WASHINGTON -- A federal investigator and parents whose children died at youth boot camps urged other families Wednesday to avoid enrolling teens in such programs until there is more oversight of them.
"Buyer beware," said Greg Kutz, who led a congressional investigation into the camps. "You really don't know what you're getting."
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death, at boot camps, also referred to as residential treatment programs, since the early 1990s.
Kutz, who led the investigation, said the GAO closely examined 10 closed cases where a teenager died while enrolled in one of these programs.
"Ineffective program management played a key role in most of these deaths," Kutz testified before the House Education and Labor Committee.
He said the staff at the facilities was often poorly trained, and kids weren't properly fed and were exposed to dangerous conditions. He said teenagers' cries for medical assistance or help were ignored.
Kutz said in only one of the 10 cases studied closely was anyone found criminally liable and sentenced to serve prison time.
Residential treatment programs are slickly marketed to parents who are at a loss as to how to help emotionally troubled teens, Kutz said. In the cases he studied, "The parents were pretty much told what they wanted to hear," Kutz said.
Bob Bacon of Phoenix, Ariz., whose son Aaron died while enrolled in a wilderness program in Utah, said he was fooled by the owners of that facility into believing his son would be well cared for.
"We were conned by their fraudulent claims and will go to our graves regretting our gullibility," he said.
Bacon said his son was forced to hike eight to 10 miles a day with inadequate nutrition and was not given protective gear to withstand freezing temperatures.
When Aaron complained of severe stomach pains and asked for a doctor, his pleas were ignored even though he had dramatically lost weight and suffered from other serious symptoms, his father testified. Aaron died of an acute infection related to a perforated ulcer.
These residential programs can be privately run or state-led programs and sometimes include an educational or schoollike component.
They are loosely regulated by states. There are no federal laws that define and regulate them.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress said Wednesday that federal legislation may now be necessary to better ensure the safety of children enrolled in such programs.