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If you spend any time studying these programs, you'll notice that they all tend to be located in states like Utah and Montana. This is because those states don't have any pesky regulations for how these programs are required to treat their kids. This is a multimillion-dollar industry, with tens of thousands of American teens being herded through these programs systematically like cattle. Montana is one of the last states in the country with no oversight of the controversial teen help industry, and their legislators show no inclination to change.
Their roads also had no speed limits back in the '90s.
If these "schools" run off private funding and do not accept government aid, the government is not required to intervene. Somehow this also means the government isn't allowed to give two shits that the people "taking care" of the children have police records or simply no credentials. Not that any of this comes cheap: Teen treatment facilities are the flipside of the "rich kid" coin. It's nice that your parents can afford to pay for college, but they can also afford $8,505 per month to mold their imperfect 14-year-old into the son or daughter they've always wanted.
In 2006, a journalist named Maia Szalavitz published Help at Any Cost, an expose so shocking, it prompted a congressional inquiry and a Government Accountability Office investigation. The GAO found thousands of cases of abuse and at least 10 deaths between 1990 and 2004. Shocked by the terrible truth, Congress leaped into action and proposed a bill to regulate (not even ban) these facilities. After that bill died in committee, they proposed it again the next year. It died again in 2011, and again in 2013. After all, when's the last time a troubled teen ever donated a bunch of cash to a political campaign?
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In fairness, though, Congress in those years killed all bills, period.
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Since they didn't have any standards to abide by, our counselors were free to go with whatever "treatment" sounded like it might work. Once they took all the girls who had eating disorders and made them eat dinner in front of the boys without using their hands or any utensils. They would make kids role-play characters from memories of rape and abuse, forcing them to relive childhood horrors. Complaining got you put on work assignments, or lost you the privilege of a five-minute phone call home. I'll remind you that this was billed as a treatment facility, not a prison or a punishment.
Smokers were wrapped in paper and set on fire.
They tailored their abuse to exactly what kind of child you were. My father left me when I was little. The counselors asked if I thought he left me because I was inadequate, if I believed he thought I was unintelligent, ugly, or fat. None of those things had ever occurred to me before, but having them shouted at me in a therapy room full of other kids really turned me around on the whole "not being terribly depressed" thing. It doesn't matter if you're a healthy kid when you walk in there -- spend a few hours deprived of sleep, food, and the ability to use the restroom while adults call you fat. You'll walk out with a condition.
Once I was put on a work assignment: digging a huge tree stump out of the ground. Alone. If you've never removed a stump, you should know it's generally a task people accomplish via a goddamn truck and some heavy chains (or even high explosives). I had a shovel and a bow saw.
And beat the urge to use them on the counselors' necks.
By this time it was December in Montana, and it was freezing. I sat out there every day trying to dig out that damn stump. I could go inside to sleep at night, but as soon as I woke up I was out there again. It took weeks to get that accursed ent-spawn out of the ground. Spending $700 a day so your child can dig tree stumps out of the ground seems absurd, but (apparently) nothing says therapy like giving a depressed child some sharp objects and training her in their use.
The bullshit stays with you, even once you leave the camp. Whenever I felt depressed, my grandparents would genuinely ask if I wanted to go back to Montana. I'm sure in their heads something that expensive couldn't have been a bad experience, no matter how desperately I tried to convince them otherwise. It's the sunk costs fallacy as applied to child abuse. They'd spent tens of thousands of dollars treating me. How could it all be crazy bullshit? So they went the other way, and every time I was accepted to college, received a scholarship, or won an award, my success was always directly attributed to their decision to send me there.
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"We haven't graduated any Victorias who didn't go to Montana ... "
I still find myself saying "intentions are irrelevant," a mantra I was taught in the program that a grand total of zero people in the real world agree with. I was so terrified of being shipped away again that I didn't even touch alcohol until after I was 21. I still wake up from nightmares of being dragged out of my house and forced to board a plane. I kept a suitcase packed for a long time, just in case. I also have this ridiculous coin they gave me, which translates from Latin to say "we demand greatness, not compliance."
I'm sure you can read plenty of testimonials by parents who are completely happy with their brainwashed little minion who is now free from the horrors of metal music, homosexuality, or legitimate mental illness. Alternatively, you can also read reports that catalog the absurdity of "get tough" treatment programs, with ramifications including post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as causing many teenagers' original problems to worsen. I never forget that my story is not unique. Between 10,000 and 20,000 teens wind up in these programs every year, and they'll continue to do so. Because even in the 21st century, society is baffled by adolescence and will resort to desperate, horrific measures in hopes of finding a cure.
Tori Jane is a writer and painter who lives in Los Angeles, and you can reach her here. Robert Evans is head of Cracked's Personal Experience team and also runs the workshop moderator team. If you have a story to tell, you can reach him here.
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