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by Maia Szalavitz

At the end of April, Congress held hearings to introduce legislation that could be the beginning of the end for the unregulated "troubled teen" industry and its use of tactics that Government Accountability Office investigators have labeled "torture." My article on the hearings and on an attorney who has been a key player in the fight against these programs appears in Mother Jones today here.

The legislation would ban "disciplinary techniques or other practices that involve the withholding of essential food, water, clothing, shelter, or medical care," and prohibit "acts of physical or mental abuse designed to humiliate, degrade, or undermine a child's self-respect." It would require that teens have access to a 24/7 abuse reporting hotline and that staff be educated about the nature of child abuse and neglect so that they understand that maltreatment is illegal even if program owners call it "therapy."

And possibly even more importantly, it includes a "private right of action" which would pay lawyers' fees for those who successfully sue these programs on behalf of parents and teens.

In the past -- despite thousands of cases of severe abuse -- few attorneys have been willing to take these cases because they risk spending a great deal of money that may not be recouped unless they win an extremely large judgment. This provision would level the playing field -- and could make programs uninsurable if they did not stop abusive practices like those experienced by Kathryn Whitehead and Jon Martin-Crawford, who testified eloquently at the hearings.

Whitehead, who was sent to the Mission Mountain School in Montana after becoming suicidally depressed at 13, described a punitive regime which labeled all participants "liars" and "manipulators." Meaningless labor served as discipline and "therapy" was invasive attacks aimed at uncovering "repressed" memories. Whitehead now heads an organization aimed at ending such abuses, called CAFETY. Her testimony can be found here [pdf]

Martin-Crawford attended a New York program called the Family Foundation, which imposed ideology based on the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous on all participants, including constant forced confessions. Teens were made to restrain other teens -- using duct tape and blankets and they were not given access to the bathroom. His testimony.

Both of those programs are still open.

Thankfully, the major psychological, psychiatric and mental health groups have finally gotten on board to oppose the use of these practices and support the legislation, which is believed to have a good chance of passing the House. But it will need significant support to ensure that key provisions are not watered down or eliminated and that it gains key sponsors in the Senate.

Update: If you want to help, please contact the Republican members of the House Education and Labor Committee listed here and tell them they should strongly support HR 5876. Explain why there is an urgent need for federal regulation of these programs. Especially important are emails and letters to Rep. McKeon from his constituents in California, which can be sent via this form (use subject "education").

Faxes and phone calls have a greater impact-- but emails are good, too!



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