6 Shocking Realities of the Secret 'Troubled Teen Industry'
When I was 14, I lived with my grandparents in a wealthy gated community and went to a very prestigious private school. This was the first time I had access to the Internet on a daily basis, and it changed my life forever. I discovered metal music and culture, which inspired me to learn the guitar. My yearbook ambitions quickly went from "become a judge like my grandfather" to "become a rock star."
This was not a popular change in Tori Jane, and before long my grandparents decided the best way to reverse it was to ship my ass off to a camp for "troubled" teens in Montana. In short order I learned some terrifying truths about an industry dedicated to taking America's at-risk youth and fucking them up in the worst way possible.
Your Parents Can Hire People to Take You Away
One night in August 2004, I awoke to a man and a woman in my room whom I had never seen before telling me that they were "escorts" and we were going to a place called "wilderness." I was not allowed to bring any belongings or tell anyone where I was going. I didn't know what "escorts" and "wilderness" were, and I was terrified. It was like being Liam Neeson's daughter in Taken, if it had turned out later that Liam Neeson arranged the whole thing.
His very particular set of skills includes paranoia and child endangerment.
The escorts drove me to an airport where the three of us got on a plane to Boise, Idaho. I didn't try to run, and running wouldn't have done me much good: Kids who resist have been pepper-sprayed and hog-tied. The actual snatching and transporting of kids destined for programs like the one I was headed to is handled by companies like Center for Safe Youth, which emphasizes the element of surprise on their FAQ page:
Should I tell my child in advance (even the night before)?
No. Prior knowledge will only serve to increase the child's anxiety, heighten defenses, and force the child into a bad decision, such as running away.
Running away is bad. Children could wind up with strangers somewhere unfamiliar and scary.
So what kind of crime does a kid have to commit to wind up subjected to this? Anything -- kids can be sent away for drug use, depression, eating disorders, really any behavioral issue you can dream up. Some were sent away for bad grades, or for not following the family religion, or for being gay. It is an industry that survives on parents' fear that their kid is "at risk."
Your Parents Give You Up to a Private Company
At this point you're probably wondering, "How could this possibly be legal?" Couldn't any sufficiently rambunctious kid just flip out when he and his escorts get to a public place and trust the police to take care of the rest? Nope. As much as it looks and feels like a kidnapping, those escorts have the absolute legal right to transport you against your will, even if that means carrying you through the street, handcuffed to hell and back.
All children are technically criminals until they come of age.
There is a legal process where parents can sign over custody of kids who need residential care, which makes sense, because if a kid has to be housed in a mental health facility, the staff needs to be able to make all of the day-to-day decisions for her care. But that same process works for "unruly" teens like me, which meant the company that ran my camp had total legal control over where I went and what I did.
Even phone calls to my grandparents were a privilege I had to earn. I was allowed five minutes, and a staff member sat next to me the entire time, listening in. If during the call I complained about being unhappy, that was "manipulative behavior," and they'd end the call. They read the letters from my grandparents to me, word for word. Packages my friends sent were destroyed right in front of me, because ... tough love?
Actually, they had to burn care packages for fuel.
Kids Die in Their Care
I had been sent to a "wilderness program" (they're very popular), which attempts to solve behavioral problems via the time-honored educational tradition of hiking. It didn't matter your age or gender or physical ability; we were all lumped in together.
Even Adam, whose behavioral problem was "addicted to hiking."
The summer heat was sweltering, and the packs were about a third of my 14-year-old body weight. This wasn't like a camp-out, where you hike 5 or 10 miles to a campground or canoe along a river for two or three days. We were out there for weeks, and the adults responsible for us weren't exactly competent woodsmen. A girl in my group had to wrap fresh gauze and bandages across a third-degree burn on her arm every morning because she had passed out on the rocks in the hot summer sun. Our counselors thought she was faking and decided that the safest course of action was to leave her there. She was later rushed to the hospital and had to get skin grafts.
Still, at least neither of us died, as happens with some regularity ("untrained staff" and "lack of adequate nourishment" are the leading causes of death). If you're going to lead children in week-long hikes through the woods, you should know about things like the sun and treating burns. If this kind of shit happened at a Boy Scout camp, you can bet it'd be on the news.
The Girl Scout Cookie factory fire of '09 got major headlines.
So why hasn't John Law's swingin' dick come down on these places? Well ...
There Is Literally No Regulation
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?
In fairness, though, Congress in those years killed all bills, period.
The Treatment Methods Are Insane (and Ineffective)
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 Brainwashing Stays With You Forever
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.
"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. 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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