June 16, 2005
by John S. Adams,
photos by Chad Harder
modification programs watch their troubled teen charges like hawks.
Recent lawsuits and allegations of abuse raise the question: Who’s
By the summer of
2004 Janet Larson was at her wit’s end. Her 17-year-old daughter
Christina (both names have been changed) was drinking, smoking,
sneaking out, doing drugs and lying. Her parents were worried sick
she would drop out of school, end up in jail, or worse.
So they made a
difficult decision that summer, a decision they hoped would change
their daughter’s life: They decided to send Christina to a private
behavior modification program in Western Montana. Like thousands of
parents around the country who send their children away in hopes of
saving their lives, Christina’s parents were convinced they had no
Her experience at
Spring Creek Lodge in Thompson Falls did change Christina’s life,
but not in the way her parents expected. Less than two months after
enrolling in the program, Christina was back home in southern
California, dealing with what her mother calls the “shock treatment”
she received at Spring Creek, as well as the news that a bunk-mate
and friend at the school had killed herself just days after
Left: With around 450 students,
Lodge is the
largest of Montana’s approximately
35 teen behavior modification
programs. Students there are not allowed to
fraternize with members of the opposite sex.
Below: Spring Creek
director Chaffin Pullan, left,
director Mike Chisholm, seated, say
that “intervention” rooms like
this one are used to
“cool down” disruptive students. Former
say they are used as solitary confinement.
pretty good kid”
problems began in the seventh grade when she was 12 years old. Prior
to middle school, Christina had been an honor-roll student in the
99th percentile in her class. Then her grades took a dive and she
began hanging out with a girl her mom considered bad news. She and
her new best friend tried to run away. (They were gone for a day.)
She started smoking cigarettes and drinking. When her eighth-grade
year rolled around, her grades went from bad to dismal.
Christina in a private school and things improved for a while, but
it didn’t last.
“We started getting
calls from school,” recalls Janet. “They said she’s not putting out
her best effort and she was late to class all the time.”
By her sophomore
year, Christina was dating an 18-year-old drug dealer.
“She was in love
with that guy,” Janet says. “She was only 15 and he was 18 and he
was dealing drugs. We didn’t want our 15-year-old associating with
this person. But she is a very stubborn young woman. I love her
dearly but she is stubborn.”
Her parents hired a
therapist but progress was slow, and soon Janet realized it wasn’t
getting through to Christina.
When Christina was
expelled her junior year for smoking dope, Janet was distraught and
enrolled her daughter in a drug treatment program. Janet knew the
situation was worsening, but she wasn’t desperate yet.
“She was still
basically a pretty good kid. Maybe I was in denial—I don’t know—but
it wasn’t that bad.”
By the end of the
summer, however, Christina pushed her parents’ trust to the breaking
She was caught
skipping a friend’s funeral to get high. That’s when Janet decided
to do something drastic.
“I started looking
into wilderness treatment programs,” Janet says. “I didn’t want to
be with her any more. She was lying, coming home smelling like
alcohol and cigarettes all the time. She didn’t care what we
thought. She just lost all respect for us. She didn’t care anymore.”
had learned about a school in Thompson Falls, called Spring Creek
Lodge, from a counselor in Christina’s drug program. The counselor
gave Janet a phone number and Janet made the call.
arrangements for Christina to enroll at Spring Creek in late August.
Christina’s counselor warned the teen she could run and have the
police track her down and arrest her and then send her by paid
escort service to Spring Creek, or she could go willingly.
“My counselor told
me there was a gym there and I’d be going hiking and swimming and
kayaking,” Christina recalls. “It sounded like a great place where I
could get away from everything and turn myself around. All I wanted
to do [was] finish high school and work out.”
thought it sounded too good to be true. Spring Creek was located in
a beautiful mountain setting in Western Montana, far from the
influences steering Christina into trouble. Marketing materials
pictured smiling kids taking part in fun activities amongst towering
conifers and quaint log buildings.
A woman named
Glenda at Spring Creek assured Janet over the phone that the program
could help. She said all the right things and had all the right
answers. In hindsight, Janet realizes the school never interviewed
Christina or did any kind of psychological examination of her
daughter. They took Janet’s word that Christina was a mess and said
they would help get her life back on track.
