Parents who come to wit’s end with troubled teenagers sometimes enroll them in residential treatment programs — so-called boot camps or wilderness camps — that offer challenging activities, like hiking and climbing, and military-style discipline that is supposed to help set youngsters straight. Juvenile-justice researchers have long shown that the camps are less effective at curbing delinquency than boosters claim. Now an alarming study by the Government Accountability Office shows that the “tough love” strategy, as practiced in this largely unregulated industry, can place children at risk of abuse, injury or even death.
The study, unveiled at Congressional hearings last week, found thousands of allegations of abuse and neglect at residential treatment programs over the last 17 years. The numbers are sketchy because no federal agency collects national data, and in far too many states, monitoring of the camps is lax. A number of states regulate publicly funded programs, but don’t license or regulate the private programs.
The G.A.O. report focuses on the heart-rending deaths of 10 teenagers. In one of the most outrageous cases, parents enrolled their 15-year-old daughter in a Utah wilderness program after she was the victim of a date rape. They hoped the experience would help build confidence and improve her self-esteem. Instead, the girl died of dehydration while on a five-day march. The staff members — advertised as a group of “highly trained survival experts” — accused her of faking and pushed her onward until she finally collapsed. No one could even call for help because the counselors were not carrying radios.
Parents need to think twice before enrolling their children in these programs. Beyond that, lawmakers at both the state and federal levels need to bring these camps under much closer regulatory scrutiny.
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