My Parents Paid A Rehab Camp To Abuse Me: 5 Dark Realities
It's not easy being a teenager: the social cliques, the homework, the hormones, the family-sanctioned kidnappings forcing you to attend a combination of rehab, boot camp, and prison. We've told you before about the "troubled-teen" industry, wherein frustrated parents pay sketchy boarding schools exorbitant amounts of money to apply "tough love" that occasionally kills the recipient. Hey, that's the toughest love you can get! Sarah lived in one of these facilities for two years, while journalist Maia Szalavitz literally wrote the book on how they do more harm than good. They told us that ...
You Don't Need Them, And They Don't Help
Sarah was 15, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and couldn't get out of bed to attend class. Her parents were at the end of their rope, and she wanted to get better. The troubled-teen industry thrives on the stigma that comes with having a child with addiction or mental health issues. Unlike a cancer diagnosis, these are struggles that parents feel both responsible for and ashamed of. As Maia explained, "They terrorize the parents; they make them think, 'If you don't put your kid in tomorrow, they're going to die!'"
But the truth is, very, very few kids ever die from drugs and alcohol. The total number of teen deaths from all causes, per year is roughly 20,000. There are about 41 million teens. Even if these deaths were exclusively from drugs and alcohol and occurred only in the 4 million teens who have severe behavioral and mental disorders, that's still only a risk of death of roughly four in 1,000.
Apparently, "We teach your teen not to drive like idiots" camp didn't have any takers.
Teens are enrolled in these unaccredited, live-in facilities for reasons ranging from "thinks new stepdad sucks" to serious addictions and mental illnesses. In Sarah's case, an education consultant suggested a number of residences. Utah's girls-only Alpine Academy sounded like the most progressive, although she would later learn that that's like picking the healthiest fried Mars bar. In Sarah's day, at least, Alpine girls could expect highly regimented days of chores, one-on-one therapy, Mean Girls-style group therapy, subpar education, an arbitrary mind-fuck punishment system, and not a single giggling, pajama pillow fight, contrary to our understanding of what teenage girls need to thrive. Alpine noted in a recent email to us that they are accredited with AdvancED, and the Teaching-Family association. So hopefully things have gotten better since Sarah's days. If you have a more recent experience with Alpine Academy, please let us know.
Sarah says that, initially, the program felt like a place where she could feel as normal as she could "while going through something patently unnormal." It really played up the fact that it came with a built-in family -- which turned out to be house parents whose only credentials were that they were straight and in need of a paycheck.
Alpine Academy requires their "Family Teachers" to be a married couple and ... oh, uh, that's it. There's no certification. Staff must simply be "working toward certification," which is a less strenuous requirement than it takes to run an unsanctioned parking-lot carnival's Mars bar fryer. (Note: Alpine got in touch with us to say that, today, their family teachers receive 60-80 hours of training in "classroom learning, active practicing of skills, and a comprehensive skill assessment." You'll notice that this roughly two weeks of training still doesn't include any professional mental healthcare training. Ten years ago, all Sarah got was psychology majors who were within spitting distance of knowing what the hell they were doing, but these at-risk girls had the majority of their counseling done by people who got through their job interview by flashing a marriage license.
"Well, this all seems in order. Who do you want to start treating, heroin addicts or the suicidal?"
As Maia points out, "troubled teen" is not a diagnosis, or, alternatively, it's one that applies to literally every teenager alive. Addiction, antisocial personality disorder, an unhealthy obsession with the works of John Green -- those are diagnoses, and they all have different treatments. For Sarah, group therapy was conducted in a basement that looked like a remedial Sunday school. Their assignments were focused on behavioral issues, but since Sarah's problems were emotional, it was like bringing your broken car to an emergency room for repairs.
The Abuse Is Widespread And Systemic
In 2009, an Alpine house father was sentenced for sexually assaulting one of his underage charges. The victim's parents had entrusted her to Alpine's care because of the girl's "problem in setting boundaries." That's probably going to replace "a fire station on fire" as our go-to example of irony.