The next thing
Glenda did was hook Janet up with a loan officer. There was no
discussion about Janet’s financial situation or whether she and her
husband could afford the $3,390 monthly tuition the school charged
(not counting enrollment fees, therapy costs, incidentals and
Looking back, Janet
says she should have sensed something was wrong when Spring Creek
was so quick to square the loan away, but she was now desperate.
“I couldn’t stop
worrying at night,” she says. “She was going out at night and I
didn’t know what she was up to. She was not progressing in school. I
was worried she was going to end up a heroin addict. I was afraid
for our daughter.”
So Christina and
her dad flew to Spokane, where they rented a car and drove to Spring
“Every time we
stopped somewhere to get gas or something to eat I wanted to just
run,” says Christina. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m
getting dropped off in Montana.’ I was pissed off, but I kept
telling myself, ‘I’m only going to be here for four months. I am
going to get out of here. It’s not going to be forever.’”
She had good reason
to think that. Her mother had promised her she would pick her up in
a few months if everything was going okay.
terrified when she arrived at Spring Creek. After checking in she
was given two tearful minutes to say goodbye to her dad, and then
she was alone. For the next 42 days, Christina says she was told her
parents weren’t coming for her like they said they would, that she
would have to graduate the program or stay at Spring Creek
indefinitely. Christina says she was made to believe that her
parents had lied to her.
Janet says she saw
her first red flag when her husband returned from dropping Christina
off and told her they wouldn’t be able to talk to their daughter for
Then, just days
after Christina’s arrival at Spring Creek, Janet and her husband
were instructed to sign a “commitment letter.”
“I did not want to
[send] that letter, because it wasn’t true,” Janet recalls
furiously. “That’s what the program does; it makes you lie to your
letter said Christina was expected to complete all phases of the
Spring Creek program, a process that takes at least 18 months. The
letter confirmed their commitment to the program, no matter how long
“A lot of things
set off bells in our heads,” says Janet. “We told her three or four
months. I mean, basically, she’s a pretty good kid. Now I was lying
to her. We don’t want her to lie to us and now we’re lying to her.”
The letter was
delivered to Christina, who was devastated.
“I thought my
parents had lied to me. I thought I was going to be there until I
Janet was concerned
about her daughter’s state of mind, but she wasn’t allowed to talk
to her. Program rules explicitly deny parents contact for the first
two months, and even then, only monitored phone contact is allowed,
and only if the child has achieved “advanced” status in Spring
at Spring Creek, and other member facilities of the World Wide
Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS), follow a
strictly regimented points-based program and are organized into
“Families” with names like “Integrity,” “Serenity,” “Eternity” and
“Innocence.” Families consist of 20 to 30 students and a staff
member known as the “mother” or “father.” Students spend nearly
every waking and sleeping moment with their Family. Families walk
from classroom to cafeteria to their dorms in lockstep unison.
According to news reports and families of students, a child can’t
graduate the program until she demonstrates to the satisfaction of
Spring Creek staff that she has taken responsibility for the actions
that put her in the school in the first place. She must appear to
believe that the program has saved her life. As reporter Decca
Aitkenhead described the program at an affiliated facility called
Tranquility Bay in Jamaica in a 2003 article in the London newspaper
The Observer, “They must renounce their old self, espouse the
program’s belief system, display gratitude for their salvation, and
police fellow students who resist.”
The WWASPS program
is based on the theory that behaviors can be modified by the
enforcement of consequences. Inappropriate behaviors, therefore, are
met with swift retribution.
When a child
arrives at Spring Creek, she starts at Level 1. In order to graduate
the program, she must accumulate merit points. Points are
hard-earned and easily lost. Speaking out of turn, looking at a
member of the opposite sex, or horsing around—according to a card
the students wear around their necks—can cost a student a day’s
worth of points. Insubordination or fighting can result in the loss
of three levels.
Level 1 students
are prohibited from talking to Level 2 students.
