New bill would regulate youth residential “boot camps” associated with ex-gay conversion therapy

Representatives Adam Schiff (D – CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced legislation today that would regulate youth therapy “booth camps,” many of which practice ex-gay conversion therapy.

Currently, these programs are largely unregulated, with little oversight as to how these American-based businesses conduct themselves at camp sites both in and out of the United States.

Modeled after similar legislation introduced in California earlier this year, the “Stop Child Abuse in Residential Treatment Programs for Teen Act” would effectively ban conversion therapy at these residential boot camps. Like its counterpart in California, the bill does not include a religious exemption, and with good reason: religious organizations have proven to be some of the worst offenders when it comes to abusing children under the auspices of residential “therapy.”

Conversion therapy has already been outlawed in multiple states, as every major medical organization that has weighed in on the practice agrees that it has no merit as psychological treatment; instead describing it as abuse. A jury in New Jersey recently found, unanimously, that a conversion therapy group made deliberately fraudulent claims as to its ability to “cure” clients of their homosexuality.

Child via Shutterstock

Child via Shutterstock

Going beyond simply banning conversion therapy within the programs, however, the bill would provide for basic regulations regarding the camps’ standards and practices. Currently, camps operating within the United States need only fill out a one-page affidavit with the Department of Education in order to be approved to do business; camps owned in the United States but operating out of the country don’t even need to do that much.


This makes data collection on abuse at these camps difficult to track, but what evidence has been gathered looks grim at best. A 2007 GAO 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.”

As Lorri Jean, CEO of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said in a statement:

It isn’t ‘treatment’ to withhold food and water from a youth. It isn’t treatment to beat a teenager. And nothing should ever be considered treatment that involves denial of medical care, solitary confinement, electric shocks, or public humiliation. That’s not therapeutic. That’s child abuse. And yet that is exactly what’s happening throughout the country because residential programs that claim to help troubled teens are operating without necessary and appropriate oversight.

While state-level bills have shown signs of progress, federal legislation is seen as necessary because businesses forced to close down shop in one state can simply re-incorporate somewhere else with looser oversight.

Even though the bill has bipartisan sponsorship, and is proposing what would otherwise be considered noncontroversial oversight and regulations against the abuse of children, it’s unclear as to whether it will become law given its lack of religious exemptions. Even if a majority of the members of the House and/or Senate are willing to vote for the bill, it requires the blessing of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in order to come up for a vote — a blessing they will likely not give unless a majority of their respective caucuses support it.

That being said, California’s version of the legislation passed in the State Senate by an overwhelming 35-1 margin (the State Assembly has not yet voted on it), so it isn’t out of the question that enough Republicans are willing to get behind this bill to make it law.

If the bill does in fact die in the Republican-controlled Congress, the GOP will have literally gone on record in support of unregulated child abuse. It’ll be interesting to see how they approach the proposal.

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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