New Efforts to Crack Down on Residential Programs for Troubled Teens

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The first legislation aimed at regulating residential programs for troubled teens was introduced on Thursday in the House and the Senate. The bill would crack down on hundreds of programs housing thousands of teens, many of which use punishing “tough love” regimes found to include physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2011 was sponsored in the House by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and in the Senate by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). A previous version of the bill passed the House twice, but was never introduced in the Senate (at the time, the relevant Senate committee was focused on President Obama’s health care legislation).

The legislation would prohibit sexual, physical and emotional abuse and would ban the use of deprivation — of food, sleep, clothing and shelter, for example — as punishment or for any other reason. The use of physical restraint would be permitted only for safety, and all programs would be required to provide residents with “reasonable” access to a telephone. It would require staff to be educated about what specifically counts as child abuse and how to report it, and mandate programs to disclose staff qualifications to parents.

Investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2007-08 found dozens of deaths related to abuse at such residential programs, along with thousands of further allegations, many confirmed, of abuse. GAO investigators posing as parents also discovered widespread use of fraudulent marketing practices.

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“The culture of abuse and neglect at some of these programs is simply unacceptable, as is the inadequate staff training, regulation and state oversight. Every day we wait to take action is another day that the safety of teenagers is in jeopardy,” said Miller. “I hope my Republican colleagues will join me in helping put an end to these horrific abuses that put the lives of too many children in danger.”

Republicans, however, oppose additional federal regulations and believe these programs should be overseen by the states. “Ensuring the safety of the nation’s youth is a priority for Americans on both sides of the political divide. We have learned a great deal about the abuse and neglect of troubled youth who live at residential treatment facilities,” said Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, adding, “These at-risk youth deserve strong protections and we must ensure federal policies do not undermine the central responsibility of state and local leaders to ensure their safety and hold abusers accountable.”

In 2009, I reported for TIME on allegations of sexual abuse at Mount Bachelor Academy, a residential program in Oregon owned by Aspen Education, the largest national operator of residential teen centers, which include wilderness programs and “emotional growth” boarding schools.

A state investigation that followed my article found that Mount Bachelor’s treatment regime was “punitive, humiliating, degrading and traumatizing” and included “sexualized role play in front of staff and students.” In March, the state also substantiated claims that neglect led to the death of a teen in another Aspen program, Sage Walk. That program had been featured on a short-lived reality show called “Brat Camp.”

But while Oregon has some oversight of these programs, in many states, there is none at all. Nail salons and dog grooming outfits are, in fact, more strictly regulated than troubled teen programs, which routinely use corporal punishment and isolation in the guise of treatment.

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Cynthia Clark Harvey, whose daughter Erica died of heatstroke and dehydration after staff members of the Catherine Freer Wilderness program she attended insisted that she was faking her problems, testified during the first Congressional hearings held on the issue. “I support the legislation because it preserves true parental rights: the right to free and unmonitored communication with your child, the right to family-centered treatment and the right to know there are national standards that any program must adhere to,” she said.

The new bill is supported by the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Welfare League and the American Association of Children’s Residential Centers. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, an industry group, has said it supports the “intent” of the legislation but opposes federal regulation.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.