September, 22 2017
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Dems want probe of wilderness therapy programs on federal lands
Two leading congressional Democrats called for a probe Thursday into wilderness therapy programs that operate on federal lands.
The request sent to the Interior and Agriculture departments follows the release of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that showed thousands of allegations of abuse and a number of deaths in these outdoor camps meant to help teens suffering from mental health problems, drug abuse and other issues.
"It is incumbent upon those tasked with managing our nation's lands to implement policies and safeguards to ensure that our public lands are not used in the abuse of troubled children," Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., wrote in a letter to the inspectors general of the two departments.
Utah's Wilderness Programs
Such a probe would focus heavily on Utah's wilderness therapy programs. The state has 12 licensed groups, 10 of which operate on either Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land.
The GAO could not find the number of programs nationwide that operate on federal land because there is no central repository for information on outdoor therapy groups.
Miller and Rahall want the investigation to determine how the government issued permits and how well the therapy camps complied with the rules.
Cases of Concern
Miller was particularly outraged about a case in West Virginia, where in 2001 a 14-year-old boy committed suicide while enrolled in a program that falsely claimed to have expertise in suicide prevention.
That program now called the Ayne Institute has not paid required permit fees for eight years, according to GAO investigators.
Miller and Rahall also want the public lands probe to determine what role Interior or Agriculture agencies "played in investigating and preventing such child abuse and neglect on federal lands."
This investigation, like the GAO report, is part of a larger congressional inquiry into the groups with an eye toward some federal oversight role.
The GAO report focused on 10 cases in which teens died in the program, most of them from dehydration or heat related illnesses. Five of those cases involved Utah programs, four of which operated on public lands. Two of those organizations, or at least their owners, are still operating on federal land.
Current Utah Regulations
Utah regulations require programs to meet permit requirements to keep their state license. Those permits can cost the groups $5 per day per person, said Ken Stettler, director of Utah's licensing office.
Stettler's staff checks the permits when they do annual or spot inspections of the outdoor programs. He has found no major problems.
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