The Basis of Ethical Behavior
By: Lon Woodbury
As discussion builds about proposed increased regulation of the troubled teen industry on both the state and federal level, it would be wise to step back and remind ourselves why this is needed, and how it can best be done. The "Why" is fairly easy. The purpose of course is to try to ensure our children-with-problems get quality care while eliminating, or at least reducing, fraudulent and abusive practices in both public and private programs.
How this can be done is the subject of debate. The usual first thought is for the government to mandate what is acceptable and what is not through regulations. This has the advantage of the regulators being able to force their mandates through the backing of the police. Since the government is the only entity that can legally use force to back their decisions, this works well as a last resort when other less intrusive approaches don't work in stopping abusive or fraudulent practices.
However, using governmental regulations as the main tool to ensure quality care for our troubled children has its disadvantages. Chief among them are the unfortunate tendency of some regulators to impose their personal biases onto programs, what is called bureaucratic empire building, and insensitivity to parental complaints by public programs. (Boot camps exist primarily because of federal government support and funding despite research showing they are ineffective and sometimes dangerous.) For example, the news media reported there had been 182 complaints registered against the Florida boot camp recently in the news with no impact. It was only the 183rd complaint arising out of a widely broadcast death last year that caused the state to finally take notice and do something. See The Florida Boot Camp Index for a list of articles. The Florida boot camps were then closed, but obviously they had not been responsive to parents and child activists. The state of Florida took action only after a national uproar forced the issue.
Pushing for Full Disclosure has more potential in fostering effective programs and ethical behavior. It is the secret deals and hidden agendas that corrupt an industry and eventually contribute to poor quality service, something that is very difficult for governmental regulations to stop. As a practical matter, in the public sector, partisan and bureaucratic politics seem to require secrecy as a normal everyday policy. When I was a career federal civil servant working with anti-poverty programs, one of the most common statements I heard in the agency was "They just would not understand" when it was suggested publicizing some internal agreement. This tendency is still rampant despite major efforts from sunshine laws, and other legislative attempts to force public disclosures.
There is a growing tendency toward secret deals and hidden agendas in the private parent choice industry also. Fortunately there are still a vast number of consultants and programs that refuse to stoop to any of these secret deals and hidden agendas. One of the most common questionable practices comes about from Finders Fees and various secret arrangements that are not shared with families or the public. Finders Fees are essentially unpublicized agreements for a program to pay a sum of money to a person who convinces a parent to enroll their child in the program. This practice is strictly prohibited by the two professional agencies in the industry, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), and the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP). Both groups have ethics committees ready to investigate complaints of any questionable behaviors by their members. However, they have no power over anyone not a member of their own organization, and it is very hard to prove many of these secret deals because… well because they are secret and documentation is hard to come by. However, any kind of disclosure of these practices will go a long way toward avoiding the corrupting influences these secret deals inevitably produce.
One simple test might help you determine if a practice might be ethical or not. Ask yourself if you would mind it being splashed on the front page of a major publication. For the most part, if you don't want it publicized, maybe you shouldn't do it.
In order to reduce or eliminate unethical practices, it is up to all of us to do what we can to disclose any of these questionable practices when we hear about them. It is only by good people taking action that we can ensure ethical professional practices dominate our industry. What IECA and NATSAP are doing is part of the job, and specific reports of questionable practices to them about any of their members can help them do a better job. Woodbury Reports is also trying to do its part in two ways. First, we require all advertisers to clearly identify who they are. Web sites, and especially referring web sites, that do not identify to the public who they are on their site, thus being secretive about their credentials and experience, are not allowed to advertise with us. In addition, we are willing to publish well documented evidence of practices that are questionable, of course assuming they are responsibly presented and pass legal muster.
Full Disclosure can be very effective as the basis of ethical behavior. That, backed up by the regulatory power of the government to force compliance in extreme situations, will be much more effective than either approach by itself.