WASHINGTON — The U.S. Interior and Agriculture departments need to launch investigations into so-called wilderness therapy programs that take place on federal land, House members said today.
The Government Accountability Office released a report Wednesday describing 10 cases where teenagers have died in wilderness therapy or other residential treatment programs, including five deaths in Utah.
Parents who lost children testified before House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller's panel Wednesday, including Bob Bacon, who lost his son, Aaron Bacon, in a Utah program in 1994.
In a request sent to the departments' Inspector Generals today, Miller, D-Calif., and House Committee on Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said they want them to investigate the programs held on federal land.
The GAO said Wednesday that many of these programs take place on Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or other federal lands.
"We believe that it is incumbent upon those tasked with managing our nation's lands to implement policies and safeguards to ensure that our public lands are not used in the abuse of troubled children," the lawmakers wrote.
Lawmakers and parents want to create some type of federal regulation of these private programs so other families do not have to suffer. Utah has had regulations in place since 1990, but at least one parent, who lost his son in 1994, said they are not enough.
"Utah doesn't have the finances or the people to enforce it," Bacon told lawmakers Wednesday. Bacon's son Aaron Bacon died at the now-closed North Star Expeditions in 1994.
While some parents claim wilderness therapy or other residential treatments have helped their children struggling with drug addictions or other problems, Bob Bacon and a panel of other parents whose children died in similar programs told the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday they were misled about the programs' qualifications, staffs' expertise and how their children would be handled once enrolled.
Gregory Kutz, GAO's managing director of Forensic Audits and Special Investigations, said the programs "took advantage of desperate parents looking for help for their teenagers."
"The parents were pretty much told what they wanted to hear," Kutz said.
Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the GAO report in 2005, said the abuse described in the GAO report was "inhuman."
"The federal government has completely failed to grasp the urgency of this situation," Miller said.
The committee's top Republican, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said before the committee would consider federal intervention, it needs to understand the breadth of the problem and figure out what the appropriate federal action would be.
"Deaths are pretty serious," McKeon said, adding that if any parent committed the type of the abuse described in the report, he or she would be in jail. "This boggles my mind."
Kurtz said there is really no way to measure the exact number of deaths, and there is no real criminal consequences for those working for companies where children have died.
Bob Bacon told the committee members about his son, who died March 31,1994, of acute peritonitis resulting from a perforated ulcer that developed following several days of hiking through the rugged terrain of Escalante River Canyon in southern Utah.
Bob Bacon showed a photo of his son before going into the program, when he weighed about 131 pounds. As he placed a photo of an emaciated Aaron — who lost 20 percent of his body weight — before his death on the witness table, one congressional staffer fainted.
"Being normal, trusting and honest people ourselves, we assumed we were being told the truth," Bob Bacon said. "We were dead wrong. His mother and I will never escape our decision to send our gifted 16-year-old son to his death at North Star."
Bob Bacon said he and his wife were looking for an alternative for Aaron to his high school, where he was being exposed to drugs and "definitely losing his way."
The family found North Star Expeditions and "after reading their very compelling brochure" and talking with the office and its owners, Bob Bacon said they found "the perfect situation: Caring people who were experienced in counseling kids who were struggling with drugs and social pressure."
"The guilt of our apparent naivete was crippling," Bob Bacon said. "We were conned by their fraudulent claims and will go to our graves regretting our gullibility."
Aaron Bacon, who spent 14 out of 20 days on a trail without any food while being forced to hike eight to 10 miles per day, complained of stomach pain, but the staff thought he was "faking" and denied him treatment — a theme heard from the other witnesses whose children were ill, thought to be making up their conditions to avoid treatment, and then died.
"They're faking until proven dead," Bob Bacon said.
Kutz said that of the 10 cases they examined closely, " ineffective management," including neglect of the participants, played a major roles in the teens' deaths.
The poor management usually resulted in hiring untrained staff, bad operating practices, inadequate nourishment and lack of appropriate equipment, although many times the parents looking into sending their troubled child to the program were told exactly what they wanted to hear.
Ken Stettler, director of the Utah Office of Licensing with the Department of Human Services, said in an interview that the state closed down the North Star program after Aaron Bacon's death. Right now the state has 12 active "outdoor youth treatment" licenses in Utah, which are reviewed every year. The licensees must meet a series of special criteria from how much water is available on hikes to staff education requirements.
Stettler is working with the State of Montana to get regulations in place for outdoor programs in that state. Stettler could not say whether he supported federal regulations for the outdoor treatment programs without seeing a specific proposal. He said a law requiring all states to have regulations might be a good thing but there is nothing, short of not having the camps at all, that could guarantee there would not be abuse. Stettler said no sanction or consequence the state could put on the programs would be good enough for people who have lost loved ones.
Cathy Sutton, whose daughter Michelle Sutton died 17 years ago on the Utah/Arizona border during a hike, was told her program had "highly trained survival experts." But no one realized Michelle was suffering from severe dehydration until she collapsed. The staff with her had no radios and had to build a fire to signal for help.
Cathy Sutton said she was impressed by what GAO found and it "brought lots of comfort" knowing that it could lead to something to be done to prevent other deaths from happening.
"I am so tired of repeating myself," Cathy Sutton said.