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Two Lawsuits Draw Attention to the Abuse Suffered by Troubled U.S. Teenagers Sent to Boot Camps Abroad: Why the State Department Should Push for an International Prohibition


Thursday, Apr. 03, 2008

Teenagers, even the ones who are stars at school and elsewhere, can be a challenge. Those who take a wrong turn toward drugs or gangs, to cite just two examples, can be very difficult to handle. Thus, it has not been uncommon in the United States for parents in such desperate straits to send their children to military schools or to wilderness camps.

There is also a third choice, however, which was in the news last week: teen boot camps. This choice, as I will explain, should be made illegal around the globe -- with the U.S. State Department taking a leading role in protecting U.S.-based (and, if possible, foreign) teens who suffer abuse abroad.

The Tranquility Bay Lawsuit and the State Department's Response

Recently, attorney Joshua Ambush filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a public interest organization in Washington, DC, against the Department of State. The suit alleged that State Department regulations establish an obligation on the part of the U.S. government to prevent the abuse of American children abroad.

In particular, the suit urged that the State Department needed to immediately investigate the abuse that American teenager Isaac Hersh had allegedly suffered at a boot camp in Jamaica called Tranquility Bay.

It is to the State Department's credit that it took the lawsuit very seriously, and quickly aided in Isaac's release from what appear to have been torturous conditions. At first, Isaac's parents, who reside in New York, tried to block his release. However, eventually they were persuaded to permit Yeshiva University professor and psychologist David Pelcovitz to accompany Isaac back to New York. Pelcovitz interviewed Isaac in Jamaica, in the presence of a United States embassy official; determined that Isaac had been abused; and brought him back to the United States for treatment and for his safety.

The good news is that Isaac was rescued; the sad truth is that many children still reside at Tranquility Bay and in other boot camps around the world.

Another Suit Alleges Abuse At the Behest of the World Wide Association of Specialty Camps and Schools

Fortunately, a pending lawsuit filed in federal court in Utah aims to make some headway against these institutions. The defendant is the World Wide Association of Specialty Camps and Schools, based in George, Utah. The plaintiffs are 140 victims of teen boot camps (including Tranquility Bay). The suit alleges that they suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the camps -- including being forced to eat their own vomit, having their hands and feet bound, being locked in dog cages, being forced to reside in isolation, being placed in painful postures for long periods of time, being deprived of food, and being deprived of any education.

From even this sketchy description, it seems obvious that these so-called "boot camps" are nothing more than modern-day torture chambers.

Once again, just as in the arena of childhood sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and outside it, it has taken a number of adults, working in tandem, to create the conditions for such horrible treatment of children. Once again, terrible crimes have been committed against children by the very adults who were supposed to protect them. It is up to the national and international legal community to now ensure their safety by shutting down these camps and making their practices illegal.

It Is High Time for the Federal and State Governments to Aggressively Target Teen Boot Camps and Those Who Patronize and Enable Them

When parents send a child to such a boot camp, and support it with their payments, they are creating the opportunity for such abuse. Accordingly, those parents who were aware of the camps' nature, yet still sent their children there, should be held fully accountable under the law: They essentially have paid third parties to abuse their children on their behalf. Moreover, the camps, their owners, their employees, and the government agencies that look the other way should also face serious legal repercussions.

With Isaac Hersh's story still fresh in everyone's mind, it is the right time for the State Department, Congress, and the state legislatures to initiate all the action needed to shut down the camps operating in the states, exert great pressures to shut down the ones operating abroad, and exact heavy penalties on those operating abroad when U.S. minors are abused there. As I have argued in past columns such as this one, the platforms of the national political parties should have a plank that speaks to protecting children from harm. This is a nonpartisan issue; thus, each of the three remaining viable candidates for President should include the protection of children as one of his or her highest priorities.

Like the international trafficking of children for sex, the ugly international subuniverse of boot camps causes massive suffering, and thus demands that fast, decisive, and harsh action be taken.

Marci A. Hamilton is a Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Kathleen and Martin Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Professor Hamilton's forthcoming book, which will be published this spring is entitled Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children(Cambridge 2008).

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