At least every year or two, we hear horror stories about alleged mistreatment of children sent to “therapeutic” boot camps to correct problem behaviors, such as defiance, drug and alcohol abuse, truancy and failing grades.
Serious injuries and even deaths have occurred at “troubled teen” camps. Each time, there’s a public outcry, yet the reports continue. This month, allegations of beatings and other physical abuse of Los Angeles County youths attending a boot camp at Camp San Luis Obispo resulted in charges against four Southern California police officers. (No San Luis Obispo County youths or law enforcement officials were involved.)
Despite the outrage over such incidents, licensing requirements and monitoring of camps remains minimal or nonexistent in many states, including California. Two bills — one state and one federal — would change that.
The California bill, SB 524, would require operators of boot camps and similar residential programs to be licensed by the state Department of Social Services.
It also would give camp participants basic rights, including the right “to be accorded dignity in his or her personal relationships with staff, residents, and other persons.”
Who can argue with that?
Other rights spelled out in the proposed legislation include:
No corporal punishment.
Access to adequate medical care.
Adequate and healthy food.
Frequent contact with parents or guardians, “including scheduled and unscheduled telephone conversations, unrestricted written correspondence , and electronic communications.”
The federal legislation, HR 3060, includes similar protections for youths, and would prohibit gay “conversion therapy.” (Conversion therapy is already legally prohibited in California.)
Our take: We recognize there are several well-run boot camps, wilderness camps and similar programs that have helped teenagers get their lives back on track.
Those programs have nothing to hide, and we see no reason why they would object to increased transparency and oversight. If anything, they should welcome it, as publicity about abusive programs reflects poorly on the industry.
But it’s obvious that not enough is being done to safeguard children. While it’s impossible to say how often abuse occurs at boot camps and similar facilities, an often-quoted U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2007 documented that 34 states had reported over 1,500 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in 2005 alone.
The count could be even higher. Because youngsters in boot camps and wilderness programs often are prohibited from contacting their families and parents are advised not to communicate with their children, it’s far too easy for abuse to go undetected and unreported.
For example, allegations about the program at Camp San Luis Obispo may not have come to light had one child not been taken to the emergency room after he returned home with bruises on his windpipe. As a result, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services was contacted, and that prompted an investigation by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office.
Keep in mind, the local case is far from decided; it will be up to the justice system to determine the guilt or innocence of the parties charged. Regardless of the outcome of this one case, though, better oversight is needed. California lawmakers recognize that; SB 524 passed the Senate on a vote of 35-1; it goes to the Assembly later this year.
Without tighter control of boot camps and wilderness programs, there are too many opportunities for children to come to harm. These children may be defiant, but they also are vulnerable. They are cut off from family; taken out of the neighborhoods they know, often to places that are extremely remote; and placed in military-style settings where — customized as we are to the Hollywood version of the sadistic drill sergeant — they may accept abusive behavior as normal.
While children are the primary victims in such situations, we can only imagine how painful it must be when parents realize their attempts to rescue their children actually put them in harm’s way.
Passage of state and federal legislation providing minimal protection for youths enrolled in therapeutic boot camps, wilderness adventures and similar programs is long overdue. The Tribune strongly urges lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., to adopt it without delay.