News from Capitol Hill - Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health
On February 23rd the House of Representatives passed the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Treatment Programs bill (H.R. 911) by an overwhelming vote of 295-102. Residential treatment programs include therapeutic boarding schools, boot camps, wilderness programs, and behavior modification facilities. But a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) during the
110th Congress found that many of these programs do not offer anything remotely related to therapy, and in fact the office found thousands of cases and allegations of child abuse and neglect since the early
1990's. It is currently the state's authority to regulate these programs, but a separate GAO report found major gaps in their licensing and oversight, so that they have been able to operate virtually unregulated. To help fix this major failure, H.R. 911 proposes that these programs fall under federal regulations.
At a press conference organized by the Alliance for Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) in Washington, D.C. on February 19th, three residential program survivors described some of the abuses they experienced and witnessed. These included malnourishment, dangerous restraint, and seclusion, among other
abuses. They described going to "group therapy", where they were coerced into admitting to offenses that never happened, and were blamed and shamed about them.
Brian Lombrowski, a youth coordinator and president of CAFETY (Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth), explained that residential treatment should be short term, individualized, and targeted. In addition, it should only be considered after community-based services have been exhausted. However, deceptive marketing practices and the use of "education consultants" who have no mental health credentialing, advertise these programs as being
appropriate for almost everyone, using such symptoms as depression and anxiety as being appropriate criteria. When a child does not meet the criteria for a state residential program, parents then turn to these privately-run facilities, which do not require a psychiatrist's referral.
According to lawyer Phil Elberg who spoke at this press conference, the only successful lawsuits against these places have been in the case of a death of a child. There are two big obstacles against survivors who want to file charges. First, they are devalued as liars and manipulators. Second, the harm done to these children takes a long
time to manifest, so that by the time they are ready to file a lawsuit, the maximum period of time that they could initiate legal proceedings has passed.
Even though H.R. 911 does not address all of the problems with residential treatment programs, it is still a good first step towards better regulating these facilities.
So what does the bill do?
Keeps Teens Safe
Prohibits programs from physically, mentally, or sexually abusing children
Prohibits programs from denying essential food, water, clothing,
shelter, or medical care
Programs must provide children with reasonable access to a telephone
Staff must be trained in what is child abuse and neglect and how to report it
Programs can only physically restrain children if it is necessary for
their safety and the safety of others, and restraint must be used in
accordance with federal law
Programs must have plans in place to provide emergency medical care
Increases transparency for parents
Creates a website with information about cases of abuse at residential
Requires that programs inform parents of their staff members'
qualifications, roles, and responsibilities
Requires that programs notify parents of substantiated reports of
child abuse or violations of health and safety laws
H.R. 911's passing in the House is a great start for bringing residential treatment programs to the attention of Congress. However, for this bill to become law, more work is still needed. The bill still needs to be introduced in the Senate, and for that to happen, Senators need to know that their constituents feel strongly about this issue. Please call/write your senators today to urge them to support this issue!