WASHINGTON - A House committee signed off on a bill Wednesday that would toughen regulations on residential treatment programs, including the wilderness therapy camps that operate throughout central and southern Utah. The bill, sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., comes in reaction to a Government Accountability Office investigation that highlighted thousands of cases of abuse and maltreatment in these programs nationwide, along with misleading marketing practices and uneven state oversight.
"What we have learned is shocking, infuriating and heartbreaking," said Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. "We have heard from parents of children who died preventable deaths at the hands of untrained, uncaring staff members."
That includes the death of Ian August, who succumbed to heat exhaustion while hiking as part of the Skyline Journey program in July 2002. Skyline Journey has since been closed. Charges were filed against the owner, but were later dismissed.
Utah reported no deaths in 2006, according to the full GAO report, released Tuesday, and the state reported no abuse cases in 2005, though dozens of other states had severe problems.
The report indicated that one-fourth of all wilderness therapy camps are in Utah, which take more teens from outside its borders than any other state.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, speaking against the bill said he worried it could undermine states that already have strong oversight programs.
"My state of Utah does have a law in place that is far stricter than these proposals," he said.
The bill gives the federal government the primary oversight role for three years as states develop matching regulations on nutrition, staff training and abuse. After that time, the states would take over, though federal officials would still conduct on-site inspections every two years.
The federal government would also create a toll-free abuse hot line and develop a Web site that would allow parents to review substantiated abuse claims levied against programs.
"It can be extremely difficult for parents to tell the good programs from the bad," Miller said.
The House Education and Labor Committee passed the bill over the objections of Republicans who believe that setting up a federal regulatory system and a state system is redundant. The committee rejected a series of amendments that would have limited the federal oversight role.
"This is duplicative and totally unnecessary," said Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.
The committee did approve an amendment placed by Bishop that would remove identifying information about victims from public documents. The bill now goes to the full House.
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