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Maia Szalavitz Headshot

Stop Child Abuse in Programs that Supposedly "Help"

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Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will introduce legislation tomorrow, aimed at reining in the billion dollar "troubled teen" industry, which, according to the New York Times, detained about 100,000 children and adolescents as of 2005-- a number which had quadrupled in 10 years.

Right now, many states regulate dog kennels and nail salons more assiduously than they monitor these "tough love" programs, which are essentially private prisons: the teens cannot leave or contact the outside world. And there is no federal regulation at all: in fact, the feds don't even know how many teens are incarcerated in these programs or how many programs exist. That question may begin to be answered tomorrow, in a new Government Accountability Office report.

At the last hearing, a GAO report finding thousands of allegations of abuse and ten deaths at these "boot camps" "emotional growth" or "therapeutic" boarding schools, harsh "wilderness programs and "academies," was presented to the house Education and Labor Committee. After hearing accounts of teens "forced to eat vomit, lie in urine and feces, forced to use toothbrushes to clean toilets and then on their teeth," the ranking Republican on the committee said that he generally opposes increased federal regulation, but "there are some times when it has to happen."

My book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, was the first to detail the horrifying history of these programs and the fact that there is no scientific evidence that their approach works, and much to suggest that it can do harm. Two of the three families who testified last time about the negligence and abuse that killed their children at these programs were prominently featured in the book.

During my research, I interviewed over 100 teens, parents and former employees of these programs-- I have also read (and personally confirmed many) of the hundreds of other accounts on websites like this one [scroll down], which contains nearly 400 stories of abuse from just one organization, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP or WWASPS). You don't have to believe me-- the kids who post there provide their email addresses for those with doubts. And I still get regular emails with accounts of new horrifying abuse.

Essentially, in these programs, abuse and degradation is not accidental, but rather, is itself the key ingredient of the "therapy."

I hope that the legislation will ban the use of such tactics-- and effectively monitor compliance. These hearings will also look at possible consumer fraud perpetrated by these organizations-- claims that programs offer very different services than they actually provide.

For example, WWASP's "Tranquility Bay" facility in Jamaica is notorious for being anything but tranquil-- one neighbor told me he regularly heard "horror movie" like screams emanating from the place and teens who were sent report being kept awake by the cries of those who are being beaten or restrained by employees. WWASP's now-shuttered "Paradise Cove," was known for holding teens in prisoner-of-war like conditions, isolated in small wooden boxes for days on end.

I will be attending and will update when I can.

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