Sarah wasn't shocked by this. While she was never technically abused, her house father ranked a firm "creepy uncle" on the scale of inappropriateness. Hugs were issued against her will as a hard-earned reward for good behavior, because nothing combats mental health problems like arbitrary and unwanted physical intimacy from people you don't like or even know.
Maia also wrote about a facility in Oregon that allegedly made female students, some of whom were rape survivors, dress in fishnets and heels and perform lap dances for male classmates as part of therapy. The school was eventually shuttered under the weight of three lawsuits alleging mistreatment. Those included the aforementioned inappropriate sexy parties, sleep deprivation, and prolonged exposure to the elements -- although considering the facility was called Mount Bachelor Academy, we suppose it's possible it was all just a titanic misunderstanding. As Maia told us:
"These places are a pedophile's dream. You can basically do what you love, get paid for it, and not get caught, because you tell the parents, 'Expect reports of abuse from the children, but don't believe them, because they're liars and manipulators.' They discredit kids in advance; they inoculate themselves in advance."
"If the phrase 'Call the police!' comes up, that just means she needs more alone time
with our Hug Counselor."
Alpine "warned" Sarah's parents she'd have some complaining to do, and that they should simply disregard it:
"My parents were given an extensive speech about how I would try and get them to bring me home as part of the 'what to expect from her first month at Alpine' spiel. I don't know that it was spelled out as clearly as 'Don't believe anything she tells you about us,' but they were warned that I would have a moment where reality set in and that I would try and manipulate them into bringing me home using any means necessary. They were also given a more general warning that girls would often try and use their parents to subvert staff authority and thus the program, so they needed to stay strong to avoid being used."
That's seriously the logic: These teens are "troubled," and what do troubled teens do? They cause trouble. It's right there in the name, parents!
Their Tactics Are Taken From A Violent Cult
In the 1950s, a drug rehab clinic named Synanon was founded. Synanon was a bit like Scientology, but somehow even crazier. Their unique therapeutic style included humiliation tactics, profane personal attacks, beating or vanishing members, hospitalizing a lawyer who opposed them in court by hiding a snake in his mailbox, mandatory vasectomies and abortions, and forced divorces so that new partners could be assigned. They basically turned a violent cult up to 11 and then marketed it to the vulnerable.
An actual quote from the founder. It only gets less pleasant from there.
Why are we telling you this, beyond a general desire to ruin your day? Because Maia traced the path of Synanon's influence, and it leads right to these modern troubled-teen centers. The Seed, a federally funded Florida teen rehab center from the '70s, also used Synanon methods. After some bad publicity it was rebranded as Straight, Inc. -- the least-interesting company name in history. You'd think Straight, Inc. would employ nothing but accountants in beige uniforms whose favorite flavor of ice cream was "unflavored." But no: Straight, Inc. quickly received even worse publicity, in the form of kidnapping and forced drugging allegations.
Which sounds like the corporate version of writing "Unsuspicious Van" on your kidnapping-mobile.
Straight, Inc. then influenced a bunch of "pray away the gay" camps that still exist today. For those getting confused, Maia created a handy flowchart. Long story short, an abusive and widely discredited "therapy" system has been passed down through the decades, constantly changing its name like an evil Puff Daddy. And the latest incarnation, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, created the model for schools like Sarah's. In Maia's words:
"They use all the same tactics that come under the umbrella of 'brainwashing' or coercive persuasion: Food or sleep deprivation, forced confession, isolation -- all these things are out of the interrogation and false confession-creating playbook. There is a limited number of techniques you can use that don't leave but change behavior very quickly."
Sarah witnessed this pain-as-emotional-growth philosophy firsthand. The only place she and her fellow residents could cry without punishment was group therapy, where they actually had to insult each other.
"We were encouraged to critique each other in group at least once a session. After we read our assignments, we had a response period that often doubled as a way to take revenge for things somebody had done to you. As long as you sounded relatively civil, staff wouldn't step in, so there were a lot of 'helpful suggestions' that were really passive-aggressive jabs."
