By Josh Moon
Alabama Political Reporter
On the phone last week, Charles Kennedy, a retired police captain who served more than 20 years, was near tears and he wasn’t hiding it.
“I’m just so proud I could cry – I think I’m going to, actually,” Kennedy said.
The emotional swell for Kennedy came just after Rep. Steve McMillan called with news that Legislation Kennedy had been pushing for years had quietly passed both Houses and was on the way to Gov. Kay Ivey to be signed into law.
The passage of HB440 was probably worth the tears, given what it does and how tricky it was to get similar Legislation passed.
McMillan’s Alabama Youth Residential Facility Abuse Prevention Act is essentially Legislation that regulates faith-based “troubled teen” camps – and that term serves as a catchall for everything from criminal behavior to sexual orientation.
But it’s not a done deal yet. Despite overwhelming support in both houses – it passed the Senate 29-0 and the House 78-13 – the bill has become buried on Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk and now has just four days remaining before dying in her pocket.
Ivey’s spokeswoman, Eileen Jones, said Tuesday that the Governor’s legal office is still reviewing the bill and a decision on its future hasn’t been made.
If she signs it, camps that have operated in Alabama for years, hauling in profits from desperate parents while inflicting all manner of emotional and physical abuse on the children they’re supposed to be helping, will finally face some sort of regulation.
Earlier this year, both Newsweek and ABC’s “20/20” program highlighted abuses suffered by kids at a Mobile-area camp named Restoration Youth Academy, and on law enforcement’s efforts to close the camp and punish its operators. Kennedy was interviewed by both outlets and told APR earlier this year of his first encounter with the camp.
Kennedy said he discovered a young, naked boy on the ground in a 6-by-8 makeshift cell with only a single lightbulb burning 24 hours a day.
“It’s stuff that’s illegal in the Geneva Conventions – you can’t do to prisoners of war what they were doing to young kids,” Kennedy said. “It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
The camps are mostly operated by people from outside of the state, and they usually arrive in Alabama after they’ve been chased out of another state by law enforcement there. Kennedy recalled a pastor – “all of ‘em are some sort of phony pastor or brother or something like,” Kennedy said – from Tennessee who fled abuse allegations in that state and set up a new camp in Alabama, only to be chased from here by additional allegations later.
Regulating the camps would give law enforcement the teeth to shut down the fly-by-night operations and also allow DHR to inspect and license the camps that plan on hanging around.
“When (Kennedy) came to me with this, I wasn’t aware of the problem, but all you have to do is watch that ’20/20’ episode or read Newsweek and you learn real quick,” McMillan said. “We had to do something to allow the authorities some means to punish these people and help these poor kids.”
Kennedy worked for more than five years to bring the operators of the Restoration Youth Academy to justice. The two men who operated it were sentenced to 20 years in prison each.
“Alabama will be the first state in the country to pass a law specifically for these horrible places,” Kennedy said. “I’ve worked with people from all over the country, deal with a lady from California all the time, and they’re all trying to get something done about these places. That Alabama is leading the way really makes me proud.”