The Government Accountability Office has just released a new federal study on abuse, mismanagement and avoidable deaths in the network of seventy-one juvenile boot camps in the United States, and it’s quite damning.
Regarding the allegations of abuse:
We found thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death, at public and private residential treatment programs across the country between the years 1990 and 2007. We are unable to identify a more concrete number of allegations because we could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data related to this issue. Although the NCANDS database, operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, collects some data from states, data submission is voluntary and not all states with residential treatment programs contribute information. According to the most recent NCANDS data, during 2005 alone 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential programs. Because of limited data collection and reporting, we could not determine the numbers of incidents of abuse and death associated with private programs.
It is important to emphasize that allegations should not be confused with proof of actual abuse. However, in terms of meeting our objective, the thousands of allegations we found came from a number of sources besides NCANDS. For example:
• We identified claims of abuse and death in pending and closed civil or criminal proceedings with dozens of plaintiffs alleging abuse. For instance, according to one pending civil lawsuit filed as recently as July 2007, dozens of parents allege that their children were subjected to over 30 separate types of abuse.
• We found attorneys around the country who represent youth and groups of youth who allege that abuse took place while these youth were enrolled in residential treatment programs. For example, an attorney based in New Jersey with whom we spoke has counseled dozens of youth who alleged they were abused in residential treatment programs in past cases, as has another attorney, a retired prosecutor, who advocates for abuse victims.
• We found that allegations are posted on various Web sites advocating for the shutdown of certain programs. Past participants in wilderness programs and other youth residential treatment programs have individually or collectively set up sites claiming abuse and death. The Internet contains an unknown number of such Web sites. One site on the Internet, for example, identifies over 100 youth who it claims died in various programs. In other instances, parents of victims who have died or were abused in these programs have similarly set up an unknown number of Web sites. Conversely, there are also an unknown number of sites that promote and advocate the benefits of various
Because there are no specific reporting requirements or definitions for private programs in particular, we could not determine what percentage of the thousands of allegations we found are related to such programs. There is likely a small percentage of overlapping allegations given our inability to reconcile information from the sources we used.
Regarding the deaths:
• In May 1990, a 15-year-old female was enrolled in a 9-week wilderness program. Although the program brochure claimed that counselors were “highly trained survival experts,” they did not recognize the signs of dehydration when she began complaining of blurred vision, stumbling, and vomiting water 3 days into a hike. According to police documents, on the fifth day and after nearly 2 days of serious symptoms, the dying teen finally collapsed and became unresponsive, at which point counselors attempted to signal for help using a fire because they were not equipped with radios. Police documents state that the victim lay dead in a dirt road for 18 hours before rescuers arrived.
• In another example, we learned that, in July 2001, a 14-year-old male enrolled in a boot camp became so dehydrated that he began to eat dirt from the desert floor. Witnesses said that when he eventually fell unconscious and appeared to have a seizure, the program director told staff members to put the victim in the flatbed of a pickup truck and drive him to a hotel. When they could not revive him at the hotel, they put him back in the flatbed of the truck, returned to the camp, and placed the teen’s limp body onto his sleeping bag. The program director assured his staff that “everything will be okay” but the victim died soon afterwards.
• In December 2001, on Christmas Day, a 16-year-old female was climbing in an extremely dangerous area unsupervised by program staff. According to documents we reviewed, the girl slipped, fell about 50 feet into a crevasse, and died of massive brain trauma about 3 weeks later. An investigation revealed numerous licensing and safety violations with the program, including an improperly low staff-to-youth ratio, failure of staff to scout the hiking location prior to the hike, and no first aid kit (it was left at the base camp).
I haven’t finished reading the report yet, and I don’t know if Martin Lee Anderson is counted among those ten deaths. What’s clear is that he’s not alone, and that the way these boot camps are run is nothing short of a national scandal.