The vote was on a motion by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) to suspend the regular House rules and pass “The Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act.” This legislation established the first set of national standards for private and public residential programs that are intended to help teenagers with behavioral, emotional, mental health, or substance abuse problems. There are 20,000 to 30,000 teenagers enrolled in these programs, which include therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness camps, boot camps, and behavior modification facilities. There had been no national federal standards for these facilities. Many states also had not set their own minimum treatment standards or methods of accountability for them, or had regulated only the publicly funded programs. The Government Accountability Office, which undertakes investigations for Congress, had issued a report in 2007 that found there had been thousands of allegations of child abuse and neglect at these teenage residential programs since 1990. It also found evidence of ineffective management," and "reckless or negligent operating practices" at many of the facilities. This legislation was intended to prevent these problems from occurring in the future.
The measure established the first set of national standards for a basic level of care that all such programs must provide and for their methods of operation. It contained language designed to prevent these facilities from physically, mentally, or sexually abusing children in their care. These new standards specifically prohibited the facilities from denying essential water, food, clothing, shelter, or medical care to their residents, and required that they provide the teenagers with reasonable access to a telephone. It also required that they train their staffs in what constitutes child abuse and neglect and how to report it. The legislation gave the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the authority to assess civil penalties up to $50,000 against a facility for each legal violation. It further required HHS to create a web site listing every residential treatment program for youth, their licensing, and reports of participants' injury or death.
The measure excluded state-sponsored foster programs, juvenile-justice programs for delinquent youth, and programs that exclusively treat psychological disorders or substance abuse in a hospital setting. However, it encouraged states to develop their own oversight of these programs and provided grants to states that develop licensing standards and active oversight. In addition, the measure contained language barring deceptive marketing practices by these teenage residential treatment programs, and requiring them to inform parents of the qualifications, roles, and responsibilities of all staff and of substantiated reports of child abuse or violations of health and safety laws at the facility.
The bill was supported by The American Psychiatric Association, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and The Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse. Some Republican House members opposed the measure on the ground that the Government Accountability Office report was based on anecdotal evidence that made an emotional appeal to Congress, but was not a sufficient basis for the changes made by the bill.
The vote on the motion was 295 ayes and 102 nays. Two hundred and thirty-one Democrats and sixty-four Republicans voted “aye”. One Hundred and one Republicans and one Democrat voted “nay”. As a result, the House approved the first set of legislatively-imposed national standards for private and public teenage residential programs.