Teen Torture on Trial

by David Miller



AndersonThe death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson at the hands of guards at a state-run juvenile “boot camp” in Florida has been in the headlines on and off for 21 months, and gained international attention -- likely as a result of a blood chilling video which shows the guards repeatedly beating the limp and unresponsive youth.  More recently, the pattern of neglect and abuse at many privately run boot camps, wilderness programs or other “residential treatment programs,” has been publicized in hearings of the U.S. Congress’ House Education and Labor Committee.  Like perhaps most Americans, Congress members were uniformly “shocked” by the testimony of congressional researchers and parents of teens who have died in the camps.  But this story is not news to NAMBLA.  We have been following the results of so-called “tough love” policies as they have gained popularity, not coincidentally, during the same period that fear and anxiety over youthful sexual expression has been on the rise, roughly the last 30 years.

Just Following Orders

The latest scandal is that an all-white jury has freed the accused killers of Anderson, apparently buying the defense arguments that the guards were just following orders -- the infamous defense used by Nazi war criminals -- and that there was nothing illegal about the routine procedures used on the semi-conscious, unresponsive, limp and prostrate youth, who had previously asked to be taken to the hospital: Hammer blows, knee strikes, pressure applied behind the ears, and repeatedly covering his mouth and forcing him to breathe heavy doses of ammonia through the nose, among other tactics.  The boy ultimately died as a result of suffocation.  Medical experts were divided over whether Anderson’s Sickle Cell Trait condition contributed to his death: one said it was the main cause, two others indicated the treatment by the guards was a more important factor.  The all-white, North Florida jury saw fit to give the guards, and by implication, the county sherriff’s office, the benefit of the doubt, with a verdict of not guilty of all charges.

The case fits a pattern identified by the congressional researchers in their report and testimony: boot camp staff are rarely held accountable in cases of extreme abuse and even death of the teens in their charge.

Kids are often committed to these places by people other than parents, such as "juvenile" courts, which (de jure) operate "in loco parentis".  In fact, this is a legal fiction to allow the institutions to violate civil liberties and rights of the kids.  See ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_loco_parentis ).  They are often a "diversionary" sentence to keep a kid out of prison.

In this article, we use the term “boot camp” to represent the entire range of discipline-oriented “residential treatment programs” for youth, including boot camps, wilderness camps and other compulsory programs.
Deaths in custody have occurred, and continue to occur, in facilities of all these types.  Staff often "restrain" the youth unnecessarily, and in ways which endanger them.  While safer techniques could be used, staff are seldom sufficiently trained in these techniques.

These abuses are part of a larger pattern of impunity for the use of force by all kinds of police and military agencies in the U.S., where policies routinely allow or even demand use of deadly force in situations where other alternatives exist and are arguably much more appropriate and more effective.  The affected populations -- almost always low income, minorities, and youth (usually all three) -- are evidently seen by policy makers as disposable.  Either that, or the widely accepted policies of impunity for authoritarian violence are seen as having benefits that outweigh the costs, which include scores of lost lives per year.

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

“Boot camp” programs for youth became popular during the 1980s and ‘90s.  Since the 1990s, according to the Washington Post
( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/12/AR2007101202206.html ), research has shown repeatedly that the programs don’t work.  As a result, many state run programs have been closed or cut back, although it took years, several tragic deaths, and much bad publicity for the research results to be heeded.  And even now, in spite of the research, many privately run boot camps and similar discipline-oriented “residential treatment programs” remain in business.   Many of them have a decidedly “Christian” orientation, if only for marketing purposes.  In fact, a quick search of Google under the terms “boot camp” and “Christian” turns up over 1.4 million hits for pages containing both terms.  Gosh, you might ask, what can “boot camps” and “christian” have in common?  Read on.

The popularity of boot camp programs is no fluke.  Nor is their tendency to aim their marketing toward Christian-indentified parents.  The idea commonly referred to as “spare the rod, spoil the child” traces back to the book of Proverbs in the Bible, and has been influential in American education since the first English settlers brought it with them -- strongly emphasizing it in their sermons and early parenting manuals.  In the King James Version, the verse, Proverbs 13:24, reads “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”  Other proverbs from the same chapter include verse 20: “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed”  and perhaps more ominously verse 9: “The light of the righteous rejoiceth: but the lamp of the wicked shall be put out.”

In reading these verses, one can see that parents from Christian faiths who use a literal interpretation of the Bible, as many Americans do, would view the application of punitive discipline as vital to every child’s well-being.  And not only is discipline important, but if the discipline should fail, death may be the expected result -- so it’s a life-and-death matter.  Indeed, in at least some if not most Christian faiths, physical death is considered preferable to a life of sin.  (Which was the reasoning that led Jerry Fallwell and other Christian leaders to advocate the death penalty for homosexuality in the early 1980s.)

Three common themes in the published stories of parents who send their children to these camps are that the teen was involved with drugs or alcohol, was hanging out with the “wrong” crowd, or was acting out sexually -- all three of which, objectively speaking, might very well be completely harmless to the teen, in this earthly life.  And all of which, to some degree, are entirely normal teenaged behaviors.  But these parents are not thinking about objective reality and earthly existence; they are thinking about the word of God, and the future of their child’s soul.  Indeed, biblical literalists often seem to confuse biblical teaching for objective reality.  So when the child is seen in the company of other kids whose families are non-conforming in some way, or if the child blames a friend for some mischief or other, making the friend seem to be the bad influence, this is seen by the parent in the light of Proverbs 13:20 -- “He that walketh with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed” -- i.e., urgent danger, lest the child be destroyed.  Or if a teen takes a toke on a joint, or engages in any unapproved sexual expression, this is seen in light of the ominous Proverbs 13: 9 and other, similar passages.  (Other passages of the bible may call for moderation, compassion, and even tolerance, but Christians of all faiths are notorious for their selective readings of the bible, as well as the many versions that exist.)

The phenomenon of boot camps and other forms of harsh discipline for teens in the U. S. must be seen in the light of these biblical beliefs, held by literalist parents, and the fact that many other parents, although non-literalist, are strongly influenced by the cultural legacy of the literalist and disciplinarian views of the nation’s cultural forebears, and many national leaders through the end of the 19th century.  The prevailing disciplinarian view was supplanted by a range of views during the 20th century, some only slightly modified, more pragmatic versions of tough love, others adopting a more democratic model of the family and a much more respectful view toward the agency of children and youth.  But the literalist view never went away, and its influence has always been strong for much of the country.

Bottom line

Boot camps, and the abuses and deaths that result from them, are just a small part of a larger phenomenon.  For some parents, harsh discipline is viewed as necessary for salvation, as prescribed by the bible.  For others, the necessity of harsh discipline is just assumed, with no awareness of the religious and cultural origins of the idea.  In either case, it is part of a broader cultural program demanding individual subservience to authority, and concentrating decision-making power in the hands of a few, within the family and within the society.  NAMBLA has always explicitly opposed this authoritarian program and advocated democracy, tolerance, and respect of the agency of children and youth.


Further reading:

http://www.isaccorp.org/anderson/martin-lee-anderson.02.26.06.b.html

http://www.nospank.net/anderson.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Anderson_controversy

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/10/12/AR2007101202206.html


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