Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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