill (Shawn) and he talked me out of it," Devlin said.

Devlin stopped the choking, but then sexually assaulted the boy again. Prosecutors say Shawn told Devlin he would do whatever was asked of him to stay alive.

Prosecutors also said that Devlin began abusing Ben Ownby immediately after abducting him Jan. 8. Devlin abused the boy each day until authorities found Ben and Shawn in Devlin's apartment and rescued them Jan. 12, as Devlin, a pizzeria manager, worked the day shift at his shop.

After the Washington County hearing, Devlin pleaded guilty to 71 counts in St. Louis County Circuit Court _ two counts of kidnapping and 69 counts of forcible sodomy of Ben and Shawn. He was then sentenced to 18 consecutive life sentences in St. Louis County. He pleaded guilty to other charges at a hearing in Franklin County on Monday.

Rupp said he was satisfied with the sentences. "You heard it from his own mouth. You've heard what kind of a monster he is."

While it is The Associated Press' policy not to identify suspected victims of sexual abuse in most cases, the story of Shawn and Ben has been widely publicized and their names are well known.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Congressional Hearing: Tough Love or Teen Torment: Will the Industry Finally Be Regulated?

Posted October 8, 2007
By Maia Szalavitz

Congress is finally looking into the "troubled teen" industry and the deaths, human rights abuses and other problems that have occurred in teen "boot camps" "wilderness programs" and other "tough love" residential settings. In many states, these institutions are less regulated than dog kennels and nail salons.

On Wednesday, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, will hold a full committee investigative hearing and present results from a Government Accountability Office report that he commissioned. The investigation promises to be revealing-- and may be highly unfavorable to industry claims that it can regulate itself.

My book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), was the first to expose systematic problems in the industry and the complete lack of regulatory oversight on programs that are essentially private jails for kids. The book helped spur Miller's push for legislation.

As it stands now, there is more federal regulation protecting mule deer than there is preserving the rights of children in these institutions. Anyone can open one-- there are no qualifications required, nor criminal background checks. Some owners have even made deals with prosecutors and regulators to stay away from their facilities, due to accusations of sexual and other kinds of child abuse. But they were not made to leave the industry!

And no legal authority is required to inspect these facilities or see to it that kids are well-treated in them.

Teens placed in these settings do not have any right to appeal their confinement: they may be held without contact with the outside world until they turn 18.

Moreover, in the programs, they are often subject to "therapies" that many consider torturous: food deprivation, sleep deprivation, total isolation, punitive restraint and constant emotional and even sexual humiliation. When such tactics are used on suspected terrorists, there is a human rights outcry-- but these programs have done everything short of water-boarding kids with impunity for decades.

For example, one girl was made to dress as a prostitute, wearing a nametag that said "Shameful Slut." "Slut, 25 cents" was written on her skin in lipstick. Boys had to yell "slut" and "ho" and "bitch" at her. Others were made to wear diapers and boys were dressed in drag and called "faggot." In another program, a girl was gagged with Kotex; another was made to clean toilets with her bare hands. Some children had to use their toothbrushes first to scrub the floors, then their teeth.

That's not to mention the dozens of gruesome deaths that have occurred because "tough love" ideology does not accept the idea that teens ever have legitimate medical complaints. One boy lost control of his urine and bowels as he began to die-- and was humiliated for it by program staff, saying he was doing it deliberately. Another, also accused of faking, had two and a half quarts of pus in his chest when he was autopsied.

Right now, of course, seven boot camp guards and a nurse in Florida are on trial for manslaughter in another death-- that of a 14-year-old boy who couldn't complete required exercises and was beaten and forced to inhale ammonia to prove he wasn't faking. He died proving it.

I hope that these hearings will bring national attention to this issue. Hundreds of thousands of teens have been sent over the last 30 years-- and the industry continues to grow. There is no proof that its "product" helps anyone-- and a great deal of research suggesting that the programs may be causing significant harm.

We don't allow amateurs to diagnose and treat physical illnesses-- so why are we letting untrained people have total control, with no checks and balances, over vulnerable teens who have no way of contesting their confinement? I will have more after the hearings.

Abuse allegations, apathy show need for ‘boot camp’ regulations

October 7, 2007

Perhaps a federal investigation will lead to better protection for children in Missouri boarding schools. Officials in the state have failed miserably in their role.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is interviewing students and employees of Thayer Learning Center, a “boot camp” for troubled teenagers in Kidder, Mo., about 50 miles north of Kansas City.

A 15-year-old boy died there in 2004. A coroner said the most likely cause was a spider or insect bite, but a state investigation found that the center denied proper medical care to Roberto Reyes, who was weak and ill in the days before his death.

A 2005 investigation by The Kansas City Star found that at least seven people had reported abuse allegations to the Caldwell County sheriff’s office in a period of a little over two years.

Employees alleged that teenagers were doused with cold water while tied up on a concrete floor and denied access to bathrooms. One girl was forced to sit in a tub of urine, and a boy was tethered to a four-wheeler and dragged on a sand track, according to the allegations. Thayer’s owners have denied all charges.

The sheriff’s office turned the reports over to Jason Kanoy, who at the time was serving as Caldwell County prosecutor.

Kanoy’s handling of the allegations can most charitably be described as apathetic. He appeared to do little work on the case and chose not to take advantage of assistance offered by Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office. Kanoy has since been elected associate judge in Caldwell County.

His successor as prosecutor, Brady Kopek, told The Star he is investigating a recent report by a former Thayer employee, who alleged that a student was choked and brutalized by a “drill sergeant.”

Despite the serious concerns about Thayer, the Missouri legislature continues to resist calls to require such boarding schools to be licensed and inspected.

The federal probe of Thayer and other “boot-camp” programs was requested by U.S. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat. Miller wants Congress to mandate close oversight of the programs.

Based on the allegations of abuse at Thayer — and the reluctance of state and local officials to take them seriously — that remedy appears appropriate.