by Tim Reid
Thousands of teenagers sent to American boot camps have suffered horrific abuse and some have paid with their lives, according to a shocking new report by the US Congress.
The report, presented with harrowing testimony from parents of three teenagers who died at boot camps, comes as a Florida manslaughter trial opened into the death of Martin Lee Anderson, 14. He was filmed being beaten by camp guards minutes before he died, footage seen not only inside the courtroom but on television screens across America.
The Government Accountability Office, the US Congress investigative arm, identified 1,619 incidents of child abuse in 33 states in 2005. It selected ten deaths since 1990 for special investigation in boot camps and “wilderness programmes”.
Parents send their children to the privately run camps in the hope that their strict regimes and outdoor pursuits will instil discipline. But the findings suggest that instructors often go too far in trying to teach them good behaviour.
“Examples of abuse include youths being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or faeces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground,” Gregory Kutz, a GAO investigator, told a congressional committee.
One teenager, Mr Kutz said, was “forced to use a toothbrush to clean a toilet, then forced to use that toothbrush on their own teeth”. The abuse that preceded the deaths of the ten teenagers was particularly shocking. “If you walked in partway through my presentation you might have assumed I was talking about human rights violations in a Third World country,” Mr Kutz said.
Speaking in front of photographs of his emaciated son an hour before his death, Bob Bacon — the father of Aaron — described how his son had been starved, with his weight falling from 9st 4lb (59kg) to 7st 10lb in three weeks. He said that he and his wife had sent Aaron to the Northstar Expeditions in Escalante, Utah, in the hope that it would get him away from the drugs that he had started dabbling in at school.
A “bloody and battered journal” that Aaron kept contained “an unbelievable account of torture, abuse and neglect”, Mr Bacon said. He said that Aaron spent 14 of 20 days “without any food whatsoever” while having to hike eight to ten miles (13-16km) a day. When he was given food, it consisted of “undercooked lentils, lizards, scorpions, trail mix and a celebrated canned peach on the 13th day”. Aaron died from an untreated perforated ulcer. His father said that he had been beaten “from the top of his head to the tip of his toes” during his month at the camp. “His mother and I will never escape our decision to send our 16-year-old son to his death,” Mr Bacon said.
At the American Buffalo Soldiers boot camp in Arizona, where Anthony Haynes, 14, died in 2001, children were fed an apple for breakfast, a carrot for lunch and a bowl of beans for dinner, the GAO report said. Anthony became dehydrated in a 45C (113F) temperature and vomited soil that he had eaten because of his hunger, according to witnesses. The programme closed and Charles Long, its director, was sentenced in 2005 to six years in prison for manslaughter. The report said that five of the ten programmes where teenagers died are still operating, sometimes under different names. Between 10,000 and 20,000 American children attend the camps every year. Some charge as much as $450 (£225) a day.
Mr Kutz said that the programmes marketed appealing outdoor experiences to “desperate parents”, who are often trying to keep their children out of jail or from getting into deeper trouble.
Paul Lewis said that his son, Ryan, 14, committed suicide six years ago after one week at a West Virginia boot camp. “To turn your son over to someone else and hope they’re going to love and protect your child was naive on my part. We thought \ was an answer to our prayers. It turned out to be a living nightmare.”
Republican and Democrat members of the committee reacted with outrage and dismay at the report and the parents’ often tearful testimony. They called for new laws that would regulate the boot camps, some of which are not even licensed.
In Panama City, Florida, seven guards and a nurse are on trial over Martin Lee Anderson’s death. The opening day was so traumatic for his mother, Gina Jones, that she ran from the courtroom, sobbing and shouting “I cannot take it.”
Prosecutors say that the guards suffocated the boy by covering his mouth, making him inhale ammonia. The guards and nurse each face up to 30 years in jail if convicted.
— A 15-year-old girl collapsed of dehydration while hiking in 1990 and lay dead on road for 18 hours
— A 15-year-old boy refused to return to camp in 2000. He was forcibly restrained and died of a severed artery – ruled a homicide
— A 14-year-old boy punished for asking to go home in 2001 was made to sit in the desert, then left in bath to recuperate – later died
— A 14-year-old boy complained of thirst in 2002, was left in sun for an hour and stopped breathing and died. Staff thought he was faking