Youth transportation services are essentially for-hire kidnappers who take "at-risk" youth from their homes to behavioral programs, per the instructions of their parents.
Illustration by Alex Jenkins
It was midnight when David woke up to find two large men standing over his bed. Without any explanation, they told him to get up, get dressed, and come with them. Still in the confusion of sleep, but also petrified out of his 12-year-old mind, David complied. Plus, the restraint of a large arm meant he couldn't bolt.
When David saw the plain black van parked in front of the house, he figured he was about to be kidnapped for dealing drugs to the wrong people at his school.
"I was scared for my life," David, who is now 15, told me.
But David wasn't being kidnapped in the traditional sense. What happened to him was arranged by his parents, and was completely legal.
Youth transportation services, like the one that picked up David, ferry at-risk (or allegedly at-risk) young people to residential programs such as wilderness camps or therapeutic boarding schools. Often these surprise "escorts" are done in the early hours of the morning when young people are sleeping, and use varying levels of aggressive tactics and professionalism. David was lucky to avoid being handcuffed, hogtied with cable wires, slapped, or punched—several others I interviewed claimed these things happened to them.
"It is fear that you experience once you get into that van, and it is fear that you experience through the whole rehabilitation process," said David, who went back to dealing and taking drugs as soon as he returned to California. He asked VICE not to use his real name for fear he could be sent back to a program.
The troubled teen or "tough love" industry is made up mostly of for-profit companies that promise to fix drug addiction, mental illness, and attitude problems. At the center of this industry are the behavioral programs, some accused of abusive practices and even causing the death of teen clients. If the behavioral program is the entrée, then the transportation service is the appetizer, often setting the tone for the treatment the young person will endure for the months or years to come.
"They can be abducted against their will and this meets all the criteria of trauma," Dr. Nicole Bush, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, told me. Bush helped found the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (A START) to help protect young people from negligent residential programs and youth transport services.
Several of her teen clients who attended residential programs attribute their post-traumatic stress disorder to the youth transport services that picked them up. One client said she was taken when an SUV pulled up next to the family car. Another described two large men escorting her from a restaurant where she was eating with friends.
"They talk about nightmares, not being able to sleep alone, or needing a night light," Bush told me. "These are people are in their 20s and 30s, more than a decade after the event."
Bush is quick to point out that not all youth transport services are equal. A 2015 article in the Child and Youth Care Forum found after surveying 350 young people who attended a wilderness program (where nature expeditions are used as a type of therapy) that whether young people were transported or dropped off by a parent had little impact on the treatment outcome.
But some transports can be traumatizing. Thomas, a man in his 30s who works for a West Coast youth transport service (who asked that VICE use a pseudonym), told me some workers "want to go in like a WWF wrestler and throw kids around like rag dolls." He said his strategy is to make the pickup as painless as possible for the young person, talking them through their grievances with the current situation or whatever is going on at home or school.
"I was a little shit head when I was a kid," he said. "I know what it is like to think no one cares."
A critical aspect of the whole operation is gaining parental permission through an affidavit or power of attorney agreement. These agreements temporarily transfer parental rights to the youth transport company, giving workers permissions that include authorizing medical attention or restraining the young person.
"In general, parents have enormously wide discretion with respect to decisions regarding their children. They can decide to leave their children with people and give them parental rights and no one can interfere," Philip Elberg, an attorney who has worked on cases involving the troubled teen industry, told me.
Elberg added that the large number of abuse complaints triggered by the troubled teen industry isn't matched by the small number of lawsuits because, among other reasons, unless there is a serious physical incident such as injury, sexual abuse, or death of a young person, there isn't much legal ground to stand on after authority has been handed over by the parent.
"Parents are often the victim," said Bush. "They are desperate to help their child and someone who is supposed to be a professional tells them that this is what they are supposed to do."
Monica Moyses says she was zip-tied by her escorts as soon as they woke her up. When she saw her uncle, who had custody of her at the time, talking with the strange men on the sidewalk while she sat locked in a car, she assumed the absolute worst.
"I thought my uncle had sold me into some kind of sex slavery," Moyses told me. Instead, after a long drive and two flights, she arrived at a boot camp in Costa Rica. She was 13 at the time and had been busted for smoking weed, drinking alcohol, and staying out late.
"I was hanging around with an unsavory crowd," said Moyses, who is now 29. She admitted that she needed help, but the drastic nature of what she received sent her spiraling deeper into drug use and alcoholism. It took her several years to turn her life around.
Often young people don't need a behavioral program, let alone a private company to transport them there, according to Clinton Hardy, who runs New Start Transport out of Utah. Hardy told me that many of these kids haven't committed crimes, so "the idea that you are going to pick them up with a procedure that a police officer would use seems strange to me." Hardy intentionally keeps his company small so he has greater personal oversight over the practices of his employees, but he's on the fence about whether or not to stay in the industry, due to what he calls "ethical dilemmas."
David, who was transported from his home in LA, says he overheard workers at his behavioral program speaking to the youth transport workers about a kickback agreement between the two companies.
"They were joking around about how they make a lot of money by recommending people transport their kids rather than bring them personally," he told me. A transport can cost $5,000 to $8,000 depending on distance and if a flight needs to be booked, according to Thomas, the youth transportation worker.
In his teens, Cory (who also asked that we not use his real name) was transported in the typical way—early morning by two "football linebacker-type guys."
"My mom always said don't talk to strangers, and then my mom went and hired a stranger," he told me.
Six years later, he's made amends with his parents, who he said regret the whole thing—the transport, the wildness program, and the therapeutic boarding school, which cost about $140,000 all in.
"They were desperate," he said, "so they didn't see what the situation really was."
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