Congress Takes Aim at Abusive Teen Programs

House bill would curb worst abuses.


April 24, 2008— -- Beatings, smotherings and more horrific details of life inside abusive teen residential programs are in store for a panel of lawmakers Thursday morning.

Jon Martin-Crawford says he spent four years in such a facility, and can recall "staff punching students in the face while restraining [them]," as well as staff "wrapping kids up in duct tape and blankets" and not letting them out "even to use the bathroom," according to testimony he prepared for today's hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee.

Martin-Crawford is expected to say he saw other young residents at the Family Foundation School of Hancock, N.Y., "forced to eat food they were allergic to, and [made] to keep eating even if vomiting was a result."

Jeff Brain, the school's head of external relations, said in an e-mail Wednesday that in the four years he has been at the school, "none of the allegations. . . have occurred," and that he "would not work at a program which engaged in such practices."

The practice of using blankets to restrain students in danger of harming themselves or others, he wrote, "was replaced many years ago."

Following up on a similar hearing last year, panel chairman George Miller, D-Calif., asked congressional investigators to dig deeper into cases of children who alleged mistreatment or who died in teen "boot camps," wilderness programs and other residential facilities, and take a critical look at how the programs marketed themselves.

More than 20,000 American youth are believed to be enrolled in such programs, which often cater to children with psychological illness, drug or alcohol addiction or other issues. The programs operate under a patchwork of state regulations; no federal law expressly governs how such facilities are run.

Miller is expected to introduce legislation at tomorrow's hearing which would tighten oversight of teen residential programs. It would also explicitly prohibit certain types of mistreatment which have been alleged at programs around the country: withholding of food, water, shelter or medical care; unreasonably barring access to a telephone; or employing staff who are not trained to understand what constitutes child abuse and neglect.

Also at the hearing, GAO investigators are expected to reveal the results of an undercover probe of several referral services and programs, which turned up evidence of deceptive marketing practices, among other things.

One referral agency recommended the same boot camp in Missouri for three different fictitious children with very different problems, the GAO found. It turned out that the woman who owned the referral service was married to the man who ran the boot camp, GAO said – though that was never disclosed to callers.

One referral service coached a GAO investigator posing as a father about how to present the option of residential treatment care to his reluctant wife: call the program a "college prep boarding school that focuses on the emotional needs of a teenager." [Listen to the call]

"If she thinks. . . you want to send her daughter to a place where there are drug addicts and people that are all screwed up, she will look at you and say no way," the counselor told him, dispensing what the GAO would later judge to be "questionable ethical advice."

In another call, a referrer told a GAO investigator posing as a parent that a program he recommended treated children's psychological issues by feeding them whole grains, restricting their sugar and making sure they got lots of exercise and rest. [Listen to the call]

"We find that these kind of issues go away," the referrer said. "The bipolar, the depression, those kinds of things. They just go away after awhile."

Click Here for the Investigative Homepage.

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