In an effort to halt reported abuse at programs claiming to help young people — such as offering to "fix" gay children — a state lawmaker and LGBT activists on Friday announced a campaign to regulate the so-called troubled teen industry.
"Under the veil of religious exemption, some facilities in California and abroad claim to help troubled teens or to 'cure' LGBT kids through residential schools, camps or wilderness programs," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who appeared Friday in Hollywood with employees of the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
"Many of these facilities have operated without regulation or any type of oversight — and without oversight, it's impossible to protect our children," Lara said.
Lara has introduced the Protecting Youth From Institutional Abuse Act, legislation that he said would regulate the private industry that treats troubled teenagers. The legislation would require private alternative youth treatment and education institutions — such as boot camps, therapeutic boarding schools, religious children's homes and behavior modification programs — to be licensed by the state Department of Social Services.
According to a draft of SB 524, there are at least a dozen unlicensed youth residential institutions in California. Nationwide, the proposed bill says, there are hundreds of such facilities, serving 10,000 to 14,000 youths each year. Although the institutions — often owned and operated by nonprofit groups — advertise services for youths with behavior issues, they often are not licensed to treat substance abuse or mental health disorders.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, youths in such facilities experience high levels of maltreatment, physical abuse and neglect that sometimes lead to accidental death or suicide. Weaknesses in the federal and state regulatory structure have failed to safeguard vulnerable youths, the agency said.
Lara said parents often send their children to the programs to try to change their sexual orientation. Therapies aimed at converting minors from gay to straight is illegal in California. But, officials said, it still happens by different means.
Rebecca Lopez, 18, said in an interview Friday that she was forbidden to say she was gay at an all-girls' Christian boarding school for troubled teenagers in Northern California, where she spent six months.
Late one night about three years ago, Lopez's mother told her to go to her room, where a man she said she didn't know arrived, pretending to be a police officer. The man told Lopez he was going to take her to a police station; instead, he drove her more than 500 miles north of her family's North Hollywood home to the school in Shasta County.
At the school, she was deprived of food and forbidden to communicate with family and friends. Because school officials knew she was gay, she said she was subjected to "no-touch therapy" and banned from touching other people.
"To this day, if someone reaches over and touches my arm lightly, I feel the need to pull away," she said. "I still feel like I'm going to get in trouble for getting touched."
Lopez's family had signed over her guardianship to the school. When her mother finally agreed to remove her, Lopez said, she had to hide in the back seat of her mother's car so she wouldn't be detected.
Dave Garcia, director of public policy for the Los Angeles LGBT Center — which supports Lara's proposed bill — said many of the facilities are religiously affiliated. The legislation would not permit religious exemptions that would allow facilities to not be regulated by the state.
"Your religion does not give you the right to abuse a child," Garcia said. "No cross will protect you from the law."
The LGBT Center also announced that it is working with Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and others in Congress to press for federal legislation to regulate the industry. It is common, officials said, for programs forced to close in one state to reopen in another, using a different name.
"Families that turn to these treatment programs for help, often as a last resort, must know that their children are safe and in the care of professionals," Schiff said.