New Abuse Allegations Arise at Drug Treatment Programs Owned by Bain Capital

What will it take to stop the abuse and neglect of residents at drug-treatment centers, whose unproven practices go largely unnoticed because of lax regulations?

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In an extensive expose published this week, Salon uncovered new allegations of abuse and neglect of teenagers and adult patients — some leading to death — at drug-treatment centers owned by CRC Health, which is in turn owned by Bain Capital, the private equity firm formerly managed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In previous reports, TIME has also investigated the so-called troubled-teen industry, revealing maltreatment at the residential treatment center Mount Bachelor Academy (now closed), where counselors subjected residents to sexualized role play under the guise of treatment, and the Sage Walk wilderness program, where neglect led to the death of a teen in 2009. Both programs are owned by Aspen Education, a subsidiary of CRC Health.

Now, Salon’s Art Levine reports that new allegations of abuse have arisen at Aspen programs and other CRC-owned centers:

Our investigation found previously unreported allegations of abuse and neglect in at least 10 CRC residential drug and teen care facilities across the country, including three I visited undercover in Utah and California. With rare exceptions, such incidents have largely escaped notice because the programs are, thanks to lax state regulations, largely unaccountable.

Court documents and ex-staffers also allege that such incidents reflect, in part, a broader corporate culture at Aspen’s owner, CRC Health Group, a leading national chain of treatment centers. Lawsuits and critics have claimed that CRC prizes profits, and the avoidance of outside scrutiny, over the health and safety of its clients. (We sent specific questions on these basic allegations to CRC and owner Bain Capital. CRC would answer only general questions; Bain did not reply.)

And CRC’s corporate culture, in turn, reflects the attitudes and financial imperatives of Bain Capital, the private equity firm founded by Mitt Romney. (The Romney campaign also did not reply to written questions.) Bain is known for its relentless obsession with maximizing shareholder value and revenues.

(MORE: Teens Made to Do Lap Dances as ‘Therapy’ at Mount Bachelor Academy)

The systemic nature of abuse at these programs also stems from the ideology behind most addiction treatment programs in America, which as a recent report from the National Center on Substance Abuse and Addiction at Columbia University showed, are not evidence-based. Addiction treatment is largely underregulated in the U.S. and typically escapes being held to any national standard of care; many centers use unproven “tough love” techniques that fail to adhere to what the scientific evidence shows is effective for addiction.

Over the decades, dozens of teens have died in such tough-love boot-camp-style programs. In many cases, the staff are underqualified and are taught to dismiss residents’ medical complaints as “manipulation” or “faking”; when people’s lives are in danger, it’s often noticed too late. Several investigations [PDF] by the Government Accountability Office have uncovered thousands of allegations of abuse and neglect at unregulated treatment centers; many claims have been substantiated in court or by belated regulatory actions.

The residential-treatment industry has long lobbied against any type of regulation. Currently stalled in Congress are bills that would prohibit humiliating and degrading treatment and corporal punishment and provide an abuse reporting hotline for residents who feel they are being harmed. For now, these techniques are still used regularly to treat drug addiction and behavioral problems, despite an utter lack of evidence that they work.

Perhaps the white-hot spotlight of a Presidential campaign will finally prompt enough outrage to make the public demand an end to the deaths and abuse. (Read the entire Salon expose here.)

(MORE: Internet Activism Helps Shutter Abuse ‘Troubled Teen’ Boot Camps)

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