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Bill aimed at protecting teens passes House

Congress tries to protect teens in treatment programs

Programs for troubled youth may get more oversight

By: KJ Mushung

An attempt by the U.S. House of Representatives to protect children locked away in strict residential treatment programs and so-called boot camps for troubled youth is a step closer to becoming law.

H.R. 911: Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2009 was passed by the House in February. The legislation was introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in response to congressional hearings about deaths and alleged abuses at many treatment facilities.

“With the increase in residential programs nationwide, it is imperative we have legislation that keeps teens safe that are being treated for emotional, mental health, behavioral and substance abuse problems. There have been far too many cases of youth in residential treatment programs who have been abused, neglected and victimized. In some cases, the abuse is so severe, the results are deadly. Yet, occurrences of abuse and horrific tragedies are preventable,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a co-sponsor of H.R. 911.

But there are some who think the bill does not do enough to protect children or penalized programs that harm them, while others believe it improves the circumstances troubled youth face when admitted to residential facilities.

In a nutshell, H.R. 911 prohibits child abuse as defined by law. Among other things, it specifically prohibits the withholding of food, water, clothing, shelter or necessary medical care. It also requires that children “be free from physical and mechanical restraints and seclusion” and have reasonable access to a telephone.

Penalties for owners or operators of residential programs who violate the law are not to exceed $50,000. But for alleged victims of abuse, that’s not enough.

Angela Smith, an advocate for children in residential treatment programs and owner of, believes there should be either a higher cap or no cap on the fines and that there should be criminal penalties for anyone who abuses a program participant.

“Reducing it to civil penalties for behavior that would place anyone else in jail is not good enough,” said Smith.

In 1989, Smith spent two and a half months in a program and was never the same. She wants to see H.R. 911 revised, saying it doesn’t adequately protect children and that enactment of this law will give parents a false sense of security. There’s a long list of things Smith would like to see changed about how youth residential treatment programs are run.

“It’s a violation of due process. The fact that there’s no hearing, there’s no advocate solely for the child. It seems a lot of kids are placed in programs without there being a judicial decree that they need to be in a lockdown facility, which is very severe,” said Smith, whose own personal experience was at Provo Canyon School in Utah and is recounted on her Web site.

She would like to see the bill require unannounced on-site inspections at least once a year, not once every two years as it currently calls for. Smith also contends that the bill doesn’t require authorities to react quickly enough to allegations of abuse.

“When a report of abuse or violation of this law is made by a child in a program, the investigators should respond within 24 or 48 hours at the very latest. Thirty days is long enough for the evidence to disappear… plenty of time for children and even staff members who witnessed or participated in abuse to be transferred…”

All this comes on the heels of a legal settlement that will allow Teen Challenge, a faith-based treatment facility with a controversial reputation, to open in Stafford County .

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), was one congressman who voted against H.R. 911.

“I fully support the intentions of H.R. 911 -- to protect children in facilities from abuse and neglect. However, I had serious concerns that the bill did not include a provision to protect a parent’s right to know what prescription drugs their children are being given. I strongly support parents’ rights and believe we have a right to uphold parental consent before our children receive prescription drugs. Also, H.R. 911 would impose burdensome regulations and licensing standards, potentially making it more difficult for the Commonwealth of Virginia to receive federal funding under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. Residential treatment programs are already challenged to provide important services for our youth, and we should not burden them more when sufficient state regulations and monitoring are already in place,” explained Wittman.

Smith said, when she was at Provo Canyon School , she was given medication but not told what it was or what it was for.

“We have both a moral and civic duty to protect our nation’s youth and provide for their safety. For these reasons, I supported this bill and its goals to make residential treatment programs a safer place for children to get the help they need,” said Scott.

As of press time, H.R. 911 was referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions by the Senate. It is not yet law, and changes to it may still be possible.

KJ Mushung is a freelance writer living in Stafford County.

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