Congress urged to help regulate boarding schools
Critic: The president of an association linked to three Utah facilities says hasty regulation would stop 'all the progress'

By Robert Gehrke
The Salt Lake Tribune, October 19, 2005

WASHINGTON - A group of mental health professionals and a former parent and student at a residential treatment facility urged Congress to pass legislation to help regulate the schools they said are abusive, harmful to the teens, and deceptively marketed to parents.

Robert Friedman, chairman of the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida, said he has been alarmed by stories of children being mistreated at unlicensed and unaccredited facilities, and said there are no data to show the programs work.

“Some of these programs are exploiting the desperation of parents and mistreating the youth that they serve,” Friedman said. “We don't have a shred of legitimate data on the overall long-term and short-term effects on the youth they serve.”

But Ken Kay, president of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, which is affiliated with a network of boarding schools, including three in Utah, said claims like Freidman's ignore the benefits of programs like his.

“These people who want to stop all the progress because they have all the answers are wackos. They are just out of control,” Kay said. [Emphasis added.]

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has introduced legislation seeking to offer states incentives to regulate the boarding schools within their borders, but his bill has not yet had a hearing. Miller also plans to ask the Government Accountability Office to review the practices of the teen boarding schools.

Currently, a dozen states regulate their schools, said Cheryl Johnson, a staffer to Miller. In its most recent legislative session, Utah passed a bill to impose new licensing standards, although those still are being formulated.

Kathryn Whitehead said she was sent to a Montana program at age 13 after she skipped school, tried to run away and attempted suicide. She said students were forced to work and exercise for long hours, tormented by staff, and received inadequate care and little education.

Cristine Gomez sent her son to a residential facility in Montana for 16 months. She said he was isolated and given inadequate medical treatment before being sent to a companion school in Jamaica, where he complained about poor sanitation and abuse by staff. He returned home thin, traumatized and behind in school.

“In my opinion, these programs use cruel and inhuman treatment to modify behavior,” she said.

Nobody wants children abused, but opponents of the schools have not carefully thought out the impact of mandatory licensing and regulation of the facilities, Kay said.

“Where are they going to get this money and what is their plan?” asked Kay. “What these clowns want to do is shut all these down as an option and in the meantime we don't have the proper options for everybody and they're not willing to listen.” [Emphasis added]

Kay's own chain has had problems. A school in Mexico was shut down by authorities there last year and is unlikely to reopen. Another, Ivy Ridge in New York, had to return more than $1 million to parents in August after the New York attorney general found it was distorting its academic credentials. Last year, there were allegations of abuse by staff at Majestic Ranch in Utah and one staffer pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.

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