Residential treatment programs for young people that engage in controversial "gay conversion" therapy would face comprehensive federal regulation under a bill introduced Tuesday on Capitol Hill.
By prohibiting the facilities from discriminating against LGBT and disabled youths and allowing residents or their families to sue in federal court, the proposed legislation could essentially ban so-called gay conversion therapy nationwide.
Many such programs – intended to rehabilitate children with mental health problems, behavioral or substance abuse issues – have been accused of instead starving their charges, restraining them physically and mentally abusing them. Some cases of neglect have led to death or suicide, state statistics have shown.
"We cannot ignore reports that young people have died and thousands have suffered abuse at the hands of those who run and work at residential treatment programs under the guise of providing critical therapy and rehabilitation services," Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), one of the bill's cosponsors, said at a news conference Tuesday.
An estimated 4,600 teenagers were enrolled in such programs in 2013, said Paul Gionfriddo, president and chief executive of Mental Health America. Families tend to turn to these residential "boot camp" programs as a last resort after unsuccessful experiences with traditional inpatient mental health services, he said.
In some circumstances parents send their children to treatment programs in an effort to change their sexual orientation from gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual to straight, known as "gay conversion" therapy. California banned the practice in 2012.
Some of the treatment facilities have subjected young people to practices such as "starvation, excessive physical restraints and neglectful medical treatment," said Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the bill's other cosponsor. "No one should undergo this physical or emotional abuse."
Similar versions of the bill passed in the House in 2011 and 2013, but died in the Senate. Schiff was optimistic about prospects for the new bill.
"No child can be scared straight, and no one should have to endure attempts to change who they are," said Lorri L. Jean, chief executive of Los Angeles LGBT Center. "It's long past time for Congress to pass sensible legislation to regulate this rogue, multimillion-dollar industry that's profiting from the abuse of young people."
Jodi Hobbs of Fullerton, president of the Survivors of Institutional Abuse organization, described her own experiences in a private California therapeutic boarding school and said she's still grappling with them. The facility, she said, would attempt to "break the wills" of its young boarders by using techniques such as locking them in a punishment room for hours at a stretch.
Schiff emphasized the need for federal regulation, noting that "programs are often shut down in one state only to open in another under a different name."
State Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) introduced similar legislation in California this year to increase regulations and oversight on private residential programs, mandating licensure of such facilities.
Critics questioned the need for federal regulation in states that already regulate residential care facilities. Megan Stokes, director of government and public relations at the National Assn. of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, an industry organization of treatment programs, said such states should be exempt from the bill.
Several law professors agreed that Congress had the constitutional power to enact such legislation. "Such a federal law, which hopefully would eliminate gay conversation therapy, as California law has done, would be clearly constitutional," according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine Law School, who pointed to Congress' power to regulate interstate commerce.
Adam Winkler, professor of law at UCLA, emphasized the need for truthful disclosure in these programs. "Lawmakers here are trying to stop [caregivers] from giving patients misleading, scientifically inaccurate information," Winkler said.
Gionfriddo pointed to the greater transparency the bill would impose, requiring all residential treatment programs to publicly disclose any past record of child abuse and state licensing status. "Parents would have more information about the program, better contact with their children, and greater assurance that programs were evidence-based and not dangerous for their children," he said.
In April, the White House announced its stance against conversion therapy programs for minors.