Two U.S. House members are looking to prevent teens from the same fate that befell Stephanie Scheider.
Scheider, now 26, was taken to a McDonald’s by her parents when she was 15 years old and drugged with prescription sleep medication. When she woke, she found herself at a treatment facility for LGBT teens in Florida known as New Beginnings.
“I had no idea where I was or why,” Scheider wrote in a statement. “I was confused, scared and sensed immediately that something was horribly wrong with this place. And I knew I couldn’t get out.”
While at New Beginnings, Scheider was degraded because of her sexual orientation, with staffers telling her she was going to hell and going to die because she was a lesbian. She recounts receiving various punishments, including physical and psychological abuse. She was repeatedly denied food and water.
“New Beginnings was the beginning of a terrible time,” Scheider said. “I still suffer from the abuse I was forced to endure. Teenagers should not have to go through the things I went through.”
It is because of stories like Scheider’s, recounting abuse allegations at the hands of administrators of various residential treatment programs, that two members of Congress have decided to act.
U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) held a Tuesday morning press conference to introduce a bill to reform residential treatment and youth “boot camp” programs by ending the most egregious abuse practices. They include solitary confinement, electric shock therapy, beatings, hard labor, denial of medical care and deprivation of adequate food and water. The bill would also set minimum federal standards to which such programs would have to adhere, regardless of the state in which they are located.
“Because of a patchwork of state regulations, often these programs are shut down in one state, only to open up in another under a different name,” Schiff said. Indeed, a 2012 investigation by the Tampa Bay Times found that New Beginnings has since relocated to Missouri, due to the state’s even more lax regulations governing religious residential facilities.
Schiff and Ros-Lehtinen both point to a 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office as evidence of the widespread abuse that goes on in some residential treatment facilities. That report found that 34 states had reported over 1,500 staff members involved in incidents of child abuse during 2005, and that 28 states reported at least one fatality in a youth residential treatment program in 2006. Schiff also noted that those were only the reported cases, and that he and Ros-Lehtinen believe that there may be more cases that went unreported.
The bill would require youth facilities to adhere to certain requirements, including allowing children to have “reasonable access” to their families. Many of the programs that have been investigated for potential child abuse infractions have also prohibited youth from communicating with their parents, or only allowed contact if phone calls and other correspondence were either monitored or censored.
The bill would also allow families of youth who enroll in these programs to sue if the program is found to have violated the minimum standards. It would also prohibit residential treatment facilities from discriminating against youth with disabilities, and would protect those who identify as LGBT from being subjected to conversion therapy.
“LGBT youth are particularly at risk of abuse in these camps,” Schiff said. “These young people already face increased risk of mental health and substance abuse issues, as a result of issues ranging from family rejection, pressure to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity, or childhood trauma. Because of this, they are also at higher risk of being sent to residential treatment programs in order to ‘cure’ them of their ‘misbehavior.’ This is often referred to as conversion therapy. Similarly, they are also more at risk of being abused in these programs due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
“I am particularly concerned about this issue because of the many stories, the tragedies we hear about, of young girls and boys in residential treatment facilities,” Ros-Lehtinen added. “As a mother and stepmother to four adult children, and a grandmother to three beautiful and healthy baby girls, my heart aches when I hear about abused children and what their families go through as well. Parents entrust their children to these establishments under the false perception that they will be taken care of. However, they find themselves in a state of shock, due to the unacceptable lack of professionalism, the lack of transparency, and the multiple violations that occur in these facilities.”
States that are noncompliant in enforcing those minimum standards outlined in the bill or in regulating treatment facilities could be threatened with the loss of federal funding. Schiff said that while states can choose to go “above and beyond” the minimum standards set forth in the bill, he believes tying implementation to federal funding will provide “a carrot and a stick” to encourage states to develop their own policies with significant clout.
In addition to reading aloud part of Scheider’s testimony after her travel plans were delayed, Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, expressed her own support for the bill, which she says protects both youth and their parents, “who have been duped into believing these programs will actually help their children.”
“It isn’t treatment to withhold food and water from a teenager for days on end,” Jean said. “It isn’t treatment to beat a teenager. And nothing should ever be considered treatment that involves solitary confinement, withholding medical care, electric shock treatment, public humiliation. Those things are not therapeutic, they are child abuse.”
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