“If your levels add
up to four you can talk to one another,” says one Spring Creek
Christina, advanced, or upper-level students, Levels 4, 5 and 6,
have more freedom than lower-level students. Girls, for example,
might get to wear some make-up. For three days each week, upperlevel
students work as “junior staff.” They become the eyes and the ears
of the staff when staff are out of sight, and they “consequence”
other students who step out of line.
Students who are
disruptive or have outbursts are placed in “intervention.” They are
taken, sometimes by force, to a room students call “the Hobbit,”
where they sit in chairs. Some kids have reported being put in
intervention for days, even months. The school maintains that a
student is put in intervention for 30-minute “cooling off” periods.
If they fail to cool off or remain disruptive, they may stay longer,
under the watchful eye of a staff member.
Christina says she
tried to steer clear of trouble while she was at Spring Creek,
because she believed she was only biding her time until her mother
came to get her.
While she wasn’t
allowed to talk to her daughter, Janet was paying an additional $75
per week for Christina’s therapy sessions. Then, one day in late
September, she received a call from a therapist at Spring Creek, a
woman she had never met. The woman told Janet that after only her
second session with Christina, she was convinced Christina was
depressed. The therapist said she wanted to prescribe
“They wanted me to
put my daughter on anti-depressants without even letting me talk to
her,” Janet says, disgusted at the memory. “Put her on drugs? That
was the breaking point for me. I have read a lot about
antidepressants in children and a lot of kids commit suicide while
taking them. I didn’t even know who was prescribing these drugs.
That was it for me.”
So Janet drove from
southern California to Thompson Falls. Christina’s dad notified
Spring Creek only hours before Janet got there, and when Janet
arrived Christina’s things were boxed and waiting for her.
Janet or Christina, a mother from a community just a short drive
from their California hometown was also on her way to Spring Creek.
After hearing the news that Mexican authorities had raided and
closed Casa by the Sea—an affiliated teen behavior modification
facility located about 50 miles south of San Diego—that mother
decided it was time to take her child out of the Spring Creek
program. Her daughter was one of Christina’s Family members.
On that day in
early October 2004, Spring Creek lost two students, and with them
about $80,000 per year in tuition and fees.
Three days later,
the school lost another of Christina’s Family members. Karlye Anne
Newman, a 16-year-old girl from Denver, hanged herself in the
bunkhouse that she’d shared with Christina only days earlier. She
died just days before her 17th birthday.
“She just sort
death went largely unnoticed in Montana and elsewhere. No obituary
ran in any of her hometown Colorado newspapers. While local
newspapers were notified that there had been a suicide at the
school, Karlye’s name never appeared in print. The only record of
her death is her Montana death certificate, which was filed on her
Her adoptive father
died when she was about four years old, and his family wasn’t told
of Karlye’s death until months later when a reporter called to ask
“[Karlye] just sort
of disappeared off the face of the earth. Isn’t that sad?” says
Nanci Shapiro, Karlye’s aunt.
One mother told the
Independent that shortly after she picked up her daughter from
Spring Creek, she received a call from her daughter’s “Family
representative,” who informed her there had been a death at the
school, but that her daughter was safe with her Family.
The mother was
confused, because her daughter was standing next to her in their
California home at the time. A day later, she received a second
call. The woman again assured her that her child was safe.
“I was really glad
I took [my daughter] out of there,” that mother says. “They
obviously weren’t keeping track of the students.”
The Sanders County
Sheriff’s Department investigated Karlye’s death and ruled it a
suicide. There was no evidence of foul play. An investigator with
the state Department of Justice interviewed Sanders County Sheriff
Gene Arnold, as well as the medical examiners who examined Karlye’s
body, and closed the case.
In a statement
issued by the school, Spring Creek acknowledged that “SCLA [Spring
Creek Lodge Academy] was acutely aware of the girl’s fragility and
had placed her on ‘high risk’ observation. After showing signs of
improvement, the 16-year-old student was recently removed from high
risk after consultation with the student’s counselor, the assistant
clinical director and four staff members who had worked closely with
A student who knew
Karlye (and other girls in her Family that had attempted suicide)
said students on high risk are not allowed to possess sharp objects
such as pens, they can’t wear their nametag lanyard and they are
assigned a “high risk buddy” to watch out for them.
