The Troubled-Teen Industry Offers Trauma, Not Therapy


From The New York Times: “In 1994, the 15-year-old Liz Ianelli was sent by her parents to the Family Foundation School in Hancock, N.Y., which claimed to treat her disruptive behavior. But she said her ‘therapy’ for most of the next three years consisted of daily emotional attacks by staff and fellow students, forced labor, food deprivation and other assaults. While there, she was also raped by a kitchen employee, she said. Then, as punishment for ‘lying’ about it, she was bound in a blanket with duct tape and left in a boiler room for eight days.

Now Ms. Ianelli is an activist and the author of a new memoir, ‘I See You, Survivor,’ which details her ordeal. But she is far from alone. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans have endured similar harms or assaults¬†in residential¬†boot camps,¬†wilderness therapy and Christian and¬†therapeutic boarding¬†schools, which claim to vanquish teen psychological problems like drug misuse, depression and defiant behavior. Among them is Paris Hilton, who first told her story in a 2020¬†documentary¬†and is now lobbying for recently introduced legislation to stop the abuse.

These children‚Äôs programs act similarly to psychiatric hospitals in that they control residents‚Äô custody and communication with the outside world, but they are typically not strictly regulated. Some states exempt programs that claim to be religion-based from standards enforced on other child-caring facilities, while some states have few, if any, regulations on these programs. Because more than a dozen states allow¬†spanking and paddling in schools, corporal punishment that would be illegal in prisons occurs in many of these programs. Evidence suggests that the punitive ‘therapies’ that these facilities use are unsafe and ineffective.

Advocates¬†estimate¬†that around 100,000 teens are held in such programs annually, but the exact number is not known because the government does not track them. One example is the private school Hidden Lake Academy, to which the¬†billionaire Harlan Crow paid tuition for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas‚Äôs grandnephew. In a 2008 congressional¬† hearing,¬†a parent described¬†how her child was subjected to attack therapy ‚ÄĒ brutal emotional assaults and public humiliation aimed at breaking down problematic personalities at the school, which was¬†shut down in 2011 after a lawsuit helped bankrupt it. But until Ms. Hilton took up the cause, efforts to protect youth on the federal level had stalled.”

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  1. The real harm by these kind of institutions will be impossible to quantify in terms of lives lost.

    The NYT piece and it’s links do come out sounding a little apologetic about the apparently out of the ordinary rates of suicide in survivors of those institutions.

    Blame the victim kinda crap, always explain the bad outcomes in terms of how different from the rest of the population victims are labeled.

    But there are some cases of teenagers that do seem “problematic” in terms of substance abuse. Sadly, 3-4 generations ago that did not require such draconian and harmfull interventions.

    For a more recent parent, having a teenager “failing” school and abusing substances might sound terrible. But before the 60s that might have sounded almost routine.

    So, it mght be more about parent expectations, fear induction and exploitation, than about troubled teens.

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