Perhaps you have seen one of those daytime TV talk shows that use juvenile boot camps as a ratings-building mix of education and entertainment.
Moody, insolent kids snarl and murmur curse words at tearful, frustrated moms who say they "just can't do anything with" the little brats anymore. The sober-faced talk-show host tries to talk to the kids without getting bitten. An outraged, hungry-for-blood audience chants, "Send them to boot camp!"
On cue, from behind the curtain pops the hero of the day, a drill sergeant. The kids are force-marched offstage and presumably onto a bus that will take them, as the prison boss said in "Cool Hand Luke," to "get their minds right."
Only he's not a regular drill sergeant. He's a counselor for a juvenile youth camp that is designed to humble, humiliate and reshape kids in the classic fashion of a military boot camp, only maybe meaner.
As portrayed in the bullring-like format of daytime TV, the boot camp approach resembles traditional behavioral therapy as closely as TV wrestling resembles a real sport.
Yet numerous parents and, in some cases, state juvenile authorities have turned to the boot camp approach in recent decades, as the parents on the TV shows say, "when nothing else seems to work."
Now recent headlines reveal that at least some of the boot camps that have sprung up around the country are problems in themselves. They can even be fatal.
A new report on youth boot camps and similar "wilderness programs" by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, reads like an MTV-generation version of Abu Ghraib.
The GAO investigated 10 deaths since 1990 in boot camps and "wilderness programs" and cited 1,619 incidents of child abuse in 33 states in 2005 alone. "Examples of abuse include youths being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or feces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground," Gregory Kutz, a GAO investigator, told the House Committee on Education and Labor.
The parents of three teens who died at boot camps offered tearful testimony. Said Bob Bacon of Phoenix: "We were conned by their fraudulent claims and will go to our graves regretting our gullibility."
His son Aaron died of an infection from a perforated ulcer in a wilderness program in Utah, Bacon said, after the teen's complaints of severe stomach pains after long hikes, poor nutrition and inadequate gear in subfreezing temperatures were ignored.
On Friday, seven guards and a nurse were acquitted in Panama City, Fla., over the death of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who was filmed being beaten by camp guards last year, minutes before he died. Video of the limp teen being hit and kicked by the guards after he collapsed while exercising sparked protests in the state capital and led to the end of Florida's boot camps for juvenile offenders. But the defendants said they were only following the rules at a tough-love facility where kids often faked illness to avoid exercise. The death, their attorneys argued, came from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder, not the rough treatment.
Leaders of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and other trade groups point out that countless kids have been helped by residential youth wilderness camps and other treatment programs and the industry is committed to cleaning out the bad players. That may be true, but parents have not received enough warnings about the bad apples. Some of the investigated camps were not licensed. Others had set up shop in a new state after being shut down in another.
From 10,000 to 20,000 American children attend boot camps or similar wilderness camps every year, the GAO reports. Some charge as much as $450 a day.
For safety's sake, House lawmakers called for new federal regulations. That's not a bad idea. Large numbers of parents send their kids to camps in states other than the one in which they live and regulations or lack of them vary widely from state to state.
Even the best juvenile boot camp programs claim to offer "tough love" on steroids. Boot camp might work for some kids, and I favor whatever works. But every kid is different. Each learns in his or her own way. What helps some kids may have no long-lasting impact on others, except perhaps a negative one. Parents need to beware.
At the very least, parents should have some assurances that the oversight of such facilities is at least as tough as the tough love that boot camps claim to offer.