Investigators have catalogued the abuse of thousands of teenagers and the deaths of at least 10 minors at American boot camps.
Their findings, compiled in a shocking report from the US Congress, are presented alongside harrowing testimony from parents of three teenagers who died at boot camps.
The report was published as a court in Florida began a manslaughter trial into the death of a 14-year-old boy who was filmed being beaten by camp guards minutes before he died. [Update: They were acquitted]
The Government Accountability Office, the US Congress’s investigative arm, identified 1619 incidents of child abuse in 33 states in 2005.
It selected 10 deaths since 1990 for special investigation in boot camps and “wilderness programs”.
Parents send their children to the privately run camps, which undergo no federal oversight, in the hope that their strict regimes and outdoor pursuits will force discipline on the children.
But the findings suggest instructors often go too far in trying to instil good behaviour.
Forced to lie in faeces, urine
“Examples of abuse include youth being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or faeces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground,” investigator Gregory Kutz told a congressional education committee.
One teenager, Mr Kutz said, was “forced to use a toothbrush to clean a toilet, then forced to use that toothbrush on their own teeth”.
Bob Bacon, speaking in front of photographs taken of his emaciated son Aaron an hour before his death, told how the boy had been starved, his weight falling from 59kg to 49kg in three weeks.
He and his wife had sent Aaron to the Northstar Expeditions in Escalante, Utah, to get him away from the drugs he had started dabbling in at school.
Made to eat lizards, scorpions
Aaron’s “bloody and battered journal” contained “an unbelievable account of torture, abuse and neglect”, Mr Bacon said.
His son had spent 14 of 20 days “without any food whatsoever” while having to hike 12-16km a day.
When he was given food, it consisted of “undercooked lentils, lizards, scorpions, trail mix and a celebrated canned peach on the 13th day”.
Aaron died from an untreated perforated ulcer.
He had been beaten “from the top of his head to the tip of his toes” during his month at the camp, Mr Bacon said.
“His mother and I will never escape our decision to send our gifted 16-year-old son to his death.”
The report said five of the 10 programs where teenagers died were still operating, sometimes under different names.
Up to 20,000 children attend the US camps every year.
Some charge up to $US450 ($500) a day.
Meanwhile, in Panama City, Florida, the manslaughter trial opened against seven guards and a nurse over the boot camp death last year of Martin Lee Anderson, 14.
Prosecutors say the guards, who were captured on film beating Anderson for 30 minutes and kneeling on his limp body, suffocated the boy.