Caveat Emptorium

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1995

Caveat Emptorium

A user's guide to a very iffy marketplace
By Amanda Stuermer

Aaron Bacon's death has prompted new demands for oversight of the wilderness-therapy industry, but for now, parents seeking reliable information won't find a one-stop source. Instead, various public and private organizations monitor camps in ways that at best provide visible signposts.

Largely in response to Bacon's death, Archie Buie, a former wilderness camp director, has launched the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps (404-508-1036). Composed of 50 outfits that claim to disdain confrontational methods, the group is voluntary, which means camps that reject its regulations simply won't join. As Buie acknowledges, NATWC has limited watchdog ambitions. Citing budget constraints and liability fears, he says his outfit will "neither recommend nor criticize specific camps." Instead it will offer pointers to parents who want to make an informed decision.

Two additional sources, says Buie, are the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children (212-714-9399) and the Association for Experiential Education (303-440-8844). Both are public-interest nonprofits, and they've devised rigid standards for wilderness therapy. To date, only about a dozen camps have either's seal of approval, but the standards are useful checklists of what companies should be doing. The Council's guidelines--compiled last year by the Wilderness Task Force, a panel of experts in mental health, child care, wilderness therapy, and law--require that camps provide adequate staff instruction (including 40 hours of wilderness training); define standards for food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention; and prohibit "degrading physical or emotional punishment." In 1992, AEE produced similar standards and formed a permanent Accreditation Program Advisory Committee, made up of representatives from the nation's top wilderness programs, including the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound.

A handful of western states have licensing requirements for wilderness-therapy programs, but as Martha Matthews of the National Center for Youth Law points out, "There simply isn't enough money to ensure proper enforcement." In Utah, the state attorney general's office has convened a panel that, in part, will focus on the pressing issue of oversight. One possibility is upping the number of state bureaucrats who monitor camps, but it will be at least a year before recommendations are complete.

Finally, the Michelle Sutton Foundation for Camp Safety (209-599-7728)--founded in 1993 by Cathy Sutton, whose daughter Michelle died in a tough-love camp in 1990--is positioning itself as an aggressive advocacy group. Working on a scant budget of $10,000 a year, Sutton and a growing network of parents monitor controversial camps and lobby for tighter industry control. (Sutton's current focus is the Recreational Camp Safety Act, a long-shot bill in Congress that would set up national camp standards overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.) Be aware, though: Sutton's aim is to eliminate wilderness therapy, not reform it. When parents call to ask her advice about any program, her blanket response is, "Save your money. Take your kids on a cruise instead."

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