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Keywords:

  • residential care;
  • institutional abuse;
  • child protection;
  • therapeutic boarding school

Over the past decade in the United States, the number of private residential facilities for youth has grown exponentially, and many are neither licensed as mental health programs by states, nor accredited by respected national accrediting organizations. The Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment (A START) is a multi–disciplinary group of mental health professionals and advocates that formed in response to rising concerns about reports from youth, families and journalists describing mistreatment in a number of the unregulated programs. This article summarizes the information gathered by A START regarding unregulated facilities. It provides an overview of common program features, marketing strategies and transportation options. It describes the range of mistreatment and abuse experienced by youth and families, including harsh discipline, inappropriate seclusion and restraint, substandard psychotherapeutic interventions, medical and nutritional neglect, rights violations and death. It reviews the licensing, regulatory and accrediting mechanisms associated with the protection of youth in residential programs, or the lack thereof. Finally, it outlines policy implications and provides recommendations for the protection of youth and families who pursue residential treatment.