Romney’s Connections to Abusive “Boot Camps”

Maia Szalavitz has a disturbing article up at Reason about Mitt Romney’s ties to the folks who run camps for “troubled teens”.

As The Hill noted last week, 133 plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Romney’s Utah finance co-chair, Robert Lichfield, and his various business entities involved in residential treatment programs for adolescents. The umbrella group for his organization is the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS, sometimes known as WWASP) and Lichfield is its founder and is on its board of directors.

The suit alleges that teens were locked in outdoor dog cages, exercised to exhaustion, deprived of food and sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures without adequate clothing or water, severely beaten, emotionally brutalized, and sexually abused and humiliated. Some were even made to eat their own vomit.

But the link to teen abuse goes far higher up in the Romney campaign. Romney’s national finance co-chair is a man named Mel Sembler. A long time friend of the Bushes, Sembler was campaign finance chair for the Republican party during the first election of George W. Bush, and a major fundraiser for his father.

Like Lichfield, Sembler also founded a nationwide network of treatment programs for troubled youth. Known as Straight Inc., from 1976 to 1993, it variously operated nine programs in seven states. At all of Straight’s facilities, state investigators and/or civil lawsuits documented scores of abuses including teens being beaten, deprived of food and sleep for days, restrained by fellow youth for hours, bound, sexually humiliated, abused and spat upon.

According to the L.A. Times, California investigators said that at Straight teens were “subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse… and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.”

Read the whole thing–these are quite disturbing allegations, and one would think that a person running for President would think twice before hiring people who are accused of running organizations that abuse teenagers–especially in such prominent roles. Then again, Giuliani having an accused child molester on his consulting firm’s payroll doesn’t appear to have hurt him much, either.

While it’s certainly true that people should be considered innocent until proven guilty, and Romney’s associates named in Szalavitz’s article don’t appear to be facing any criminal charges, common sense would seem to dictate that a presidential candidate might refrain from hiring people accused of child abuse and molestation pending the outcome any criminal investigation or civil lawsuit. While I understand that there may be personal relationships involved (especially in the case of Giuliani), surely the first step in demonstrating seriousness about being President is putting ethical considerations ahead of friendships.

For more info on Straight, Inc., check out this 2002 article by Radley Balko. (hat tip to Eve Tushnet)

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. brainy435 says:

    Just wondering aloud here:

    “Why is this called “abuse” when it’s done to American children, but called “torture” when we do it to terrorists?

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    “Why is this called “abuse” when it’s done to American children, but called “torture” when we do it to terrorists?

    You do mean alleged terrorists–most of whom have subsequently been found to NOT be terrorists, right? (Not that torturing terrorists is at all morally justified, either–“An eye for an eye makes everybody blind” as some crazy Jewish hippie once said.)

    At any rate, you could say that what goes on in the boot camps is torture–I would, and so does the article linked.

  3. brainy435 says:

    The article says the acts were “likened to torture,” not torture. And the language in the lawsuits and support article refer to it as abuse and not torture.
    My point is that there has been no public outcry comparable to Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, even though this is happening to American teens. We now put protecting terrorists above protecting our own children. Hell, the media didn’t even care enough to completely fabricate offenses like flushing Korans.

    “You do mean alleged terrorists–most of whom have subsequently been found to NOT be terrorists, right?” No, I mean terrorists… and those who have been caught on the field of battle defending them. Even the ones we release because they have “subsequently been found to NOT be terrorists” go on to attack us again.

  4. ken says:

    Torture is just one form of abuse.

    I think the big difference in the coverage is that the Bush administration endorsed and began using torture but it was a private group that was charged with abusing children.

    We have laws to prosecute those who abused the kids. But we have lawbreakers and war criminals in the White House who directed the use of torture.

    Which is bigger news deserving of more coverage?

    If you do not know, then pity you.

  5. Kent says:

    “An eye for an eye makes everybody blind” as some crazy Jewish hippie once said.

    Who would that be?

    Hint: You won’t find this anywhere in the New Testament.

  6. Unless Alex knows something the rest of the world doesn’t, the “crazy hippie” in question was Hindu, not Jewish.

  7. Alex Knapp says:

    Whoops–my bad, that was Gandhi, not Jesus. Still, Christ said pretty much the same thing.

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
    — Matthew 5:38-39