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Washington Targets Behavior Modification Programs

Privately-run behavior modification programs would face tougher federal scrutiny if a bill proposed by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) becomes law.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act would establish unannounced inspections of the programs, which Miller says include wilderness programs, boot camps and certain types of boarding schools. It would also require them to conduct background checks on staff, and regularly submit information to a federal website for parents to research the programs.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. teenagers attend private residential facilities, behavioral modification programs and therapeutic boarding schools, according to the House Education and Labor Committee.

“There is a nationwide epidemic of abuse and neglect of children at privately-run residential programs,” said Miller, chairman of the committee.

The act would be authorized at $250 million over five years through the Department of Health and Human Services, and comes on the heals of two recent hearings where federal researchers revealed questionable marketing and program practices at some of the programs.

Greg Kutz, an investigator for the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), testified at the April hearing about an undercover operation in which GAO called private programs and referral agencies to solicit information. Callers posed as parents who were considering placing a child in behavior modification programs, and found 10 examples of troubling marketing tactics.

A Texas wilderness program told a caller that the association it belonged to – the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) – did regular inspections of the program. NATSAP does not inspect its member sites.

One referral service told a fake dad to tell his wife that a boarding school “was a college prep board school. … If she thinks that 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.’”

Kutz also discussed fatalities at private programs, which was also part of an initial report that he prepared for a hearing last October. (See “Outdoor Therapy Outfits Get Beat Up,” November.)

The hearings and the proposed bill, introduced in late April, drew criticism from leaders at wilderness programs and behavioral health schools, who believe Miller and GAO are using a few bad apples to make them all look bad.

The testimony at the hearing was “not fair and balanced,” said Lon Woodbury, whose Woodbury Reports website covers the industry. “He’s picking out people who are criticized within the private industry and broadbrushing.”

Paul Smith, an executive at Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Expeditions, based in Albany, Ore., said he welcomes increased scrutiny to weed out the type of “fringe programs you would find in any avenue of business.” But Smith said Miller’s legislation falls short in excluding public programs from the new regulations.

“It excludes [most] boarding schools, hospitals and government programs, group homes for children in foster care,” Smith said. “If your interest is in preventing abuse, I would think you’d be as inclusive as possible.”

Many of those entities are already subject to scrutiny by the public agencies with which they do business, a point not lost on Woodbury.

“I hope the feds do a better job overseeing the private programs than they have with the public,” where “the most outrageous actions are taken” against youth.

The act is supported by such child advocacy organizations as the Child Welfare League of America, the National Child Abuse Coalition and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

Read the GAO report here.

Read about the bill and hearings here

Anthony Glynn contributed to this report.

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