As details continue to emerge about the most recent teen boot camp death, I keep wondering what it would be like to live in a country with a rational approach to social policy. And so, for the last time pre-empting my post on how to choose residential programs for teens, I think it's important to first consider what happened to Martin Lee Anderson and what it says about tough love and American government.
Anderson, 14, was a troubled teen who seemed to be getting his life back on track at a public school for under-achieving kids. According to the St. Petersburg Times, he'd improved his grades, was excelling in math and had even won a school leadership award. But then, he and some friends took his grandmother's car for a joyride--and a judge sentenced him to a boot camp run by Florida's Bay County Sheriff's Office. Within three hours, that became capital punishment. A videotape shows boot camp staff beating him to death, while a nurse stands idly by.
The loss of this child is especially shocking because it is completely senseless. We have known since at least 1998 that boot camps are no more effective than juvenile prison at turning young lives around. That year, the Justice Department reviewed the data on these programs. No research found boot camp superior to juvenile detention. One study even found that boot camp participants did significantly worse than their incarcerated counterparts--with 50% of former inmates being re-arrested while a whopping 72% of boot camp participants were. [http://www.ncjrs.org/pdffiles/171676.pdf] [pdf]
Further, the camps have produced hideous abuse scandals in almost every state that tried them. In Georgia, the boot camps were so bad that they sparked a federal investigation by the Justice Department, which uncovered abominations like children being left naked in isolation cells for days and being made to run with tires around their waists in the heat.
In South Dakota, a fourteen-year-old girl who had been arrested for stealing beanie babies died in after a forced three-mile run in hot, humid weather. When she could go no further, she was dragged, then left to lie in the sun and taunted as she hyper-ventilated and lost consciousness. Other teens were left hog-tied in cells for 23 hours a day for up to a month.
In Maryland, the abuse was so brazen that guards proudly allowed the Baltimore Sun to photograph them beating new inmates.
And that's the essence of the problem: when violence and humiliation are considered "therapy," when sadistic emotional and physical attacks are seen as "helping," their victims, there is simply no way to rein staff in. By their very nature, institutions which hold vulnerable, powerless people will misuse their power if not kept on a very short leash. When abuse of power *is* the treatment, it is impossible for that treatment to be safe. Nurses don't intervene in potentially deadly violence because they've been told that that's just what these kids need.
In any sane world, governments would not fund programs that are known to be neither safe nor effective. The existence of private programs utilized by desperate parents can be explained by an unregulated market. But why, nearly ten years after research showed conclusively that these programs don't work, are state governments still funding and operating them themselves?