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Chairman Miller on GAO Report on Child Abuse in Residential Programs

May 13, 2008

From the Education and Labor Committee:

GAO Report Shows Need for Minimum Standards to Protect Teens in Residential Programs, Says Chairman Miller
Education & Labor Committee Will Vote Tomorrow on Legislation to Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows the need for Congress to establish minimum standards to keep teenagers safe in residential programs, U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA) said today.

“This report confirms that cases of abuse and neglect of children in residential programs are, sadly, not isolated cases,” said Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. The GAO prepared the report at Miller's request. “The report also shows the need for minimum standards nationwide if we want to keep kids safe no matter what setting they are in.”

Miller and U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) have cosponsored legislation (H.R. 5876) to stop child abuse in teen residential programs and to ensure that parents have the information they need about these programs to make safe choices for their children. The House Education and Labor Committee will vote on that legislation tomorrow.

Past GAO investigations have uncovered thousands of allegations of child abuse between 1990 and 2007 at teen residential programs, including therapeutic boarding schools, boot camps, wilderness camps, and behavior modification facilities.

To produce its findings, the GAO conducted a survey of state child welfare, health and mental health, and juvenile justice agencies. It also conducted site visits and in-depth research in four states: California, Florida, Maryland, and Utah. Based on this work, the GAO report found that:

Survey respondents from 28 states reported at least one death in a residential facility in 2006. Stunningly, agencies in 45 states did not even have the information to say whether a death had occurred in exclusively private facilities — those that receive no government funding.

In the four states that GAO visited, the most common causes of the mistreatment of youth in these programs were abusive staff and lack of appropriate supervision. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that, in 2005, 34 states reported 1,503 incidents of youth abuse and neglect by program staff members — though GAO concluded that these data underreport the scale of the problem.

While all states have processes in place to license and monitor some types of residential programs for teens, state agencies reported numerous gaps in licensing coverage that may exclude certain types of programs and thus place children at higher risk of abuse and neglect. Agencies in a number of states said they lacked the authority to license private residential programs. A lack of licensing makes it more difficult for parents to obtain the information they need to make informed choices about programs.

In some states, inconsistent licensing enables programs to define themselves out of licensing altogether. In Texas, for example, a program that calls itself a residential treatment center would be required to obtain a license, but if that same program simply called itself a boarding school, it would not require a license.

Even where licensing exists, there may not be minimum standards addressing the prevention of child abuse and neglect. Moreover, according to the report, “licensing requirements do not always address the primary causes of youth death and maltreatment.”

“It is shocking that our kids are protected only by this weak hodgepodge of regulations,” said Miller. “Some states don't license certain programs at all. Some states have licensing requirements that don't address basic health and safety issues. If we want to keep our kids safe no matter what type of program they attend and no matter what state they are in, we need clear rules for all programs to live by.”

For more information on the legislation and past GAO investigations, click here.

To see today's GAO report, click here.