Bill to protect kids in private residential care now in U.S. Senate

by Rita Swan

HR911, Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act, passed the U.S. House on February 23 and is now in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.

[NOTE: To view the text of the bill, click on the “HR911” link above. Then choose Version 3, which is the version that has been sent to the Senate.]

Private residential facilities for problem youths have become a lucrative industry in the past few decades. The industry is poorly and unevenly regulated. Some facilities escape regulation by being called boarding schools even though their real focus is behavior modification rather than education. Some are unregulated because they are wilderness camps. Some are unregulated because youths choose to go there “voluntarily” rather than being kidnapped from their homes by hired escorts. And some are unregulated because they are owned and operated by churches.

Several excellent books have documented abuse and neglect at these facilities. We encourage the media and the public to contact Maia Szalavitz, author of Help at any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids; Michele Ulriksen, author of Reform at Victory: a Survivor’s Story; and Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land.

CHILD has a data base of 115 U.S. young people who have died in residential facilities since 1990. All purported to provide behavior modification or substance abuse treatment. A few are state-run institutions, but most are private. Our data base is not comprehensive and may have only a small fraction of the deaths in the state-run institutions.

As a member of the National Child Abuse Coalition, CHILD asked the coalition to advocate for federal regulation of the industry. The American Bar Association, American Psychological Association, and CHILD were leaders in the coalition’s work on the issue. We had professionals speak to the coalition, met with congressional staffers, compiled data, and distributed research.

Congressman George Miller, D-CA, asked the U.S. Attorney General to investigate abuse and neglect of American youths being held in foreign countries. The Attorney General declined, saying that his authority extended only to investigating abuses by governments not by private companies.

Miller developed a bill to expand his authority to cover the youths abroad and to regulate the industry, but the bill died.

In the next session Miller sponsored another bill regulating the industry in the U.S., but not giving the Attorney General authority to investigate conditions abroad. His staff said it was arguably unconstitutional for the U.S. government to investigate abuses at private facilities in foreign countries—even abuses of minor children who are U.S. citizens.

Miller held two hearings on the bill with dramatic, shocking testimony from families and investigators: Child Abuse and Deceptive Marketing by Residential Programs for Teensand Cases of Child Neglect and Abuse at Private Residential Treatment Facilities. The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate.

The 2009 bill, HR911, outlaws many of the abuses that have caused deaths in these programs. It prohibits disciplinary practices that withhold “essential food, water, clothing, shelter, or medical care.”

It sets limits on the use of physical and mechanical restraints and seclusion.

It requires all staff to be familiar with the signs of and appropriate responses to heatstroke, dehydration, and hypothermia. It requires the program to have policies for the provision of emergency medical care. It requires that youths be allowed to make and receive phone calls with “as much privacy as possible” and be allowed to call the state hotline to report abuses.

HR911 does not exempt church-run facilities from its requirements. It will greatly improve protection for young people in residential care, especially in Missouri, which allows church-run facilities to operate without even sanitation or food safety inspections and which has been a giant magnet for operators of abusive programs who get in trouble elsewhere.

HR911 is now in the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee whose members are Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Chris Dodd (D-CT), Tom Harkin (D-IA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Sherrod Brown (D-OH, Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Richard Burr (R-NC), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Pat Roberts (R-KS), John McCain (R-AZ), and Tom Coburn (R-OK).

We urge the public to contact the U.S. Senate in support of HR911 especially if they live in a state represented by members of the Senate HELP Committee.

Resources on abuse and neglect in therapeutic residential care for young people include Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic & Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment, Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse, and International Survivors Action Committee.

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