10/12/2007 05:31 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Killing in the Name of Tough Love is Legal

In America, it's OK to kill a child so long as you have been hired to practice "tough love"-- that's the message from today's verdict in the boot camp death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson.

Just two days after a Congressional hearing determined that there had been at least 10 deaths and thousands of allegations of abuse in teen residential programs that use humiliation and corporal punishment in an attempt to reform difficult teens, a jury acquitted seven boot camp guards and one nurse in the Anderson death.

Describing the beating that preceded Anderson's death, one of the defendants' lawyers said that "They have not brought in one witness to say those tactics are illegal. That those wrist bends, those knee strikes are improper."

The attorney for the nurse-- who can be seen on tape standing there while the guards beat the boy and shove ammonia in his face-- claimed that she had no way of knowing his medical condition. Attorneys claimed the defendants simply had no way of discerning that he wasn't faking to get out of required exercise.

But the jury-- and the defense team-- has it backwards. As a GAO investigator testified describing what the teen tough love deaths had in common at Wednesday's hearing, "Most of these kids died slowly. The only way staff could be convinced that the kids were not 'faking' was when they stopped breathing or had no pulse."

Shouldn't the people charged with caring for troubled teens be made to presume that their complaints are genuine until proven otherwise? Shouldn't those whose job it is to protect their health-- like nurses-- err on the side of believing a faker, not having a child die to prove he really was ill or injured? Why is presuming kids are faking and striking them and forcing them to inhale ammonia to prove otherwise legal?

And how did we ever become so callous that we allow kids to be beaten in order to prove that they aren't making excuses to get out of exercising? When did we decide that death is an appropriate sentence for malingering?

No one has ever been sentenced to significant jail time for a death in a tough love program-- even though dozens have been documented and the symptoms the teens have exhibited have been as obvious as a 23 pound weight loss in a previously healthy teen in 23 days and the loss of bowel and bladder control.

No doubt the fact that Martin Lee Anderson was black figured in the white jury's failure to even find the guards and the nurse guilty of child neglect or negligence. But even in cases where white kids have been similarly abused, their killers have not been brought to justice.

In the case of Aaron Bacon-- whose father testified at the hearing this week-- journals and witnesses documented the 16-year-old's slow, painful death by starvation and a perforated ulcer. Despite the fact that he was denied food and shelter for days, despite the fact that he couldn't control his bowels or urine, despite looking like a concentration camp victim, Aaron was seen as a faker until the moment he died.

His killers were convicted of abuse and neglect-- but not murder or even manslaughter. None served more than six months in prison and at least one violated probation by returning to work in the "tough love" business.

When will we wake up to the fact that any "therapy" that denies kids access to outside medical care and assumes kids are faking their complaints will necessarily occasionally result in death and injury? When will we realize that hurting and killing kids doesn't save them?