Fighting Abuse at Youth Rehab Facilities

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A House committee approved legislation last month that would step up oversight to better protect youth residing in private rehabilitation facilities, despite protests from Republican lawmakers.

The House Education and Labor Committee passed the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008 (H.R. 5876) in response to recent investigations by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which revealed thousands of allegations of abuse at wilderness camps and other therapeutic boarding schools between 1990 and 2007.

One of the GAO reports, “Improved Data and Enhanced Oversight Would Help Safeguard the Well-Being of Youth with Behavioral and Emotional Challenges,” says the states have processes to license and monitor many residential facilities, but there are “oversight gaps,” including licensing exemptions for certain juvenile justice facilities and boarding schools.

Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said the measure was a “fair compromise,” giving states three years to comply with a set of minimum federal standards, to be developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to combat child abuse and neglect at teen residential programs. Those measures include facility inspections and providing youth with adequate food, water, medical care and rest. The bill would also:

• Create a free national hotline for people to report abuse.

• Set up a website to make public “substantiated” cases of abuse at certain facilities.

• Combat deceptive marketing by requiring that facilities inform parents of staff members’ qualifications, roles and responsibilities.

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) said the bill was “totally unnecessary” because local facilities already have to meet thousands of standards, making the federal regulations “duplicative.” To think the federal government can be more effective than the states at regulating these facilities “is just ridiculous,” she said.

The GAO estimates that in 2004, federal funding to states supported more than 200,000 youth in public and private residential facilities nationwide, and an “unknown number” of youth were placed in facilities by parents or others.

Foxx also said the punishment for wrong-doing – a $50,000 civil penalty per violation – is inadequate. “Let’s get the bad actors out of this business,” by cutting off all their funding, she said.

While the federal government has some leverage over state-operated or private facilities that serve youth under federally funded state programs, it does not have oversight authority for youth facilities that are privately funded by parents or others, GAO said.

The legislation, approved by a committee vote of 27 to 16, now awaits consideration by the full House.

For a summary of the GAO report and a link to another GAO report on residential youth facilities, see Report Roundup.