After reports that a teen died at an Arizona boot camp after being forced to eat mud and march in 100 degree heat, supporters of the youth programs say they get a bad rap.
Anthony Haynes died July 1 while at an Arizona boot camp operated by the America's Buffalo Soldiers Re-enactors Association.
The investigation into his death is ongoing, but sources close to the camp said Haynes was also deprived of food and water and forced to stand in the sun for hours without water. Former camp drill instructors have said that counselors often kicked the youths, and the boys' daily diet consisted of only an apple, a carrot and a bowl of beans.
Haynes' death is only one of several examples of alleged abuse which have brought boot camps under scrutiny in recent years. In July 1999, a 14-year-old girl died after a forced run at a South Dakota state-run girls' boot camp. In 1998, a 16-year-old boy died of a heart attack at the privately run Arizona Boys Ranch near Oracle, Ariz.
In Florida that same year, a 16-year-old committed suicide after being assigned to a juvenile boot camp.
Despite these deaths and allegations of abuse, some experts say parents should not fear state-run or the private boot camps.
"It [abuse] occurs very rarely, death even more rarely," said R. Dean Wright, professor of sociology at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "Anytime you have a situation where there's any kind of procedure and heavy regiment involved, inevitably something is going to happen."
Col. Phil Torres doesn't even want the state-run military structured program he helps operate in Kenbridge, Va., to be called a "boot camp." He dreads the inevitable comparisons.
"It's devastating," said Torres, director of Rebound Camp Kenbridge. "Anytime there's a serious incident, people do not differentiate from one program in another state to another program in another state. They like to lump us all in the same category."
Fall From Grace
The first juvenile boot camp opened in Orleans Parish, La., in 1985, modeled after the first prison boot camp that had been established for adults in Georgia in 1983. It paved the way — and provided a model for — other camps that were opened nationwide over the next 10 years.
At first, the camps had the full support of the public and state legislators. The image of juvenile offenders being rehabilitated and disciplined by barking drill sergeants gave the public evidence that juvenile crime (albeit non-violent offenders who had not been previously incarcerated) was being fought successfully, without the use of prisons.
Legislators were encouraged by boot camps' cost effectiveness. According to the Koch Crime Institute, the majority of boot camps run programs lasting three-to-six months. A year of treating a juvenile costs $33,480 compared to $47,400 at a traditional facility.
"Legislators were in favor of boot camps because it was a relatively cheap thing to do and the public liked it — they could see that something was being done about juvenile crime," said Mike Slusher, vice president of operations at the Koch Institute. "But when a few incidents occur, things can change."
When allegations of abuse emerged and deaths were reported, boot camps began to lose favor. And then debate emerged over their effectiveness. Despite the rigors of the programs, there is a high recidivism rate among participants in boot camps.
A 1998 report by the Kansas-based Koch Crime Institute found that between 64 percent and 75 percent of those who participated in juvenile boot camps committed crimes shortly after completing their programs.
Children's advocates say the recidivism rates and abuse allegations prove that juvenile boot camps just don't work.
"It's a question of what you expect them to do," said Mark Soler, president of the Washington-based Youth Law Center. "If you expect them to reduce the recidivism rate, then by that criteria they do not work. The only thing I can see that they've done is provide that they've provided a supposedly more regulated program that puts a child through rigorous training in less time, making them cost effective."
"But in terms of rehabilitating youngsters over the long term and making them into productive citizens, it has failed," Soler said. "It has only lent to excessive use of force and punishment on kids that has failed to do anyone any good. Unfortunate incidents like that in Arizona are not the first that we've heard about."
Force Does Not Equal Rehabilitation
Soler and other child advocates believe that boot camps are only a quick fix, across-the-board way of dealing with troubled teens that do not address their individual problems.
Boot camps, he said, shows children that they cannot beat authority but it doesn't necessarily show them the benefits of doing the right thing or give them the choice to make right and wrong decisions. He also noted that many boot camps do not take violent child offenders or the most troubled children because they believe they are the most difficult to rehabilitate.
