Tough Love

Tough Love (first published in Reader’s Digest July 2012)

Four years ago, Nancy O’Neill*, a dark-haired public servant in Toronto, received some upsetting information about her 13-year-old daughter,Annie. “One of her teachers phoned to say she overheard Annie telling a friend she was giving boys sexual favours for money, drugs and alcohol. I thought, My daughter? No, but thank you for calling.”
Then Annie’s behaviour started to change. The younger of O’Neill’s two girls, Annie met an 18-year-old boy and began skipping school and staying out overnight.Soon afterwards came the tipping point. “I was cleaning her room,” O’Neill says, “and found a can of pop with a false bottom. Inside were rolling papers and marijuana.” The drug use panicked O’Neill, who sent Annie to a therapist, a move that only made her daughter even more defiant. The bad behaviour ramped up: extreme mood swings, explosions of rage, lies about her whereabouts. Annie lost a great deal of weight and began cutting herself. O’Neill—separated and raising two daughters while holding down a full-time job—was soon at her wits’ end. Believing dramatic intervention was needed, O’Neill and her estranged husband settled on what they thought was the only option open to them:boot camp.
Privately owned and operated, residential correctional programs use military-style methods—controlled settings, strict discipline and confrontational therapy—to rehabilitate at risk teens. Barring a court injunction,a minor in Canada must provide consent before entering treatment. O’Neill and her husband knew their daughter would never agree. So like many parents in their situation—scared and desperate to act—they looked across the border to facilities where consent isn’t required. These programs often team up with third party companies, and sometimes local law enforcement, to provide “transport.”
Teams of agents, with parental approval, have been known to snatch teens from detention centres and hospitals. In some cases, these professional kidnappers have plucked youths from their beds at night or helped parents lure their kids south under the guise of special outings.
Annie’s parents hired a consultant who recommended a wilderness program in North Carolina that focused on rehabilitating drug addicts. The price was steep—well over $1,000 a week, and Annie stayed there 12 in total. But, O’Neill says, “We really felt that’s where she needed to be.”
Nearly a month later, after being given specific instructions for Annie’s transport, O’Neill drove her daughter over the border to Niagara Falls for what Annie thought was a shopping trip. “Instead,” says O’Neill, “I parked the car in a motel lot, locked the doors and waited.”
A van was already there. A woman emerged—a social worker associated with the program—accompanied by a police officer and a security guard.The officer walked over to O’Neill’s window and asked her to unlock the door and step outside. He checked her identification and then they opened the trunk where, as directed, O’Neill had stowed a bag she had packed for Annie. The officer lifted out the bag and then they both walked around to Annie’s side while the teen stared at them in incomprehension. “I unlocked the door,” O’Neill recalls, “and I told her what they told me to say: that I loved her and this was what her father and I had agreed upon. She went ballistic.The officer took out handcuffs and said he would rather not use them. Annie calmed down. I told her she needed help and was going away.We hugged. She got in the van.”
O’Neill watched them drive away.
It was the last time she would speak to her daughter for three months. Annie is one of dozens of troubled Canadian teens shipped off to American residential treatment centres every year. Since the 1990s, hundreds of these so-called “emotional growth boarding schools” have spread across the United States, marketing themselves to parents as alternatives to incarceration or hospitalization. According to one American researcher,up to 20,000 adolescents are enrolled in such programs annually. Exact numbers, however, are difficult to obtain.
The schools are federally unregulated and often receive virtually no state oversight. Moreover, staff
don’t require any special qualifications—despite the fact they often employ severe behaviour-modification techniques, such as sleep deprivation,isolation and public humiliation. Nor is a clinical diagnosis necessary for enrolment. Substance abuse and criminal behaviour are the main grounds for placement, but teens have also been accepted for Asperger syndrome, poor grades, low self-esteem and even video-game addiction.
Treatment is costly. Programs kick off with a one-month stay in a wilderness camp where the fee can range from US$5,000 to $13,000. The total bill can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for parents who are told it will take several years to cure their child, who is then transferred to a therapeutic boarding school. In Canada, these expenses can sometimes be partially covered by provincial health-care plans. The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care will approve funding in situations where treatment can’t be found locally. With or without subsidy,however, Canadian parents have proven willing to hand over astronomical sums to U.S. facilities—in several instances taking out second mortgages—to prevent their children from self-destructing. But the kids are paying an even heavier price.
Lee Goldman, now 25, woke up one morning ten years ago to find an educational consultant waiting in herToronto kitchen. “She told me my parents had found this school in Utah called New Haven and that I was leaving today,” she remembers. “I tried to run, but escort people were outside. They threw me in their car and took me to the airport.”
After one month at New Haven’s residential program, Goldman was sent to another Utah-based treatment centre where she claims she was often restrained violently by guards and that, whenever she cried, staff would give her a Haldol shot and lock her overnight in a 2-by-2.5-metre concrete room. Goldman alleges she was ogled by staff members when she showered and was once forcibly administered a rectal suppository—an experience she describes as “sexually humiliating.” She spent a year and a half at the centre and is currently involved in a legal proceeding against the school. Goldman still doesn’t understand why she was sent there.
