WASHINGTON — The House Education and Labor Committee approved a bill today that would create stricter rules-and penalties — for wilderness therapy programs, boot camps or other such type programs, with several provisions modeled after what is already being done in Utah.

The bill stems from the Government Accountability Office reported cases of abuse, neglect and even death in these programs, including five deaths in Utah. Parents whose children died and former participants themselves have told the committee about problems they experienced. GAO testified last month that some of these programs use deceptive tactics when talking with parents looking to enroll their children.

"Today we are taking the first step towards finally ending the horrific abuses that have gone on for far too long in residential programs for teens," said Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif, who introduced the bill last month. "With children's health and safety at risk, this federal role is a necessary recognition that we are dealing with an emergency and we cannot wait for states to act. Ultimately, however, the states will be primarily responsible for carrying out the work of this bill."

The committee approved Miller's substitute amendment that made technical changes to the bill and the committee approved the bill 27-16. As approved, the bill would do the following things:

• Prohibit physical, sexual, and mental abuse of children enrolled in such programs as well as require that participants get adequate food, water and medical care.

• Establish new staff training requirements.

• Authorizes a toll-free hotline for people to call and report abuse, among other provisions.

• Calls for the Health and Human Services Department to create a website with any abuse information connected to a specific program.

• Programs would have to better explain staff roles and responsibilities to parents looking for more information on sending their children to the camps or therapies.

• Provides $50 million per year through 2013 to HHS to carry out the provisions.

States have three years to set safety and other standards created in the bill once it would be signed into law, if Congress passes it.

"As we have examined these programs, it has become clear that state regulations are uneven at best, with some states aggressively monitoring such program and others clearly failing to do so," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., the committee's top Republican. "This is unacceptable. States have a fundamental responsibility to protect their citizens and monitor the organizations operating within their borders."

Ken Stettler, Director of Utah's Office of Licensing, who has met with GAO officials for two years on this topic, said GAO wanted to know a lot about what the state has already put in place and what is working. Stettler said he also talked with the committee's staff about what the state has done, and that some of the provisions of Miller's bill came right out of Utah's regulations.

Stettler said Utah is ahead of most states in monitoring these programs and setting up regulations for them.

"We've been at the game for 20-plus years now," he said. "It's always been a state responsibility to license and monitor these facilities in the state. That, I think, is the best way."

At Wednesday's committee meeting, Republicans complained that the bill created standards that many states already have in place and is creating more work for the program rather than letting them focus on helping those enrolled in the program. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., called provisions of the bill "duplicative and totally unnecessary."

McKeon said the dual system of federal and state oversight created in the bill was not best idea to help stop the reported abuse and neglect in the programs. He offered his owned version of the bill with several changes, but the committee rejected it.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, pointed out that Utah has a law in place "that is far stricter than what is proposed."

Bishop said the bill had several issues and offered an amendment limiting personal identification information that would be available to the public through reporting requirements and a web-based database created in the bill. The amendment passed via voice vote. Bishop voted no on the bill's final passage.

The bill still needs to be voted on by the full House and in the Senate before going to President Bush to sign into law.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com