By the time some parents consider sending their child to a wilderness therapy program, they are desperate for a solution. They may be readily manipulated by false advertising about therapeutic techniques or the credentials of staff members. In at least five instances in Utah, young people died in such programs some of whom had been denied food, water and prompt medical attention.
These deaths are not acceptable. The ultimate goal of therapy programs is to alter and improve negative behaviors. It is somewhat difficult for a lay person to understand how this is achieved through activities that deny teens basic sustenance while subjecting them to intense physical activity in unforgiving conditions. But some parents claim these programs have saved the lives and salvaged the futures of their sons and daughters.
Not all programs are equal. Some are effective and above board. Others take advantage of the relatively loose oversight the state provides, which renders clients subject to abuse and negligence.
It can be safely said that wilderness therapy programs should be subject to intense regulatory scrutiny. These activities do not occur in group homes in the suburbs where regulators would have easy access to investigate allegations leveled by clients, parents or others. These programs operate in remote areas where operators are on their honor to ensure the safety and well-being of participants. When they fail in those responsibilities, teens can die.
But there is some debate whether the federal government or the state should have oversight responsibility. Seemingly, this should be a function of the state. However, the Department of Human Services needs sufficient resources to ensure its regulatory functions protect these already vulnerable teens. It also should remain in state hands because some of these programs offer educational services. Oversight of education is a state responsibility.
It is not a proud distinction that half of the 10 deaths in wilderness therapy programs discussed in a recent hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee occurred in Utah. Although Utah has regulated wilderness therapy programs since 1990 and has shut down at least three, one parent who testified before the congressional committee said Utah lacks the finances and personnel to enforce its regulations.
The Utah Legislature, in concert with the state Department of Human Services, needs to review this matter. In times of unprecedented state surpluses, there would appear to be sufficient resources to improve the reach of the state's regulatory arm.