The first federal look at "boot camps," wilderness programs, and similar programs aimed at troubled youth, including those sent away because of drug use, has found widespread allegations of abuse at such facilities. The Government Accountability Office study released Wednesday also examined 10 cases where teens died in those programs.
According to the study, in 2005 alone, 1,619 allegations of abuse were made against such residential treatment facilities. "GAO could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because it could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data," the report noted.
The privately operated programs may or may not be subject to state regulation, depending on the state. There are no federal rules governing residential facilities for youth, something Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, may be preparing to change, but not quite yet.
"This nightmare has remained an open secret for years," Miller said in a statement. "Congress must act, and it must act swiftly." He has sponsored a bill designed to encourage states to enact regulations.
The GAO examined 10 cases between 1990 and 2004 where teens died at those facilities. Three of the victims were placed in the facilities by their parents because of their drug use.
In one case, a 16-year-old girl was sent to wilderness survival school because of depression and her parent's fears about her drug use. Her parents paid $25,000 to the facility operators, and $4,000 more to a "transportation service" who dragged her from her bed at 4am and deposited her in the middle of a hike in the Utah desert. The girl died three days later of heatstroke.
In the second drug treatment-related fatality, a 16-year-old boy was sent to a wilderness survival school because of his parents' concern about "minor drug use, academic underachievement, and association with a new peer group that was having a negative impact on him." He died of a perforated ulcer 31 days into the 90-day, $18,000 program after program staff ignored his repeated collapses and pleas for help.
In the third case, a 15-year-girl placed in a wilderness program because of a history of drug use and mental problems died of dehydration and heat exhaustion before her parents even made it back home. When they arrived upon their return from dropping off their daughter, a phone message from the facility awaited them. There had been an accident, the message said. But instead, the girl died after repeatedly collapsing on a strenuous hike.
Each year thousands of teenagers are referred for drug treatment, even after being caught once smoking marijuana. The drug czar uses teen drug treatment figures to argue that marijuana is a serious problem, but doesn't mention that most teens "seeking" treatment for marijuana are ordered there by courts or schools. Nor does he mention that when it comes to treatment facilities like those examined by the GAO, the cure can be infinitely worse than the disease.