On October 10, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported on the findings of its investigating into so called “wilderness programs.” Said Greg Kutz, managing director of forensic audits and special investigations, “If you walked in part way through my presentation, you might have assumed that I was talking about human rights violations in a third world country.” There are currently no federal laws regulating these facilities, and many states – including most of the 33 states from which these charges come – do not require any form of licensing for them.

The list of grievances found by the Office included examples of youth being forced to eat their own vomit, being beaten or thrown around, or forced to stand for hours in the sun – often while carrying or wearing weights or backpacks – by untrained or improperly trained personnel. At least ten deaths have already been brought to light so far, including those of 15-year-old Erica Harvey and of Aaron Bacon, both of whom died due to abuse or negligence by program staff, and of 14-year-old Ryan Lewis, who hung himself while under the “care” of such a facility in West Virginia. These are the barest fraction of the 1,619 incidents of abuse revealed to the Office during this hearing.

The report was delivered to a Congressional investigative hearing called by Education and Labor Committee Chairman Representative George Miller (D-CA). An additional report is expected to be presented in February that probes deeper into the hundreds of reports of abuse at these facilities. The Committee is considering a bill introduced by Rep. Miller that would provide Federal oversight and regulation for these facilities. The hearing was an incredible victory for youth advocates. Watch the full hearing online. Read more about the committee hearing at the NYRA Blog.

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