WASHINGTON — The House approved a bill Tuesday aimed at protecting teens enrolled in wilderness therapy camps, several of which are based in Utah.
Several provisions in the bill are modeled after Utah's state regulations on the wilderness camps, and although the bill passed 318 to 103, Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, would have rather seen the state continue to handle the facilities.
"We are dealing with a situation here which is more anecdotal than actual," Bishop said on the House floor Tuesday. "In short, this is an approach in which the states, especially my state, are actually solving the problem in a better way right now. We do not need the federal government to be involved in this particular program."
The bill, introduced by House Education and Labor chairman George Miller, D-Calif., stems from a Government Accountability Office investigation that found cases of abuse, neglect and even death in these programs, including five deaths in Utah. It also detailed deceptive practices the camps use to get parents to enroll their children.
Miller held hearings on the camps, including testimony from former participants and parents of children who died while participating.
The bill would:
• Prohibit physical, sexual and mental abuse of children enrolled in such programs as well as require that participants get adequate food, water and medical care.
• Establish new staff training requirements.
• Authorize a toll-free hotline for people to call and report abuse.
• Call for the Health and Human Services Department to create a Web site with any abuse information connected to a specific program.
• Require programs to better explain staff roles and responsibilities to parents looking for more information on sending their children to the camps or therapies.
• Provide $50 million per year through 2013 to Health and Human Services to carry out the provisions.
States have three years to set safety and other standards created in the bill if the Senate also passes it and Bush signs it into law.
During floor debate on Tuesday, Bishop took issue with some parts of the bill, saying it is based on only partial facts.
"Unfortunately, this bill is based upon a GAO report that is spotty at best which dealt with anecdotal evidence," Bishop said. "My office received a very emotional call from one of those who was cited, one of the programs that was cited, saying that the death had been found to be an accident, but GAO had never asked them about it. In fact, the GAO investigator admitted the eight anecdotal cases that were brought before us, only one resulted in any kind of criminal activity, which simply meant either these problems were dealt with in a professional way or the legal system failed us miserably."
Bishop said one of the studies estimated about 1.1 injuries per 1,000 days of participation, but he pointed out that high school football camps have 19.7 injuries per 1,000 days of participation.
"In fact, even average kids living at home who have a driver's license are estimated at 4.5 accidents per 1,000 days," Bishop said.
He did not vote for the bill in committee and did not vote for the bill on final passage Wednesday. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, supported the bill. Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, was still in Utah after Tuesday's primary election and did not vote.