School Climate & Safety

GAO Cites Abuses at Residential Programs for Teens

By Alyson Klein — October 11, 2007 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Residential treatment programs for troubled teenagers have been the subject of thousands of allegations of abuse over the past 17 years, including a number of documented deaths, but much about such facilities remains unknown, the Government Accountability Office reports.

Although it is estimated that hundreds of public and private residential treatment programs exist across the country, there’s no standard definition for such programs, and no way to know precisely how many are operating, the GAO says. The programs serve teenagers with a range of problems, including drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. They can include boarding schools; wilderness-therapy programs, which aim to help troubled youths connect with nature; and so-called boot camps, which emphasize strict, military-style discipline.

The GAO examined thousands of cases of alleged abuse, from 1990 to 2007, as reported by state agencies, the federal Department of Health and Human Services, pending and closed criminal and civil cases, and allegations posted on the Internet. In 2005, 33 states reported that 1,619 staff members of residential programs had been involved in alleged abuse at such programs, according to the report.

GAO officials also conducted detailed examinations of 10 closed civil or criminal cases of teenagers who died while enrolled in private residential programs. They concluded that many of those deaths occurred at facilities where staff members weren’t properly trained to cope with mentally ill adolescents or to handle medical emergencies.

Gregory Kutz, a managing director at the GAO, testified before the House Education and Labor Committee on Oct. 10 that in some of the cases the GAO examined in depth, program staff members thought students suffering from conditions such as dehydration were faking their symptoms.

“It seems the only way staff could be convinced that these kids weren’t faking it was when they stopped breathing or had no pulse,” Mr. Kutz said.

Mr. Kutz said many of the private facilities are expensive for parents, costing an average of $300 a day.

Cynthia Clark Harvey, whose 15-year-old daughter, Erica, died of heatstroke and dehydration while on a hike with the Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program, told the education committee that she had chosen the facility in part because it was one of the founding members of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. NATSAP, based in Prescott, Ariz., is a professional association of residential treatment programs that lists some 180 members on its Web site.

“We chose [Catherine Freer] because they claimed to be fully licensed, … because they claimed experience with teens being treated with psychiatric medication,” Ms. Harvey said, a picture of her daughter on the witness table in front of her.

The Nevada facility her daughter attended is now closed, but the program continues to operate in Oregon and is still a member of NATSAP, according to the GAO. Some of the other facilities investigated by the GAO also remain NATSAP members.

Legislation Planned

Jan Moss, NATSAP’s executive director, testified that the organization was established in 1999 to “raise the bar” for private therapeutic programs. The organization does not certify programs or conduct investigations of its members, she said.

There are programs that help troubled adolescents get their lives moving in a positive direction, she said.

“We are committed to ensuring that these programs remain available to families in dire need of help,” Ms. Moss told the panel.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House education committee, who had asked the GAO to examine the programs in 2005, plans to introduce legislation to regulate such facilities. Right now, he said, the programs are subject to a hodgepodge of state regulations, and some states don’t have specific guidelines for private programs.

“Parents often send their children to these programs when they feel they have exhausted their alternatives,” Rep. Miller said. “In far too many cases, however, the very people entrusted with the safety, the health, and the welfare of these children are the ones who violate that trust in some of the more horrific ways imaginable.”

The GAO said it is planning to release a more comprehensive report next year that will provide more detail on the scope of programs and the incidents of alleged abuse.

A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Explainer School Resource Officers (SROs), Explained
Does the presence of armed officers prevent school violence? Do they contribute for Black children to the 'school to prison pipeline'?
13 min read
Greeley Police Officer Steve Brown stands in the hallway during passing periods at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. on Oct. 21, 2016. While school resource officers, like Brown, are expected to handle responsibilities like any police officer they're faced with unique challenges working day-to-day in schools
Greeley Police Officer Steve Brown stands in the hallway during passing periods at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. While school resource officers, like Brown, are expected to handle responsibilities like any police officer, they're faced with unique challenges working day-to-day in schools.
Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune/AP
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School Climate & Safety Quiz
How Much Do You Know About School Crime and Safety?
How much do you know about school crime and safety?
Content provided by Masonite
School Climate & Safety Violence in Schools Seems to Be Increasing. Why?
Experts point to a confluence of reasons, including social isolation and access to guns. But there's no swift, obvious solution.
11 min read
Police respond to the scene of a shooting on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021 in Memphis, Tenn. Authorities say a boy was shot and wounded at a school. Memphis Police said in a statement that the shooting was reported Thursday morning at Cummings School, which includes grades kindergarten through eighth.
Police respond to a shooting at a K-8 public school on Sept. 30 in Memphis, Tenn. Authorities say a boy was shot and wounded at a school.
Adrian Sainz/AP
School Climate & Safety Schools Ban 'Squid Game' Costumes for Halloween
N.Y. school officials are telling parents the popular Netflix series has no place in schools, either as a costume or a game at recess.
Elizabeth Doran, syracuse.com
1 min read
Attendees dressed as characters from "Squid Game" pose during New York Comic Con at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in New York.
Attendees dressed as characters from "Squid Game" pose during New York Comic Con at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021, in New York.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP