Josh Shipp from Lifetime TV's Teen Trouble. (Image via)
If you like Army Wives, Preachers’ Daughters, Dance Moms or any other TV show attempting to create a taxonomy of women based on the professions of their husbands, fathers and children, then you may well have caught an episode of Teen Trouble. It’s a reality TV show on the US Lifetime network where a guy named Josh Shipp sends “at-risk teens” to "alternative rehab centres", where they’re forced to endure emotional and physical abuse before being allowed to rejoin society.
Shipp is your classic Jerry Springer brand of therapist – no real qualifications, a huge ego and a penchant for money and entertaining TV over science and genuine psychology. “I’m a teen behaviour specialist,” he says in the intro. “My approach is gritty, gutsy and in your face.”
But the show is a lot grittier than you might expect from that typical teleprompter spiel. The unregulated "troubled teen" industry is able to persist despite numerous allegations of physical and sexual abuse, torture and death at various institutions, and Shipp is exploiting that same system for monetary gain. Even when they aren’t abusive and/or deadly, the pseudoscientific practices used at “tough love boarding schools” have often proven to be ineffective and can lead to PTSD, anxiety, depression and drug addiction. Maia Szalavitz, author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, told me about some of the horror stories her own research uncovered.
“The classic list is food deprivation, sleep deprivation, public humiliation, beatings and denial of access to the bathroom to the point where you wet or soil yourself. But I’m also constantly hearing stories of people being forced to re-enact various traumas, like being raped,” she told me.
A child at Family First Growth Camp in California is made to carry a truck tyre and screamed at until he is broken down.
Szalavitz continued, "At Mount Bachelor Academy, an investigation found bed sheets that had been used during re-enactments, and one of them had, ‘I am the yes girl, spray your cum on my tits,’ written on it. Let’s be real: this is not therapy.”
The methods used at these facilities are arguably traceable to an anti-drug cult in the 60s called the Church of Synanon. Their method was to abduct addicts and then “rehabilitate” them through beatings and humiliation. “I found that virtually all of the programmes that exist today using the harshest tactics were either founded by former Synanon members or sent people to Synanon to learn the treatment,” Szalavitz told me.
Former patients have been airing their stories on Reddit and other websites, so I contacted a few of them to find out more. It soon became clear that today’s residential teen treatment centres still have all the trappings of a cult.
One night, Nick Quinn was roused from sleep at his home and taken to Aspen Education’s Outback programme in Utah (the same programme Josh Shipp sent Jacob to in episode two of Teen Trouble) because his parents caught him smoking weed.
“At 4.30AM, I was woken up by two strangers holding handcuffs. They took my wallet and phone and told me that if I didn’t want to go easily they would make it hard for me. I thought I was being kidnapped. Next thing I know, I’m in a big white truck on my way to the airport,” he told me.
Once he arrived, Nick was given new clothes and survival gear, tied up and shipped into the wilderness, where he would remain for eight weeks. His boots were taken away at night to prevent him from escaping on the freezing cold ground. All of which seems a little aggressive for smoking a bit of weed.
Nick Quinn while he was at Swift River Academy.
After his ordeal, Nick was sent to another Aspen institute – the Swift River Academy in Massachusetts – where he was kept for seven months. “I was lucky my parents pulled me out. You could just tell they wanted the kids to be there as long as possible. They were milking it; my parents spent around $150,000 (£98,407).”
At Swift River, Nick endured the same kind of “therapy” I’d heard about from every other young victim, and which numerous academics had told me can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to Szalavitz, the goal is to break the child down psychologically and brainwash them: “The reasons these tactics sound similar to enhanced interrogation techniques, AKA torture, is because they're the ways you can break people and leave minimal marks.”
Now, years later, Nick has developed an anxiety disorder, experiences recurring nightmares from his time in “therapy” and still smokes weed. Understandably, his parents regret sending him there as it seems to have caused more damage than it prevented – something that appears to be a recurring theme with victims of troubled teen camps.
"Pretty much all the kids who I’m in touch with [from the camps] have dropped out of school," Nick told me. "Most get re-addicted to drugs. When you get out, you have all this freedom and you don’t know what to do with it. You lose control, you know?”
Aria Leonard, who was sent to the Monarch School in Montana seven years ago, had similar experiences. Aria told me her mother sent her there because she “disliked the friends she was making because they were ‘different’ – black, gay, etc.” After a pricey $2,000 (£1,312) visit to an “educational consultant”, Aria was diagnosed as depressed, as a drug addict and told by her parents she’d be going to “boarding school”.
Aria first realised it was no ordinary boarding school when her belongings were taken and she was strip-searched on entry.
Aria Leonard while she was at the Monarch School.
“Right after that I was taken directly to a group session. People were talking about drugs, sex and alcohol, then everyone started screaming and crying. I was really confused and started to wonder if there had been some sort of mistake. I was then asked what drugs I'd done to be put there, and – despite my insistence that I'd never done drugs, was a virgin and wasn’t violent – they didn't believe me.”
Aria was forced to undertake pointless physical labour, like cutting down huge trees and dragging them along the ground for half an hour, as well as being told to sit opposite a wall at night and continuously write stuff like, "I am a slut" and "I'm not good enough".