According to Spring
Creek’s “Parent Orientation Handbook,” the school is “not
recommended for students who are suicidal, psychotic, violent,
assaultive, diabetic, schizophrenic, highly depressed and/or who
have significant mental and emotional problems, drug addictions, or
traumatic brain injury.”
“It gets really
old in a hurry”
At first glance,
Spring Creek Lodge looks like a first-class wilderness resort. It’s
located on approximately 100 acres near the Clark Fork River, west
of Thompson Falls. To get there, you have to drive down the long,
winding and pot-holed Blue Slide Road for about 13 miles. The campus
consists of log buildings with tin roofs situated among towering
cedars, ponderosa pines and fir trees. Mountains provide a striking
backdrop for the campus, as well as an effective barrier to escape.
“The scenery is
cool at first, but it gets really old in a hurry,” says one Spring
The students don’t
get visitors at all during their first few months at Spring Creek,
and then parents are allowed to visit only after both parents and
child have completed self-improvement “seminars.”
The kids come from
all over the country, but nearly all share common characteristics:
almost all are white, and almost all are from middle- to upper-class
families. Some went to Spring Creek willingly; others were taken in
the dead of night by a teen escort service.
“These two huge
guys came into my bedroom at like four in the morning and told me to
get dressed,” one of the boys recalls. “I didn’t know what was going
on. My parents told me if I didn’t stop doing drugs they’d send me
away but I didn’t really believe them.”
On a recent visit
to Spring Creek Lodge, this Independent reporter was told he would
be allowed to speak only to students selected by school
administrators ahead of time, and who had received clearance from
their parents to talk to the media. When the Independent declined to
speak to pre-selected students, this reporter and a photographer
were allowed to speak to a few randomly selected students of our
choosing on the condition that we wouldn’t use their names or
photograph their faces due to privacy concerns.
We had been told
the students didn’t know we were coming, but the students we spoke
to quickly relayed that they had been placed on “Cat-4 Silence” just
minutes before we arrived at their classroom. We were told students
were not allowed to speak while we were there and that talking could
bring severe consequences.
We had been warned
by a former Spring Creek student prior to our visit that we weren’t
likely to find many students willing to talk openly about their
experiences at Spring Creek, “unless you find someone who hates the
program so much that they might risk everything to talk to you,”
said a former student. “Most students are scared. They’re not just
going to come out and talk to you. They have years and months to
Spring Creek’s principal, says the school’s detractors should not be
“The population you
are speaking to is definitely a biased group that really fervently
believes what they are saying,” Manning says.
that parents and students who left Spring Creek and today denounce
its practices are in denial about the problems in their own
“Part of it is to
protect themselves from the pain of the reality of what they’ve gone
through,” says Manning. “As far as the kids are concerned, they are
going to manipulate to the hills, because that’s what these kids
“That’s pretty much
the program line,” counters Dr. Roderick Hall, a San Diego-based
clinical psychologist who specializes in child psychology. “You hear
the exact same thing at all of the schools. They say the kids are
liars and manipulators and they convince the parents that that’s
Hall says parents
and kids may see results from the type of behavior modification that
takes place at facilities like Spring Creek, but in the long run,
they do more harm than good.
“It’s not therapy
at all,” says Hall. “I haven’t heard anything that goes on in those
facilities that has anything to do with therapy. It’s more like
scaring the heck out of them so that they fall in line. That will
WWASPS, Hall says,
catches parents “when they are vulnerable, desperate. They provide
what looks like an easy solution. I think their facilities are
nothing more than private prisons.
really need to do is, instead of going to the Internet to find help
for their rebellious teen, is seek out a professional who has
experience working with teens. Take the child. If the child won’t
go, then they should go by themselves. But parents need to talk to a
social worker or therapist or counselor who has experience working
The students we
spoke with at Spring Creek ranged in age from 14 to just shy of 18.
