YP Mitt Romney’s Tough Love
published in the Yorkshire Post 25 October 2012
As I write these lines, in the United States, it is almost certain that some American child is suffering from neglect, cruelty and abuse in a private residential facility for which his or her parents are paying thousands of dollars each month.
Over the last thirty years, such facilities for so-called “troubled teens” have become a multi-billion dollar business. (British television viewers some years ago saw a sanitized version in the series Brat Camp.) They use isolated, often wilderness, settings to modify the behaviours of children by intensively regimented, coercive and confrontational regimes, often reinforced by deprivation and exhaustion.
Some American parents are happy to send their children away for correction (especially if they are gay or question religion), but most customers have to be intimidated into believing that their child faces personal ruin without some form of institutional “tough love” treatment. This is reminiscent of the generations of British parents induced to send their children to bleak and brutal public schools to build their character. Once inside, children who complain about their treatment are punished until they collaborate and their parents are induced to disbelieve them. Some children have died in agony, while accused of faking their symptoms.
American “troubled teen” institutions make money because their regimes are much cheaper than proper therapies and can be enforced by unqualified staff and even older children. They are not regulated at Federal level and most individual states regulate them very lightly or not at all – far less than prisons or even dog grooming parlours. Legislation was introduced last year in Congress to provide some minimum safeguards for children and their parents, but it died in the Senate.
Not surprisingly, this unregulated but profitable industry regularly attracts crooks and charlatans and sadists and perverts as well as simple incompetents. Those who harm children are rarely punished by the courts or regulators or professional bodies and if they do get put out of business they are usually free to set up elsewhere. There is a growing evidence base of neglect, cruelty and abuse in the name of therapy from survivors and former staff of such institutions, confirmed by lawsuits and official inquiries. (The term “survivors” is self-chosen and revealing).
A few weeks ago I predicted in this newspaper that the “troubled teen” industry would become an election issue, because Mitt Romney has long-standing personal and political links with a number of its most-criticized practitioners and because he derives income from it himself. I was wrong. In spite of some excellent investigative reporting, Romney has not been challenged on these issues in mainstream media or by the Democratic party (not even the two proponents of the failed measure in Congress).
In consequence, Romney has not been forced to tell American families what he thinks of the so-called “Mormon gulag”, or the WWASP institutions or those of Straight Inc, places which caused suffering to children in the name of therapy, places founded or operated by high-profile supporters. He has not been asked whether these people would have influence over his policies towards children, or posts in his administration. (One has been mooted as his drug czar or his ambassador to our country).
He has not been asked about Aspen Education, a “troubled teen” company owned by Bain Capital, the company which he founded and which pays him a colossal retirement income. Aspen has a better reputation than most other practitioners. However, while under Bain Capital’s control it has closed down some of its major facilities under pressure of lawsuits and regulatory intervention. At one of these places, teenage girls were compelled to perform lap dances in sexually provocative clothing to convince them that they were “druggie whores”. While receiving expensive care at Aspen institutions, several teenage boys met horrible deaths for lack of timely medical care.
Did Romney take any personal interest in Aspen Education and has Bain Capital instigated any improvements in its care of children? Or do they both regard children and parents as commodities to be bought and sold in a market place and numbers on a business plan?
The Democrats have failed to raise these questions and that prompts a chilling thought. Perhaps they have calculated that Romney would profit from his association with this industry, and that more voters would be attracted than repelled by its methods and values.
That would represent the ultimate victory of “tough love” in the United States. However, we have no right to feel superior to the Americans. Our politicians have been equally captivated by the phrase and all our major parties have outbid each other to pursue it in social policy, although after thirty years there is no reliable evidence that “tough love” policies actually work any better than others.
Meanwhile, some American “troubled teen” institutions already promote themselves in Britain. You might see more of them if Romney wins. I advise you to keep your children away from them.