Like most victims of the troubled teen industry, Aria was forced to divulge “disclosures” – a form of ludicrously invasive confessional. “You had to write about everything bad you'd ever done, with an emphasis on ‘sexual disclosures’. I had very little experience in sexual anything, but they wouldn’t believe me, so in the end I just made it up,” she said.
Aria was also put through the same emotional breaking-down sessions inflicted on Nick. During procedures known as “insights”, teens were denied bathroom access, food and sleep for three to five days. They would also be made to perform role-playing exercises that ended in them acting out their own death – exercises Shia likened to the kind of “therapy” seen in this bizarre video.
Aria remained in the centre for 18 months. Like Nick, she has since been diagnosed with anxiety and depression and continues to have nightmares about her experience.
Liz went to 39 residential treatment centres and describes being abused and raped multiple times. Rape claims are common in the industry, but – as the children are completely under staff's control for years – lawsuits rarely surface.
“The excessive use of punishment and humiliating procedures isn't only unhelpful, but also traumatising for young people," said Professor Robert Friedman, a child psychologist. "As is the practice of having strangers wake them in the middle of the night and transport them far away without any preparation.”
And it’s not just the trauma-inducing methodology that makes the industry questionable; it’s also the diagnosis. "What is a 'troubled teen'?" Szalavitz wonders. “The idea that we put kids with Asperger’s, heroin addictions, depression and extreme anxiety disorders in one programme with a rigid, regimented schedule and expect it to help all of those kids – how could that be?
“Americans have this idea that addiction and drug use is about complete hedonistic abandon, seeking extra pleasure and defying your parents. They missed the fact that the people who really tend to have problems with drugs are people in pain seeking relief. Their idea is that these people don’t have enough pain, so we need to give them more pain to fix them,” she said.
No matter the intention, these forms of therapy aren't only pointless and outdated, but cruel and damaging. Any emotional trauma that teenagers suffer at Aspen Education’s institutes must only be matched by the neglect they feel at being abandoned by their parents for an important part of their formative years.
While these practices might seem abhorrent, the troubled teen industry is huge, powerful and experienced in deflecting allegations. In 2002, Forbes magazine’s Erika Brown estimated its worth at $2 billion, and since then it's only been on the rise. The industry has managed to stick around in some incarnation since the 60s due to its powerful Republican and Christian roots. Many programmes can be traced back to Straight, Incorporated, Nancy Reagan and George Bush Sr's favourite anti-drug programme that was closed due to abuse lawsuits in the early 90s.
George Bush Sr voices his support for Straight, Incorporated.
Today, funding from Mitt Romney’s private equity firm Bain Capital (of which he has resigned as CEO, but continues to profit from) has allowed the industry to thrive. The biggest name in the business, Aspen Education, is owned by CRC Health Group, which was bought by Bain Capital in 2006 and is responsible for many of the institutes used on Shipp’s show. Since the takeover, Aspen has seen six deaths occur in its facilities, mainly due to neglect. Worryingly, the US Department of State advertises Aspen programmes for teens on their website.
I confronted Shipp about the issue, but he brushed it aside as an unfortunate change of staffing in a few of the programmes, rather than a powerful nationwide industry that’s rotten to the core. “Treatment facilities can change ownership, management and staffing quite regularly," Shipp told me. "Parents need to proceed with caution with any programme at all and be armed with the right questions to ask.”
Shipp also assured me that, “A family therapist chose the aftercare for each kid based on the situation they were going through.” But if there’s one reason that the industry has managed to survive other than money, it’s that there’s almost no supervision for psychological treatments in the USA, which is kind of at odds with Shipp's claims. As Szalavitz told me, “If I wanted to start a addiction rehab centre tomorrow where treatment just involves standing on your head for extended periods of time, then I could do just that.”
Mitt Romney. (Image via)
It’s not difficult for the industry to legitimise itself. Professor Friedman told me that “groups like Aspen are now trying to build an empirical case for their programmes by hiring evaluators to conduct supposedly independent studies that validate the effectiveness of the programmes. These studies aren't independent and are more of a marketing effort than a genuine evaluation.”
This kind of “therapy” comes from an older America: one which believes that society is subject to moral decay and that the solution is to force outliers to conform to Republican and Christian ideals of abstinence and hard work. It’s an America that puts its faith in the ecstatic emotional climaxes of TV evangelism and “tough love” over the tried scientific methods of modern psychology.
Where we see experimentation and the pushing of boundaries, it sees sin and societal corruption that must be violently scared out of people. Normal teenagers are being told that they are wrong and worthless, then broken and abused with the goal of making them “born again” as upstanding adults. And all the while, their parents’ bank accounts are being emptied straight into the coffers of America’s richest men. (The recession has dampened the industry’s growth, but CRC Health lists the net revenue per child in outdoor programmes as $438.96 per day, and in residential programmes as $257.87 per day.)
And yet, while minor investigations have forced individual rehab centres to change staff, the industry continues to thrive. That's because these institutions use the same methods, have the same roots and are funded by the same people. Which begs the question: Why has there been no attempt at state regulation of treatment centres? Until there is, American kids are destined to continue suffering in these abusive institutions.
Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_A_Shea
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