Despite an alarming report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2007 that found “thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death” at residential treatment programs nationwide, the troubled teen industry has flourished in recent years, especially in states with religious exemption laws. In Florida, which bans the inspection of private, faith-based facilities, there have been at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect over the past decade. Children have complained of being pinned to the ground for hours, held in seclusion for days and made to stand until they wet themselves. Some have even been choked to unconsciousness. Girls have been forced to wave around their menstrual-stained underwear as chastisement for being “unclean.” Conversion therapy for gay teens is a common practice at many of the faith-based facilities as well.
Most troubling about the growth of the industry, advocates say, is that there’s no proof any of it works. In fact, research highlighted by the GAO report suggests that tough love programs are actually counterproductive. “If you want to teach a kid how to get along better in the outside world, it doesn’t make sense to completely isolate them and submerge them in this world with arbitrary rules and unpredictable and severe punishments and make them live in a constant state of fear,” says Julia Graff, of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. “Most kids are worse when they get out.”
“If you want to teach a kid how to get along better in the outside world, it doesn’t make sense to isolate them in this world with arbitrary rules — most kids are worse when they get out.”
In the past 15 years, as many as 86 kids have died in troubled teen programs. At least 10 kids have died at wilderness programs like Tierra Blanca, most of them because of starvation, exposure to the elements or pressing medical needs that went ignored. In one of the most highly publicized cases, a 16-year-old named Aaron Bacon was forced to hike without food for as many as 14 days and sleep for several nights in freezing temperatures in the canyons of southern Utah without a sleeping bag or blanket. When his body began to shut down, and he lost control of his bowels, the staff made him walk without pants. He died after just 20 days at the camp.
“These programs are based on the premise that today’s teens are so out of control and morally compromised that only the most extreme and harsh tactics can keep them in line,” says Maia Szalavitz, who interviewed hundreds of kids who had attended tough love programs for her 2006 book, Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. “And they think the answer is to isolate them, deprive them and eventually break them.”
The largest industry trade group—the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP)—says that tough love programs like Tierra Blanca are outliers and not representative of the industry as a whole. The group requires its 166 member programs — which serve an estimated 6,000 kids, or about half of those in the industry — to be licensed or accredited, something programs like Tierra Blanca are notorious for resisting.
“There’s a lot of frustration about these sorts of programs because it’s a black eye for the field as a whole,” says the NATSP’s spokesperson, Megan Stokes. “Programs using outdated tough love methods with no science, that’s absolutely not what we’re about.”