“I did no drugs, didn’t run away,wasn’t self-harming, wasn’t sexually active. I was going to school. I was just arguing a lot with my family. My parents say they felt pushed into it by the educational consultant we visited for help,” says Goldman, who continues to have nightmares that she’s being chased by agents and dragged back to Utah.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)investigated residential programs nationwide in 2007 and 2008. It identified thousands of allegations of abuse,some of which resulted in death. There was a 16-year old who died of head trauma in 2002, a 14-year-old who suffocated after guards beat him in 2006 and a 17-year-old strangled while being restrained in 2007.The deaths didn’t stop after the investigation.
In 2009, a 16-year-old boy attending a wilderness camp in Oregon died on a hike after staff failed to provide medical care when he showed signs of heat exhaustion. In most of these cases, lack of training and negligent practices are to blame.
U.S. legislators have grown so concerned they’ve been working to pass a bill—the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act—requiring treatment facilities to meet minimum standards regarding food, medical care and freedom from restraint.The bill would also establish a toll-free hotline for complaints.
For Kathryn Whitehead, the trauma still endures. After a suicide attempt at 12, she travelled from New York to a therapeutic boarding school in Montana called Mission Mountain School. An educational consultanthad told her parents that the school would help treat Whitehead’s depression,so she went voluntarily, staying in the program 18 months. “It was awful,” she says. “The confrontation never stopped. If you didn’t say what they wanted to hear, you would be called out. If you didn’t reveal something about yourself, they would put you to work for as long as ten hours a day doing hard labour—building fences, rock picking.”
Whitehead, founder of the teen advocacy group CAFETY (Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth), regards the tactics of residential treatment centres as shock incarceration.
“It’s about destabilizing your sense of self and replacing it with whatever they want to replace it
with,” she says. “They foster a fear of youth, a fear of normal risk-taking behaviour. My parents now feel very much taken advantage of. What these places are selling is fraudulent.”
“Tough love” therapies always look better on TV. Promoted by talk-show personalities like Dr. Phil and celebrated in programs like Brat Camp and Intervention—both of which track the experiences of young delinquents who undergo dramatic turnarounds at rehab centres—such schools are positioned to appear as viable options to anguished parents. The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), a that represents approximately 180 teen rehab centres, touts several studies on its website that argue teens benefit from their members’ programs—one 2008 study of three such programs showed a dramatic decrease in thoughts of suicide, as well as in expressions of defiance. Many kids even started doing better in school. But other studies conducted over the last decade show that, despite some positive results, recidivism rates are high. One 2003 Ohio-based study scored it at 72 percent—20 percent higher than traditional prisons. When it comes to boot-camp graduates, patterns seem to quickly reverse once the intimidation is removed.
Dennis Long is the executive director of Breakaway Addiction Services,a nonresidential substance abuse treatment program for teens and adults in Toronto. He says, over the last decade, his office has dealt with 15 to 20 teens a year who have attended these facilities. “The kids I see are damaged. For parents to be desperate enough to send their kids off to the States at fairly significant expense means things have deteriorated significantly. But some issues can’t be dealt with when you have a kid a thousand miles away from home.”
Toronto-based film-school graduate Dan Gardner*, now 22, was shipped south of the border at the age of 15, after seeing a counsellor who urged his parents to send him away.
Gardner’s parents were divorced and his mother had remarried. At the time, Gardner was drinking heavily.
But as with Annie, it was drug use that marked the final straw for his parents. Gardner was told he was going to a program for three weeks and then on to Las Vegas for a holiday. Instead, in 2007 he ended up trekking through the wilderness for eight weeks at Second Nature Wilderness Program and then spending the next nine months at Gateway Academy, a boys only therapeutic boarding school in Utah that promises to treat everything from depression and anxiety to substance abuse.
“You weren’t allowed to talk to certain people,” he recalls. “You couldn’t read certain books. You couldn’t get away from the staff. It was right out of 1984—if you said anything, you’d get ratted out. I was scared all the time.
And the schedule was rigid: up early, two hours of schooling, then group therapy—sometimes four hours of therapy at a time. It was gruelling.”
When Gardner arrived back in Toronto, he pretended to have changed his lifestyle, hiding the fact he was drinking and smoking marijuana even more frequently than before. He’s resentful of the whole process: “It messed me up.” The trauma followed him into adulthood. “I used to have dreams where they tricked me and sent me back again,” he says. “I would wake up terrified.”
Long believes boot-camp-style treatment centres promote a profound misunderstanding of how a successful treatment for drug-related problems actually works. “Our counsellors look at a kid’s drug-use pattern, emotional well-being, how they are doing in school. Then we sit down with the child and look at a treatment plan. We might work on reducing the amount of dope smoking, going from a joint and a half a day to only smoking on Saturday nights. Stopping cold turkey isn’t practical.”
