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US Congressional investigations don't stop abusive rehab centers

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Message Janet Parker

A recent report by the US Congress revealed that there are significant problems in the "teen rehabilitation" industry, including a general lack of oversight and accountability. In 2009 there were Capitol Hill briefings related to abuse of teens in facilities run by WWASPS and other programs. [i] The US House, led by Congressman George Miller, conducted investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) during the 110th Congress (2008). These uncovered thousands of cases alleging child abuse and neglect since the early 1990's at teen residential programs. Further, the investigation revealed that currently these programs are governed only by a weak patchwork of state and federal standards. A separate GAO report, [ii] conducted at the committee's request, found major gaps in the licensing and oversight of residential programs, including some programs not covered by any state licensing standards. GAO concluded that, without adequate oversight, "the well-being and civil rights of youth in some facilities will remain at risk." State-reported data to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2005 found that 34 states in the United States of America (USA) reported 1503 incidents of youth maltreatment by residential facility staff. Of the states surveyed by GAO, 28 reported at least one youth fatality in a residential facility in 2006. GAO concluded that both of these statistics understate the incidents of maltreatment and death. They emphasized that many facilities are outside the scope of this limited study and many still remain unregulated and uninspected. [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii]

In 1971, the US Senate Judiciary Committee convened a sub-committee on constitutional rights under Senator Sam Ervin to investigate government's role in behavior modification. Senator Ervin's 650-page report was published in November 1974 under the title "Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification." [viii]

The US Congress previously examined problems in The SEED [ix] [x] [xi] and then in later residential treatment programs. These later substance abuse treatment programs were modeled on the Synanon program, [xii] [xiii] [xiv] [xv] [xvi] [xvii] the SEED and Straight Inc. Each time, the offending substance abuse treatment program was shut down. However, new programs rapidly emerged with new legal identities to start the same kind of operation. There are now even more programs reported to be abusive, despite numerous local, state and federal investigations. Those who have been victimized in one of these facilities are frustrated and dismayed to realize that not even several US Congressional investigations can prevent the recurrence of the same kind of abuse. Although Straight Inc. programs were closed, the governing principles remain a model for drug rehabilitation. It is a national disgrace that the abuse of children in residential centers has not stopped. Rather, governmental sanction hides its true nature from law enforcement and regulators. [xviii] Abusive teen rehabilitation centers are now more numerous and the industry remains unregulated by state or federal law. The list includes: Synanon, The SEED, WWASPS, Rebekah/Roloff Homes, KIDS, Straight Inc. and its derivatives, CEDU Brown Schools, Aspen Education Group, Daytop Villages, Kids Helping Kids, Hyde Schools, Ridge Creek School/Hidden Lake, Mission Mountain School, Vision Quest, Growing Together/L.I.F.E. and many others.

There are no adequate means to monitor these facilities for human rights abuses. They have used political influence and power to prevent effective regulation and inspection of their facilities. They deny Child Protective Services (CPS) access to investigate child abuse complaints. [xix]

To understand the background, it is useful to trace development of public policy related to these residential treatment programs in order to recognize how they managed to evade public scrutiny and government control.

On October 10-11, 2007, the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor heard testimony about cases of child neglect and abuse. Among cases investigated were the Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Programs, a private residential treatment facility in the Pacific Northwest. [xx] [xxi]

This problem is not limited to the United States of America. These abusive methods have been exported to many countries in the world. The Bergen KIDS program has been transplanted to Alberta, Canada as The Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC). [xxii] The Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre [xxiii] is a drug abuse rehabilitation clinic for teenagers and adolescents in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. AARC has been the subject of controversy in Canada over allegations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse made by former patients. This has led to widespread protests against AARC, and calls for a government inquiry by Alberta's provincial New Democratic Party. [xxiv]

US citizens had been transported over international boundaries and taken to facilities in Mexico such as Abundant Life. [xxv] The children were found to be abused there. Mexican immigration officials of the Instituto National de Migracion (INM) raided the facilities and deported the children back to the U.S.A. Mexican authorities cited immigration violations for the clients, and also immigration violations related to the staff of these facilities. There was lack of proper municipal licensure of these facilities. They had not obtained the requisite approval of health and education authorities in Mexico. In addition, the teen "clients" of these facilities described habitual mistreatment during their illegal detention. They were denied access to communication with persons outside the facilities. In 2004, the Mexican government rounded up 590 US teenagers, who had been placed in institutions throughout Mexico, without proper immigration paperwork. These children were considered "troubled teens" by their American parents. They were sent to these locked facilities in a foreign country for treatment of problems with behavior and parental authority.

Hon. George Miller, Chair of the Committee on Education and Labor in the U.S. House of Representatives initiated the legislation, Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2009 H.R. 911 (formerly H.R. 6358, H.R. 5876). U.S. Representative Miller had received a shocking report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding abusive and neglectful treatment of children in residential programs. [xxvii] The report also contained information about fraudulent practices of these institutions. Subsequent investigations and GAO reports indicate that there is a widespread problem of abuse in the residential treatment industry which has flourished due to a lack of government regulation, inspection and accountability. [xxviii] [xxix] [xxx] [xxxi

There was very disturbing testimony provided to the US Congress about the pervasiveness of the abuse and the failure to curb it by Health and Human Services or the Department of Justice. [xxxii] Video tapes of those testimonies can be seen here. [xxxiii] After much discussion and deliberation The House of Representatives approved legislation to Stop Child Abuse in Teen Residential Programs. The bill was intended to ensure that parents have information they need to keep their children safe. [xxxiv] [xxxv] [xxxvi] [xxxvii] [xxxviii]

The U.S. Senate has not moved to act on the bill or to draft suitable legislation to stop further abusive practices in the teen residential treatment industry.

[i] Washington, D.C., U.S.A., Capitol Hill Briefing - February 2009, Abuse of Youth in Residential Placements: A Call to Action, The growth of the troubled teen industry, including wilderness camps, therapeutic boarding schools, and boot camps, has given rise to allegations of inhumane treatment of youth, and exploitation of families who are desperately seeking help for their teenagers. This topic, previously the subject of two hearings in Congress and two special reports by the GAO, was examined further on Feb. 19th 2009, at a meeting sponsored by the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment on (ASTART) and co-sponsored by the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY), on Capitol Hill. CAFETY is a youth-driven, grassroots organization dedicated to the protection of the human rights of youth placed in residential programs. ASTART, Bob Friedman, Ph.D., A START Coordinator,

[ii] Final GAO Report on Residential Facilities (Full Report) (May 2008) Residential Facilities: Improved data and enhanced oversight would help safeguard the well-being of youth with behavioral and emotional challenges, Report to Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives [PDF, 95 pages], .

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