They had been placed in the school for a variety of offenses. Some
were constantly in trouble with the law. Most had been taking drugs
of one kind or another. Nearly all were “disrespectful” of their
parents and teachers. We weren’t allowed to roam the campus and
freely and privately interview any student we wanted. We were taken
to two specific classrooms wherefrom we chose a handful of students
to go for a walk. One classroom was made up of “upper level” boys.
These are students who are “working the program” and have advanced
to higher levels.
The classroom was
totally silent, but all eyes were immediately on us when we walked
into the room. Nearly every hand in the room shot into the air when
we asked if anyone wanted to go for a walk. In both classrooms,
disappointed sighs and grumbles could be heard from the kids not
“We never get to go
for walks,” said one girl. “If you even look out the window that’s
considered ‘run plans’ and you get in trouble.”
The students said
they are warned that escape is futile. They are told that the school
has helicopters on stand-by, as well as dogs trained to run them
“They tell you, ‘Go
ahead and try to run, see how far you get,’” said one student.
“The neighbors get
a reward if they find one of us and turn us in. The furthest anybody
ever got was to the end of that road,” said another student,
pointing in the direction of Blue Slide Road.
When one student
told us that our arrival was no surprise, a classmate dished a
not-so-discrete elbow to the ribs. One student fidgeted with a
nametag. Another’s hands were pulled deep into the sleeves of the
school-issued sweatshirt. Most never took their hands out of their
The students said
they knew we were coming because they had been forced to clean the
campus and their bunk houses to prepare for our arrival.
The students told
us they aren’t allowed to so much as look at members of the opposite
“I wasn’t afraid of
boys when I came in here, but I’m afraid I will be when I leave,”
one girl said.
“The students are
here to focus on themselves,” program director Mike Chisholm had
explained earlier. “We don’t want to encourage romantic issues.”
said her mother gave her a choice of programs in which to enroll.
She said she picked Spring Creek Lodge because it looked like a nice
place. She says she was never told that she wouldn’t get to go for
walks, talk to boys or call her mother.
Still, all the
students said they would rather be at Spring Creek Lodge than at
Tranquility Bay, an affiliated facility in Jamaica. Although
students say it is forbidden to talk about what goes on at
Tranquility, word gets around. Sometimes a student who has been
transferred from Tranquility Bay will relate his or her experience
about the school there. The students know Tranquility Bay exists,
and they know they don’t want to go there.
Just as they are
not allowed to talk about Tranquility Bay, they face severe
consequences if they talk about Karlye Newman’s death.
“That’s a Cat-4. We
can’t talk about Karlye,” we were told.
The consequence of
a Cat-4 infraction, according to the card around the students’
necks, is that a student drops three levels in the program, which
translates into several additional months of confinement at Spring
Creek, and thousands more dollars owed by their parents.
“A real dark
Spring Creek Lodge
is the largest of eight facilities affiliated with the WWASPS, based
in Utah. The facilities are located across the United States, plus
Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. The programs are independently owned,
but all are WWASPS members, and all adhere to WWASPS’ point-system
behavior modification program.
For WWASPS and
Spring Creek Lodge, Karlye’s death was more bad news at a time when
WWASPS facilities were already under fire for a string of
allegations, including misconduct, abuse and neglect.
students at Ivy Ridge Academy, a WWASPS facility in Ogdensburg,
N.Y., rioted. The melee resulted in the expulsion of 48 students and
drew the attention of state authorities. Additionally, The New York
Times reported that state police are investigating two unrelated
cases involving allegations of child abuse at Ivy Ridge.
Karlye Newman hanged herself, Mexican authorities raided a WWASPS
facility in Mexico called Casa by the Sea, following allegations of
abuse and misconduct there.
The facility was
shut down and its charges were either sent home or to one of the
remaining WWASPS facilities. According to current and former Spring
Creek students, the Thompson Falls school saw an influx of new
students in the month prior to Karlye’s death. They told the
Independent that most of the new students came from Casa by the Sea.
“She was missed on
a head count,” said one student, explaining how Karlye, having only
recently been taken off “high risk” after a previous suicide
attempt, could have been left alone long enough to hang herself by a
shirt in her cabin’s bathroom.
