House Passes Bill to Monitor Residential Facilities

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By Grace Lavigne

A congressional bill that began as an attempt to regulate privately run residential programs for troubled adolescents has expanded to cover more traditional social service programs, including child welfare and juvenile justice.

On June 25, the House of Representatives passed the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act, which was considerably different from the bill that made it out of the House Committee on Education and Labor. The legislation now proposes federal monitoring of public programs, including foster care group homes, psychiatric residential treatment facilities and alternative placements for juvenile offenders.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 youth are served each year by private residential programs, a field that includes wilderness programs, boot camps and reform schools. More than 200,000 youth are served by federally funded residential programs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The federal monitoring of public programs makes the bill more even-handed, in the eyes of some in the private residential treatment field, who believe that federal reports about abuse at such facilities - which prompted the proposal - unfairly focused on them, while ignoring abuse in public programs like foster care and juvenile justice. (See "Washington Targets Behavior Modification Programs.")

That and other changes don't appear to have reduced enthusiasm among the bill's proponents. Letters of support for the bill from virtually every prominent child advocacy organization in the nation remain on the committee's website.

"There were some big changes at the end," before the bill was passed, said Tim Briceland-Betts, co-director of government affairs for the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA). "But it didn't really change our take on it."

Briceland-Betts said CWLA will push for some alternative language if the Senate takes action on the measure. But "we share the concern about abuse" in all institutions, he said. "The way you get at it, that's the question here."

The White House issued a statement opposing the measure as it was first drafted. It objected to involving the federal government in a traditionally state-regulated area, the "unnecessarily heavy burden" the act would place on the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, and a clause that would let people file lawsuits based on noncompliance with the act.

Some of the administration's concerns were addressed by the changes in the bill. The right to sue was removed, as was the requirement that HHS conduct unannounced inspections of facilities.

Under the latest version, HHS would be authorized to spend up to $15 million a year under the act, $35 million less than in the first version. The total authorization of $250 million each year remains the same, with more money going toward grants for states to improve licensing and monitoring of facilities.

The bill would no longer require programs to submit information to a federal website, or give parents access to employee background checks and information about past abuse allegations made on employees.

Lon Woodbury, who publishes a magazine on private residential programs called Woodbury Reports, said the prospects of the Senate passing a companion bill this year seem unlikely, because the controversial issue could interfere with members' re-election bids this fall.