"The program was an endless nightmare of torture including public beatings and humiliation, hard labor, and sometimes solitary confinement in a windowless cell where we relieved ourselves in a bucket"
In response to reports of abuse from thousands of youth, and the reported deaths of hundreds of young people, the Los Angeles LGBT Center announced at a news conference today that it has joined forces with Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA) - on the eve of its annual conference - to launch a national campaign to regulate the industry of residential programs that claim to help "troubled" youth, including those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
"It's outrageous that neighborhood nail salons are more regulated than the industry of residential schools, camps and wilderness programs that are entrusted with the lives of kids," said the Center's David Garcia, director of Public Policy. "We've heard from survivors forced to endure torture techniques that include food and water deprivation, physical abuse, and electric shocks. We've also spoken to devastated parents whose children died in these programs."
David Wernsman, a young gay survivor of a program for "troubled teens," shared his story of abuse, which is depicted in the 2014 documentary Kidnapped for Christ.
"When I was 17, two large men woke me up before dawn, tied a belt around my waist and forced me out of my home," said Wernsman. "I was taken to a dumping ground - guarded by men with guns - for kids whose families didn't know how to solve their child's issue. In my case, it was the fact that I'm gay. The program was an endless nightmare of torture including public beatings and humiliation, hard labor, and sometimes solitary confinement in a windowless cell where we relieved ourselves in a bucket. They blanketed their abusive practices under the guise of Christianity."
Garcia and Wernsman were joined at the news conference by SIA President Jodi Hobbs and California State Senator Ricardo Lara who announced the introduction of his "Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act" (SB 524). The bill is common sense legislation co-sponsored by the Center and SIA to regulate the "troubled teen" industry, with no exemption for religious-based groups.
"Tragically many young people have experienced horrendous abuse, neglect, and even death at some unregulated youth facilities," said Senator Lara. "SB 524 would define private alternative youth treatment and education institutions and require them to obtain a license from the Department of Social Services and ensure youth's rights are protected."
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in just one year (2005), 1,619 program employees - in 33 states - were involved in incidents of abuse. And SIA reports the deaths of more than 300 people who are linked to these programs. Federal legislation is essential, because it's common for programs forced to close in one state to re-open in another, often under a different name. That's why the Center also announced that it is working with U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff and other leaders in Congress to finally pass federal legislation to regulate this industry.
"We cannot ignore reports that far too many young people have died and 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," said U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff.
"This is why I am working with my colleagues to introduce legislation that will hold all residential treatment programs accountable for instances of child abuse. The measure will also increase the transparency of these programs so that parents can make informed and safer choices for their children. 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. "
The Center has launched the website www.PYIA.org to share information about its "Protect Youth from Institutional Abuse" campaign with an online petition to members of congress and the California legislature. The site also lists the growing number of organizations that have signed on as campaign supporters.
About the Los Angeles LGBT Center
Since 1969 the Los Angeles LGBT Center has cared for, championed and celebrated LGBT individuals and families in Los Angeles and beyond. Today the Center's nearly 500 employees and 3,000 volunteers provide services for more LGBT people than any other organization in the world, offering programs, services and global advocacy that span four broad categories: Health, Social Services and Housing, Culture and Education, Leadership and Advocacy. We are an unstoppable force in the fight against bigotry and the struggle to build a better world; a world in which LGBT people can be healthy, equal and complete members of society. Learn more at lalgbtcenter.org
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