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.