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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  • Guest

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  • SL Abrin

    Fix the gay and abstinence are just new ways for churches to get their unaccountable little fingers into taxpayer monies….and little boys.

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  • The_Fixer

    Get rid of their tax-exempt status and a lot of them will go away naturally, don’t need to abolish them. Donations will fall off greatly once that people realize that they won’t be getting a tax break for doing so.

    L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology because it was access to tax-free cash. If anyone thinks that the rest of the preachers we see consistently embarrassing themselves on TV would stick with preaching once they aren’t the beneficiaries of tax-free cash, I’d suggest thinking about it again.

    Religions would quickly lose a lot of their influence because a lot of their income will go away. After all, it takes money and people to get lobbyists. Less of it, and they have fewer lobbyists and will not be a threat to normal life.

    Or at least, that’s my hope.

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  • 2karmanot

    Churches should lose their tax exempt status and be subject to the full measures of Civil Rights laws. Better yet, they should be abolished altogether.

  • Indigo

    There’s nothing I can add to what has already been said but I can fully endorse the range of comments below. Pre-Hellenic Mediterranean human sacrifice only takes one form these days, we call it “war” but really, we’re just throwing away lives in a war-styled setting for the sake of economic stability. By a similar token, throwing away young lives through psychological abuse and physical discomfort takes a front seat in modern American stylings as a variant on the ancient practice of human sacrifice. They kill the spirit and leave the body as an abused husk. That’ll be quite enough out of the religionists!. To my way of thinking, we need to confront them directly and name their abusive practice by its most telling name: a psychological form of human sacrifice.

  • The_Fixer

    As to the question posed in the title of the article, there’s no one answer. But I can think of a few salient points that need to be made, and I’m certain others can add more to this.

    First, awareness. Some people are simply not aware of how children who are having real troubles (like drug abuse, etc.) and those who are naturally different (LGBTQ, and unaccepted as a result) have been “treated.” It’s not on their radar unless there’s been some local story that captures their attention. The general public is unaware that these “correction camps” and other programs of their ilk exist, and their nature.

    Coupled with this is the perception that these programs, when they are known to the general public, exist to deal with “problem children” and make them stronger. That’s largely the result of propaganda (AKA Bullshit) disseminated by the organizations who run these programs. Some members of the churches and other organizations who run these programs do, in fact, find nothing wrong with the tactics used. Truly, they are the dark-hearted of humanity.

    Secondly, churches and other “faith-based” organizations have, for too long, been given a pass. Churches are entrusted by their memberships, and by the public at large, as benevolent organizations. If such organizations say “Spare the rod and spoil the child” as a biblical admonition, then that organization is given a pass. Not to mention that the Federal government has an “Office of Faith-Based Initiatives (clearly in violation of the constitution). In all, religious organizations get undue respect.

    We’ve given organizations of a religious nature wide latitude when it comes to allowing them to “counsel” their membership. Supposedly, they are limited to counseling on matters of faith; but religious zealots regard everything as a matter of faith. There’s been an unwillingness to clearly delineate just where they have to stop. Make an attempt to go against their theology, even when it comes to matters of basic human rights, and you get efforts like the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (I’m still wondering what freedoms that they have lost).

    It is far past the time when we have to regulate this kind of behavior. The general public is becoming aware of this, which is why we see the introduction of legislation such as SB 524. This won’t be fixed overnight and you can be sure that there will be a vigorous, church-led backlash against any attempt to regulate them. But in the end, it will have to be done.

    I’m tired of seeing kids kill themselves because some preacher tells them that they are defective and going to hell. It’s the worst kind of abuse as it deals with a person’s self-worth. And Children, as Becca points out below, are not property.

  • Churches are rarely subject to even the most basic rules that would govern schools, day care centers and other businesses that deal with children. Many churches abide by the highest standards, but many others do not and there’s no way of knowing which is which unless you ask very specific questions. This is absurd, but it’s going to go on because our elected officials are scared to death of the religious right and the moderate and liberal christians would rather shame everyone for criticizing them than actually take them on.

  • Bose

    Worth highlighting, in my mind — more than being about ex-gay “conversion”, the focus of these places has been denying kids (and their parents) access to all standard information and support. Parents are exploited based on their kids’ addictions, criminal histories, youthful rebellions, and in a minority of cases, their sexual orientation. The abuse that’s been reported has included shaming kids into expected gender roles as one piece of boot camp experience framed as behavior modification and discipline.

  • It’s really quite simple: The Christian Biblical view of children is they are property.

    Echoes of this basic position remain within American culture and attitudes. The notion that children have civil rights at all is a fairly modern notion, from a historical perspective.

    Rape, wife beatings…these too were legal. Hence the idea that parents should be charged with kidnapping their own children and with neglect and abuse for shipping them off to unregulated child prisons for torture and brain-washing is also rather new.

    This is still more of the culturally regressive push from the far-right, that they want to roll back all of these post-Enlightenment and modern measures. After all, let’s not forget some of them are already floating the idea of repealing child labor laws, as well as making it legal once more to pay a child pennies a day for dangerous work. (And of course, if they’re YOUR children, they’re to be your slaves, basically, with no requirement they be educated or anything.)

  • Mike_in_the_Tundra

    If anyone has Amazon Prime, you can watch “Kidnapped for Christ” for free. I started talking to my laptop when one of the staff said that some abuse is expected when dealing with children. I taught elementary school and helped raise two children, and there was no abuse ….. ever!

  • nicho

    Well, you can see a broken nail. You can’t see a broken spirit.

  • Butch1

    These sadistic religious thugs should be behind bars and never be able to be near children.

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