Miller, Harkin Reintroduce Legislation to Prevent Child Abuse in Teen Residential Programs


WASHINGTON, D.C. – Two senior Democratic lawmakers from the House and the Senate today reintroduced legislation to stop abuse in teen residential programs. The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2011, championed by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), the Senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee would set common-sense, minimum safety standards that states would need to adopt and enforce to protect teens from physical, mental and sexual abuse in these programs. It would also create easily accessible information for parents about the safety record of programs.

“Parents deserve every assurance that their child will be safe when attending a residential program, which is often their last resort and intended to help their child build a better life. They do so with the assumption that their child will receive care and treatment, not be subjected to pain, suffering, torture and in some cases, death. Without regulations and enforcement, this profitable industry will continue to have actors that  present unacceptable risks to the children they serve. It is unacceptable that as each year passes without adequate oversight, more children suffer,” said Miller. “This legislation will help put an end to these horrific abuses that put the lives of too many children in jeopardy. It has passed with bipartisan support in previous Congresses, and I hope my Republican colleagues will take swift action for Congressional consideration soon.”

“No child should be forced to suffer abuse, neglect, injury, or even death while they are trying to better themselves in a residential program,” said Harkin.  “It is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that these programs are subject to enforceable regulations to prevent cases of abuse like the ones we’ve heard about all too often in recent years.  I hope that we can renew our bipartisan commitment to this critically important issue and pass this legislation quickly.”

U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), an original co-sponsor of the House bill and a nurse for over 30 years before becoming a member of Congress on a platform of anti-violence, said, “Parents send their kids to these programs to make them healthier, more productive members of society, but too often these experiences leave both mental and physical scars. Abuse in teen residential programs is a dark spot in our nation that must be addressed.”

The House passed identical legislation with strong bipartisan support in the 110th  and 111th Congresses. Numerous media reports have exposed continuing abuses at some of these programs since the legislation passed the House but failed to move any farther in 2009.  For example, in August 2009, a 16-year-old boy died after ‘boot camp’ staff failed to provide medical care on a hike when he began to show significant and prolonged signs of heat exhaustion. In an affidavit requesting a search warrant the Sheriff’s Deputy indicated that he believed the death was a homicide and the result of criminal mistreatment and reckless endangerment by the school.  After an investigation, the Oregon Department of Human services found evidence that at least two staff members neglected the care of the victim by failing to provide medical care which likely endangered his life.

The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act would set minimum safety standards, require states to inform the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) of reports of abuse and neglect at covered programs, require investigations of such programs and require the HHS to issue civil penalties against programs that violate the new standards. The bill also calls for states, within three years, to take on the role of setting and enforcing standards for both private and public youth residential programs.  In addition, the legislation would also ensure that parents have the information needed to make safe choices for their children about teen residential programs.

Among other provisions, this legislation would ensure children’s safety and empower parental choice by creating a toll-free national hotline for individuals to report cases of abuse and a website with information about substantiated cases of abuse at residential programs. The bill would require programs to provide children with adequate food, water, medical care, and rest. And to prevent deceptive marketing practices and create transparency to help parents make safe choices for their children, it would require, among other things, that programs inform parents of their staff members’ qualifications, roles, and responsibilities.

Investigations conducted by the Government Accountability Office during the 110th Congress uncovered thousands of cases and allegations of child abuse and neglect since the early 1990’s at teen residential programs, including therapeutic boarding schools, boot camps, wilderness programs and behavior modification facilities. Currently, these programs are governed only by a weak patchwork of state and federal standards. A separate GAO report, conducted in 2008, found major gaps in the licensing and oversight of residential programs – some of which are not covered by any state licensing standards at all.  In addition, the GAO’s investigation revealed that many teen residential treatment programs have been using deceptive marketing practices and questionable tactics to lure vulnerable parents desperate to find help for their children.

The legislation is supported by leading child advocacy and national organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, Child Welfare League of America, American Association of Children's Residential Centers, Easter Seals, American Psychological Association and the Children's Defense Fund. For a complete list of organizations, click here.

For more information on the bill, click here