Outside of therapy, crying girls would be shunned until they "stopped behaving negatively," a tactic you may recognize as pretty fucked up. Sarah recalled a particularly egregious experience: "I was pulled into a therapy room with six of the eight other girls in the house and had them tell me exactly what they had been saying about me -- and I mean exactly. I had to just sit there while they ran down the list of awful rumors they'd been spreading, and then I offered the world's least-sincere apologies for it all."
"I am genuinely sorry that you assholes don't have anything better to talk about."
How do you get out of this high school lunch period of the damned? Sarah says it was common to fake a breakthrough. "Crying was a good way to impress the staff. Coming up with a 'realization' that Alpine was right about any given issue became a really easy way to game the system, if you had the breakthroughs reasonably sparingly."
So there's yet another thing troubled-teen centers have in common with confirmed torture techniques: They're both more likely to produce false confessions.
"Tough Love" And The Demerit System Don't Work
The National Institutes of Health concluded that "tough love" programs are at best ineffective and at worst increase negative behavior while wasting precious time and money. That's why you don't see many inspirational movies where a broken family learns to heal through the use of stiff backhands and profanity.
So, what does this particular brand of tough love look like? Sarah lived under a punitive points system, wherein a single infraction could cost a girl anywhere from 2,000 to 50,000 points, like Hogwarts by way of '80s arcade games. Too many lost points and you'd land in OIC (out of instructional control), causing you to lose privs (privileges). And despite Sarah's good intentions, she says, "I'm pretty sure there was only a 24-hour span in the entire two years I was there I didn't break any rules."
"Failure to break the rules? You better believe that'll cost you some points."
She explained the system:
"A -2,000 was for what you might call sins of omission -- you had forgotten to do something minor or screwed up on your chores or homework, you were three to five minutes late to breakfast/class/group, you spent three minutes too long in the shower, or slept past your alarm. A -2,000 was also basically anything staff didn't like that wasn't already against the rules and wasn't a huge deal.
"A -5,000 was whatever was seen as smaller: willful breaking of rules, things like cursing, not doing a small assignment, mildly sassing the staff (in their view), being a jerk to another girl in a banal way, or failing any part of hygiene check.
Yes, hygiene checks. What better way to say "You have no privacy whatsoever"
than by examining you like a dog show contestant.
"A -10,000 was if you just didn't do your chore that day or if you displayed what they would call 'direct non-compliance with staff direction' but then you dialed it back after the first instance and performed your 'corrective action.' Or if you refused to eat something at a meal but gave in and ate it after getting the -10,000, if you sang any lyric deemed inappropriate while music was on, if you didn't cover your eyes at nudity in movies. Also shit-talking staff in mild ways with other girls, talking about religion, talking about politics, being found listening to your radio after lights-out, setting off the alarms at night if you had to get up to go to the bathroom, skipping medication check, or breaking a plate or glass.
"A -25,000 was talking about sex in a general and non-explicit way, skipping a larger assignment in school or therapy, being caught 'flirting' by staff when we were out in public, touching back when the no-physical contact rule was in place."
Long story short, anything that smelled of "normal teenager" was strictly off limits.
It's like one of those dickishly ironic genies granted somebody's wish to live inside of a video game. "Fine, but you can only lose points instead of gaining them, adventure is forbidden, and all of the power-ups are replaced with creepy uncle hugs."
The Good News: It Is (Slowly) Changing
There's no official count of all of America's troubled-teen establishments, but Maia says nearly half have been shuttered over the past few years. This is, in part, thanks to activism from "alumni" like Sarah, journalists like Maia, and everyday concerned people like you. Any moderately resourceful parent considering this path will now come across ample warning of what a terrible plan it is, kind of like how Googling "Should I get a My Little Pony tattoo?" will mostly assure you that no, you shouldn't (there will always be the occasional Brony Tats hold-out page).
At least getting a regrettable tattoo and calling yourself "Glitter Hoof" never caused anyone to die of neglect.
We can also thank the recession: Maia says fewer parents are willing to dig into their retirement funds or remortgage their house to pay for the massive enrollment fees. So ... hurray for economic collapse?
Saundra Sorenson would like to emphasize that she has no affiliation with Sorenson's Ranch.
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