Why are abusive ex-gay therapy camps less-regulated than nail salons?

On Friday, the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Survivors of Institutional Abuse launched a campaign seeking basic regulations for “the industry of residential programs that claim to help ‘troubled’ youth, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.”

Given the track record of such programs, regulating them is a no-brainer.

As LALGBT Director of Public Policy David Garcia said:

It’s outrageous that neighborhood nail salons are more regulated than the industry of residential schools, camps and wilderness programs that are entrusted with the lives of kids. We’ve heard from survivors forced to endure torture techniques that include food and water deprivation, physical abuse, and electric shocks. We’ve also spoken to devastated parents whose children died in these programs.

Not much is known about these institutions, which advertise themselves as places parents can send kids in need of “character building.” Many of the business are located abroad, despite being American-owned, and those operating within the United States often need nothing more than a one-page affidavit from the Department of Education in order to open for business.

This makes them incredibly difficult to monitor, and the small sample of data that’s available is shocking. As Buzzfeed reported (emphasis added):

Malnourishment and flawed operations are among the conclusions from the most comprehensive examination of certain programs for troubled youth, conducted by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO’s 2007 report “found thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death, at residential treatment programs across the country and in American-owned and American-operated facilities abroad between the years 1990 and 2007.”

Truly comprehensive data simply don’t exist, the government said. But the researchers drilled down on one year in particular: “During 2005 alone, 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential programs.” Three teens died between 1990 and 2002, the report found, adding that some facilities had undertrained staff, under-nourished the kids, and maintained reckless or negligent operating practices.

New Horizons Youth Ministries, the American umbrella organization responsible for some of the more egregious abuses outlined in the GAO report and in the documentary, Kidnapped for Christ, is now defunct. However, a cached version of their website advertises them as an institution devoted to “therapeutic Christian education” for parents to send a child who “rejects your family’s Christian values.”

Those who were sent to camps run through New Horizons reported beatings, hours of menial chores, malnourishment, solitary confinement and forced memorization of Bible passages, among other forms of abuse. Some teens were literally kidnapped and taken away in the middle of the night.

While New Horizons is no longer in business, there are hundreds of similar programs operating in and out of the United States.

In response to these findings, California State Senator Ricardo Lara has sponsored SB 524, the “Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act,” and Congressman Adam Schiff (D – CA) is planning on sponsoring similar federal legislation. The goal is simple: As Senator Lara said in a statement:

SB 524 would define private alternative youth treatment and education institutions and require them to obtain a license from the Department of Social Services and ensure youth’s rights are protected.

More importantly, the law would not include any exemptions — religious or otherwise. If you want to take responsibility for the health and wellbeing of someone else’s kids for an extended period of time, whether you’re taking them on nature hikes or saving their souls, parents and the public have a right to know that those kids aren’t being abused.

This is crucial in light of the fact that the bulk of these camps for “troubled youth” are nothing more than a front for abusive ex-gay conversion programs that have been repeatedly found — by medical organizations including the American Psychological Association, the American Pediatric Association and the American Medical Association — to be ineffective and harmful. The practice has already been outlawed in California and New Jersey.

So, as the California and federal bills make their way through their respective legislatures, here’s what you can do:

  • Sign the petition supporting California’s SB 524.
  • Call your federal representatives and ask them to support Congressman Schiff’s upcoming legislation.
  • Share widely. There is no reason for these kinds of programs to be exempt from basic regulations, and one of the reasons why they don’t already exist is that not enough people know that they don’t.

We’ll be keeping track of these bills as they move forward.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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