Report Recounts Horrors of Youth Boot Camps

The New York Times/October 11, 2007

Washington — Reports of abuse of troubled young people in privately run boot camps and other residential treatment centers are widespread, with examples numbering in the thousands, according to a federal report released Wednesday.

The report also found that managers of these programs, which are largely unregulated, faced little or no punishment for their actions.

The report, by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, examined the cases of 10 teenagers who died while at programs in six states, finding "significant evidence of ineffective management" and "reckless or negligent operating practices." The report detailed evidence that teenagers were starved, forced to eat their own vomit, and to wallow for hours in their own excrement.

In one instance, a boy was so dehydrated that he ate dirt to survive, according to witnesses and an autopsy.

Investigators also found that owners and employees were seldom sent to prison, even when teenagers died in their care. Five of these programs are still in operation, some under new names or in other states.

The report was released at an emotionally wrenching hearing of the House education committee, where lawmakers heard from the parents of three teenagers who died. Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is head of the committee, said he planned to introduce legislation early next year to create a federal role in regulating the industry, a move that the ranking Republican, Representative Howard P. McKeon of California, said he would most likely support.

The report is a harsh rebuke to industry defenders, like the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, a trade group that has dismissed accusations of abuse and death as "the noisy complaints of a few individuals." Its director, Jan Moss, told lawmakers Wednesday that the group did not police its members but that she would take the findings of the federal report to her board to "review them in depth."

Residential treatment programs for troubled teenagers seek to straighten out these youths far from home by forcing them into wilderness settings and exposing them to harsh behavior modification techniques. About 10,000 to 20,000 young people are enrolled in these programs, which cost from $130 to $450 a day, the report said. Some receive federal money for special education and other services, but they face no federal oversight. While some states regulate them closely, others do not even require that they be licensed.

Mr. Miller compared conditions in these programs to torture. "If you walked into this room, you'd think we were talking about human rights abuses in third world countries," he said.

Lawmakers heard from the parents of Aaron Bacon, who died at 16 while at the Northstar Expeditions in Escalante, Utah. Speaking before photographs of his emaciated son taken an hour before his death, his eyes dark pools of pain, Aaron's father, Robert, said the boy had been starved, with his weight falling to 108 pounds from 130 in just three weeks. He was 5 feet 11 ½ inches tall, and wrote poetry. His parents said they saw Northstar as a place that would distance Aaron from negative influences at his high school, where he had begun dabbling in drugs.

But a "bloody and tattered journal" he was forced to keep as part of his therapy contained, instead of poetry, "an unbelievable account of torture, abuse and neglect," Mr. Bacon said. Aaron had spent 14 of 20 days "without any food whatsoever," while being forced to hike 8 to 10 miles a day. "On the days he did have food, it consisted of undercooked lentils, lizards, scorpions, trail mix and a celebrated canned peach on the 13th" day, Mr. Bacon said.

"I feel I sent my son to his death, to a program that now I know couldn't have provided any of the services they promised," he said, his voice cracking.

Gregory D. Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations at the accounting office, also testified. He said Aaron was beaten "from the top of his head to the tip of his toes" during his month in the program.

Northstar's owner, William Henry, and four employees pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in 1994, but none served time in prison, with Mr. Henry receiving three years' probation and community service. The program has since shut down.

Mr. Kutz said that because no agency or registry tracked the industry, it was impossible to say how many programs existed, how much money they collected or how frequently abuse occurred. But in 2005 alone, his report found, "33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse and neglect."

The director of the trade group, Ms. Moss, came under blistering attack at the hearing. Three of the programs that federal investigators examined in the deaths of teenagers — where staff members dismissed dehydration, head trauma and other health crises as signs of manipulative behavior — remained members of the association, even after the deaths.

Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, said wilderness programs used membership in the association as a kind of "Good Housekeeping seal of approval," luring parents with a false sense of security.

The group does not independently investigate accusations of abuse, Ms. Moss said. But by 2009, she said, it will require members to have a trained clinician on staff, and meet other professional standards.

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