States Pressed as 3 Boys Die at Boot Camps

New York Times/July 15, 2001
By Michael Janofsky

Salt Lake City -- The death of Tony Haynes, a 14-year-old, in the Arizona desert this month is increasing calls for stronger regulation of outdoor camps for troubled youths, an industry that has grown substantially over the last 20 years.

At least 31 teenagers in 11 states have died at these camps since 1980, including 3 this year, in widely diverse circumstances. In Arizona, investigators said they were told that before Tony Haynes died counselors physically abused him and forced him to eat dirt. In February, Ryan Lewis, a 14- year-old, hanged himself at a wilderness therapy camp in West Virginia. His parents have asserted that the camp operators did not recognize the severity of his depression. That same month in Florida, Michael Wiltsie, 12, died at a camp for troubled boys after a 320-pound counselor restrained him on the ground for nearly 30 minutes.

These are exceptional cases, given the thousands of children each year who attend such camps, normally without incident. Parents who enroll their children and teachers often credit the camps with taking young people away from gangs, drugs and alcohol and instilling in them a new maturity and sense of self-confidence. They operate on the theory that rugged conditions and tough discipline can break antisocial behavior or even criminal habits.

State and local courts also use the programs, as an alternative to jail. Yet the deaths and reports of abuses are putting increased pressure on states to adopt regulations to govern the roughly 400 boot camps operating around the country. While most states have laws against child abuse and endangerment, many do not specifically compel these camps to meet certain standards for procedures and personnel.

"There are significant disparities from state to state," said Kimball DeLaMare, a camp owner in Utah and the chairman of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, a trade group. "Over all, they have not done too much, which is one of the reasons we are trying to develop our own standards."

Arizona is among those states that have done the least. "You have to provide more documents to get a fishing license than to run a camp for young boys," said Chris Cummiskey, a Democratic state senator. "We require nothing to demonstrate you have the qualifications to engage in this type of activity."

Industry officials say they welcome additional governmental scrutiny of the camps, some of which operate on contracts with state prison systems. "Every state that allows wilderness programs needs to have regulations in place," said Mark Lawrence, an owner of a camp in South Carolina and the chairman of the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps, another trade group. "And somebody has to monitor them."

Children's advocates and parents of children who have died under supervision of camp personnel say abuses would end altogether if states got tougher, requiring camp operators to have suitable backgrounds in education, psychology or social work. "This is one of the big gaps and a big part of the problem," said Mark I. Soler, president of the Youth Law Center in Washington, a public interest law firm. "As a result, kids are not protected, and they don't even understand that they have rights. They believe the abusive treatment they get is routine."

Critics also argue that camps should have medical personnel on site, which was not the case when Tony Haynes fell unconscious in the desert. After camp counselors called 911, the boy was driven to a hospital, where he died. Cathy Sutton, who has campaigned for governmental oversight since her 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, died at a Utah camp 11 years ago, said: "The industry is getting so big, it's harder to regulate. That's why we need national regulations for these camps or we should abolish them altogether."

The deaths of Ms. Sutton's daughter and two other young people at Utah outdoor camps in the early 1990's prompted the state to become the first in the nation to put in place rules specifically for the camps. The regulations mandated age and background requirements for counselors, a minimum age of 13 for students, and guidelines for adequate supplies of food, water and even sunscreen. State monitors are required to visit the camps several times a year, sometimes unannounced.

Ken Stettler, who helped develop the rules for the Utah Department of Human Services, conceded that state officials only responded after several children had died, saying, "States tend to be reactionary, rather than proactionary." In the last few years, Mr. Stettler said, he has worked with officials in Nevada and Idaho to draft similar regulations.

Other states where adolescents have died in outdoor programs, including Florida, Texas and Oregon, have also tightened their regulations, he said. The West Virginia Legislature is expected to debate new laws when it convenes next year. But monitoring these camps poses a fiscal burden for states. For that reason, Hawaii has banned outdoor camps, and some states with regulations do not have the resources to enforce them.

In many states, oversight is minimal. In Arizona, where 10 children have died since 1989, the state has not enacted any regulations - despite such highly publicized cases as the 1998 death of Nicholaus Contreraz, 16, which led to murder charges against six staff members at the Arizona Boys Camp in Oracle. The charges were later dropped, but the family won a $1 million settlement of a wrongful-death lawsuit.

"We had extensive hearings and a lot of clamoring to strengthen regulations and oversight," said Mr. Cummiskey, the Arizona legislator, of the response to the deaths. "But we have a Legislature with conservatives who take a skewed view that oversight and regulation should be left to the free market." David Petersen, a Republican state senator, disagreed. "I haven't seen any real efforts by anyone to champion the cause," he said. "Sometimes you need a jolt to drive home the issue. With this latest tragedy, I do believe we will get involved."

For now, the industry is trying to devise its own standards. Of course, meeting those standards - providing doctors and better-trained personnel, for instance - might also increase the cost of running the camps, making them less affordable to poor and middle-income families.

There are also problems that will never be solved through regulation. Michael Conner, who runs a nonprofit consumer protection organization for wilderness therapy programs, said parents had to assume some responsibility for the safety of their children. "The biggest problem is that people don't always know what they're getting into," he said.

Paul and Diana Lewis of East Longmeadow, Mass., learned that problems could arise even after thoroughly investigating a camp. Their son, Ryan, killed himself in February, while attending Alldredge Academy in West Virginia. After being improperly medicated, he cut himself with a knife four times before asking counselors to take the weapon away, Mrs. Lewis said. When he asked to call his parents, his request was denied.

The next day, counselors returned the knife to the boy. Hours later, he was found hanging from a tree not far from the campsite. The authorities ruled it a suicide. Camp officials said they had violated no state regulations.

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