And the fear-mongering doesn’t help—Aspen Education, which runs a number of programs in the United States, features online testimonials from parents saying things like, “It’s much worse than you think,” conjuring up images of a drug-addicted teen scouring the streets for a fix. “Parents
fail to appreciate that teens are into risk taking, and that involves experimenting with a bunch of stuff,” says Long. “Sometimes the worst thing you can do is freak out.”
As for the more severe substance abuse problems and deviant behaviours,
Long doesn’t think that off-site therapy solutions last. “Recovery from these kinds of serious problems is a long-term process,” he points out.
“If a kid is drinking and doing drugs as a result of an unfortunate home situation, you can’t take them out ofthe home and send them somewhere and expect them to come back all hunky-dory.”
Then there’s what Long calls the “unfortunate side effect” of treatment programs. He warns, “Put kids in with a bunch of drug users, and they will get a crash course in how to be an addict.” He compares it to jail time: “If you’re busted for a minor crime and are sent to jail with hardened criminals, you will likely end up learning a greater arsenal of skills.”
Goldman agrees. “After leaving the Utah centre, I did crack until I was 19.I’d never touched a drug before—not even weed. Tell me,” she asks, “who does well when they get out of these programs?”
Greg Stevenson, a former professional rower, believes he’s found a way. After coaching high-performance athletes, he and his wife felt they should start reaching out to youth at risk. They combined it with their love of the wilderness and started Can-Adventure, a 32-day wilderness camp in British Columbia. CanAdventure does things a little differently from many U.S. facilities.
“Kids come in for a screening to make sure we have voluntary participation,” Stevenson explains. “We deal with some mental-health issues but not higher level ones, such as psychosis,that require direct clinical supervision.If we can’t handle it, we are very open with the family. Sometimes our kids are just socially disconnected and need a positive experience to help them reconnect.”
The program is designed as an intervention. Stevenson and his team train the kids—the bulk of whom come from Western Canada—on team-building and basic wilderness skills, and then go out on challenging expeditions. But the idea, insists Stevenson, is that they return home.
“The American model assumes they go to a therapeutic boarding school,”
he says. “We don’t do that. We believe the home is the best place for youth. Parents contact us because they want to keep their family together.”
Stevenson is uncomfortable with how the U.S. model has started to take hold here. While only a limited number of boot-camp–style programs exist in Canada, incidents have already been reported at one facility.
The Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC), a long-term treatment program for addicted teens, is embroiled in a legal battle with the CBC’s Fifth Estate, which claimed that the AARC failed to investigate reports of abuse at the school. Former clients complained on the show that they were held against their will, underwent therapies they described as cruel and endured sexual abuse.
For Stevenson, the idea that you can throw together a bunch of kids with various behaviours and fix them all by terrorizing them is flawed. “Everything the kids do will be done out of fear. There will be no choices based on an internalized decision-making process,” he says. “These places prey on desperate families, so there’s a questionable ethic about what you’re going to guide those families to do.”
Events have started to turn the tide against boot camps. Advocacy groups such as CAFETY and A START for teens have sprung up in recent years,as well as parent groups and websites warning of the dangers of treatment centres. Thirty-one former students of Mount Bachelor Academy (since closed by U.S. officials) in Oregon have filed suit against it and its parent company, Aspen Education Group. Closer to home, a Toronto survivor of a U.S. boot camp was able to fight back. Jonathan Ziv, now 30, was sent to Elan School in Poland, Maine,when he was 15. From the time he was enrolled until he left two years later, Ziv endured a level of violence straight out of the dystopian world of The Hunger Games. “On my first day there was a boxing match,” he remembers.
“They put one kid who’d been bad with another kid who was bigger and stronger. I saw kids get smashed in the face and their noses explode in blood.”
After his inquiries about filing a class-action suit proved discouraging, Ziv took matters into his own hands and built a Facebook page. “I would send big packages of information to senators and education officials in Maine,” he says. “I started pumping stuff online; another alumnus contacted parents who had kids at Elan, telling them what went on.” The campaign is seen as largely responsible for shuttering the school last year.
While Ziv’s campaign helped him recover from his experiences, Annie’s post-boot-camp experience was much less successful. After her stay at the wilderness program, she was moved to Island View therapeutic boarding school in Utah. The school’s program was designed for teens ages 15 to 20, but Annie was admitted anyway because she looked and acted more mature than her 13 years. “It was a horrible placement,” O’Neill recalls.
“I know she was smoking pot and drinking. But some of these other kids had been prostitutes and were into heroin, methadone and LSD.”
After Annie returned from Island View, she was shipped to several other schools—Vista, also in Utah, and Bethany Hills School in Peterborough, Ont. (which has since closed down). She also had a brief stint at Pine River Institute, located outside Toronto. In 2010, Annie returned home for good and immediately moved out. She has never fully opened up to her mother about her experience. For the past year she’s been living in a one-room flat with an older man and recently gave birth to a son who experienced methadone withdrawal. She is 18.
O’Neill regrets that things haven’t turned out differently. “If she’d enrolled in a local program, stayed in Toronto and had the support of her family and friends while attending school—that would have been a godsend.
I don’t know where her journey is going or where it will end.”

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