THERAPEUTIC BOARDING SCHOOLS are part of a treatment industry that includes wilderness camps, ranching programs, and military-style boot camps. Their overall goal is to take struggling teens out of their familiar settings and help them work through the underlying issues leading to destructive behavior. Some are run by Christian organizations. Many are not.
Ben Mason began working as an education consultant in 1987, helping parents find the right program for their children. Explosive growth in the industry began several years later when health insurers stopped paying hospitals to treat children with emotional or behavioral problems. The sudden loss of funds led to some “colorful” bankruptcies, Mason recalled, and a treatment vacuum. Unemployed clinical care providers saw an opportunity to open private facilities. Few states had specific guidelines or rules for oversight.
The new programs often focused on discipline, structure, and punishment, either in a military-style setting or in remote wilderness camps. Many focused on the external behavior rather than the internal motivation and were run by some “real cowboys,” Mason said: “They thought if kids do enough pushups in the mud, they will come around. Well, guess what, they won’t.”
In 2007 the Government Accountability Office reviewed residential treatment programs for teens after several horrific deaths made national headlines. Investigators came to the same conclusion about dozens of cases: Lack of oversight made it hard to protect teens from abusive situations. Some states began cracking down on previously unregulated programs, and the unwanted attention forced the industry to make attempts at self-regulation.
Only 30 states had licensing requirements when Congress held its first hearing. Now, almost all do. That’s encouraging to Megan Stokes, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which promotes the development of best practices within the industry and requires all members to have either a state license or accreditation from one of three mental health agencies: “They need to have some oversight.”
The level of oversight varies widely.
FLORIDA is one of a handful of states that allow Christian programs to opt out of all government oversight. Since 1984, programs with a faith-based exemption fall under the oversight of the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA), a nonprofit organization run by the same people it’s tasked with evaluating. Member programs pay dues, vote on policies, and have the final say on new members.
Lawmakers created the exemptions to give Christian groups freedom to run their programs without secular interference. The state allows similar freedom for private schools, which are completely unregulated. When government regulators in Texas in 1995 overreached, Gov. George W. Bush in 1997 signed legislation that created a good balance. But in some other states a lack of basic safety and health regulation allows for abuse of vulnerable children cut off from any contact with the outside world.
Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, opposes his state’s regulation vacuum. He says desperate parents who believe they’re sending a child to a program run by people who share their beliefs are easy to deceive: Some facilities use “practices in no way consistent with what a responsible Christian group would accept.”
FACCCA did not respond to repeated emails and phone calls requesting comment for this story. But a 2012 investigative report by the Tampa Bay Times documented dozens of abuse allegations against Florida facilities with faith-based exemptions. One girl said staff ordered other teens to pin her to the floor while the pastor’s wife whipped her with a thin rod. When she was done, the woman made all the girls sing “Amazing Grace.”
Other students recalled long stints in isolation rooms, forced sleep deprivation, and orders to exercise until they collapsed. After the Times published its report, FACCCA pledged to modify its guidelines for corporal punishment, isolation, and shackling.
Friedman believes safety has improved in the last 15 years, thanks in part to the industry’s own efforts to adopt professional standards. Programs also do a better job of hiring qualified staff, but he insists it’s still hard to know how safe programs really are. Although he opposes Florida’s faith-based exemption, Friedman doesn’t object to faith-based programs. He’s visited Christian centers in other states that impressed him.
Even the Tampa Bay Times report, clearly critical of faith-based programs, noted only a handful of Florida centers with exemptions had long lists of complaints filed with the state. One story featured a center that used a “gentler” treatment approach—no corporal punishment—while still requiring weekly chapel attendance, as if that were an offense.