"Often the rationale is to get them before they get to the state where they're violent offenders," said Soler. "But there have been studies that show that that doesn't work."
Scandals and an apparent lack of effectiveness turned some legislators against state-run boot camps. Wisconsin and Florida nearly withdrew funding for their programs; Georgia and Arizona eliminated their state-run programs in 1999 and 1996 respectively.
Soler believes small, community-based programs that do not isolate kids from the communities are the best way to rehabilitate troubled teens.
"There's been a lot of research on what kind of programs work," Soler said. "They have small staffs, with a small staff-to-child ratio, and a program very focused individual case management. They [counselors] impose rules, but you also give kids the opportunity to make decisions. The child also gets competence in vocational training and have an extensive aftercare program so that they just don't go back to doing what they were doing."
Aftercare: The Key to Combating Recidivism?
Still, Mike Slusher believes the problems do not lie with boot camps in principal. He suggested that many boot camp graduates return to their old habits because several camps lack aftercare programs that monitor juveniles' progress and re-adjustment to society.
He believes boot camps should be modeled after a program sponsored by the National Guard running in 27 states that focuses on troubled teens between ages 16 and 18. In this plan, juveniles who have not been convicted of violent crimes participate in a 5 1/2 month program and are monitored for a year in an aftercare program.
Col. Torres' Camp Kenbridge seems to borrowed from the National Guard's program. In his program, which focuses on teens ages 12-17, juveniles address their superiors by military ranks and endure a strict military regimen over a four-month period.
But Torres says his program is not a boot camp: there are no weapons on the grounds, and the program focuses on daily treatment for substance abuse, anger management, parenting and provides counseling for the teenagers' families.
After their release, Camp Kenbridge graduates participate in a six-month aftercare program where they report weekly to a counselor and are supposed to obey a curfew. Aftercare counselors also try to help their graduates find a job or prepare for college.
"We're trying to address bigger issues so that we can create a kid who will be a tax payer and not a tax burden," Torres said. "We have a 70 percent success rate — no other program in the state can make that claim. … Sure we address our kids in a stern, loud voice to encourage them to perform whatever they need to perform. As long as you're fair and consistent, you can make a program like this work."
Need For Boot Camp Screening and Checks and Balances
Run by the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice, Camp Kenbridge, Torres said, undergoes unannounced inspections on a regular basis by state officials. Privately-run boot camps, he said should also be inspected by independent outside committees to prevent allegations of abuse. Other experts say better screening of camp counselors may also alleviate the problem.
"Most of the allegations are situation-based. Certain kinds of people are drawn to law enforcement. Periodically, you'll get a person who has authority, and who doesn't back off," said R. Dean Wright. "I would suggest, especially with private institutions, more safeguards, more independent inspections, more oversight."
"We can minimize the problems by hiring people who are well-trained," Wright continued. "I'm not an advocate of bringing in people to sensitize people but we constantly have to monitor [camp] staff members individually and have to more carefully screen those who oversee juveniles at these camps. You also need an independent agency outside of the camp to monitor its ongoings, just to keep the checks and balances ongoing."
What Parents Should Do
Parents looking for private camps for their troubled teens must also play an active role and carefully screen the programs.
"I would ask for references and try to talk to some who were satisfied and not satisfied with it," said Slusher. "You'd think you'd want to know as much as you can with anything you're making an investment in."
"You have to remember these parents are desperate and may not even think or even know what questions to ask," said Wright. "But parents should really do a lot of referencing, ask a lot of questions and see what kind of programs and obstacle training and regimens the camps offer. Not all boot camps are the same and some parents think they are."
"There's no reason to be scared of boot camps," Wright continued. "People have moved away from corporal punishment and parents complain that the laws are against them and they should be able to discipline their children the way they want to. There is a need for kids to be disciplined and have structure. … People shouldn't be scared because the ways camps offer that ranges in a variety of ways."