Chaffin Pullan, the
school’s director, says the influx of students from Casa by the Sea
didn’t overburden the school and had nothing to do with Karlye’s
several sources who were close to members of Karlye Newman’s Spring
Creek “Family,” there had been at least four suicide attempts at
Spring Creek in the month leading up to Karlye’s death, including a
previous hanging attempt by Karlye. One girl overdosed on Tylenol
and tried to cut herself with pen caps and a metal clip attached to
her identification card. Another girl tried to suffocate herself
with a pillow.
Pullan said the
girl who overdosed was immediately taken to the hospital and cleared
by doctors, who said she wasn’t a suicide risk. The father of the
girl who tried to smother herself said she was “going through a real
dark time.” He added that his daughter is better off for having gone
to Spring Creek (she’s now back home), but that he has serious
reservations about the credentials of the 230 staff members
overseeing the children there.
Spring Creek admits
that it is not a treatment facility and that “staff are hired not
necessarily by credentials but to carry out the outlined programs
specifically designed to benefit students at Spring Creek Lodge.”
Earlier this month,
26 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in a California court against WWASPS
and its associated facilities, including Spring Creek. According to
the 92-page complaint filed by California attorneys Edward Masry (of
Erin Brockovich fame) and Henry Bushkin, Spring Creek is accused of
negligence, negligent child abuse, breach of contract, fraud,
assault and battery, false imprisonment, intentional inflection of
emotional distress, negligent medical care, breach of fiduciary duty
and conspiracy to commit breach of contract.
One of the
plaintiffs, former Spring Creek student Gregory Gomez, alleges he
was subjected to threats, intimidation, invasion of privacy, mental
abuse and random punishment. The complaint states that Gomez’s
mother was led to believe her son was benefiting from his experience
at Spring Creek while he was being abused. Gomez also alleges he
suffered bodily injury at the hands of Spring Creek staff members
and was cut off from outside contact, thus unable to report the
officials would not comment on the case other than to say that they
have not yet seen the lawsuit, which was filed May 27 in Los Angeles
of abuse surfaced in court last August when the father of a former
Spring Creek student testified about the abuse he says his son
suffered at the school.
testified that his son spent about eight and a half months locked in
Spring Creek’s “intervention room.” John France testified that his
son, also named John France, told him he was kept in the room 24
hours a day. He said his son was let out during the daytime only to
use the bathroom, and if he had to urinate at night, he did it in
his water glass. France said his son was assaulted by other students
who were sometimes put in the room with him.
denies those claims. He says France was under constant supervision.
mistake was not sending John France home earlier,” says Pullan.
France alleges his
son had to have plastic surgery to repair the roof of his mouth and
two front teeth after an injury he says occurred at Spring Creek
Lodge. He testified that his son was burned by a heater while being
restrained by Spring Creek staff, and injured from a fall down a
flight of stairs.
testifying in the same lawsuit, said that while her daughter was
enrolled in a WWASPS facility in South Carolina, she was
hospitalized twice without Bernadette’s knowledge.
officials at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human
Services (DPHHS), their office has received many calls over the
years from concerned parents questioning the safety and
effectiveness of various therapeutic and behavior modification
programs in Montana.
“Any kind of a
situation where you have children, especially vulnerable children or
troubled children like those that go to these programs, we think
there needs to be safeguards to make sure that those kids are being
treated safely,” says Gayle Shirley, a spokeswoman for DPHHS. “For
at least the past one and a half years we’ve been looking into how
we might be able to create some sort of oversight.”
modification, therapeutic schools and wilderness therapy programs
are big business in Western Montana. An estimated 1,200 children are
enrolled in them. Some smaller programs charge nearly double Spring
Creek’s monthly tuition of approximately $3,500. Spring Creek alone
grosses close to $20 million annually, and a Spring Creek lobbyist
claimed during the last legislative session that the industry
generates revenues in excess of $40 million annually in Montana.
Yet most Montanans
don’t even know what’s going on in their own back yard.
rural geography is part of the reason for the booming success of
teen programs in the state, providing for a plentitude of “back to
nature” wilderness experiences, as well as making it difficult for
teens to escape. Another reason dates back to Spring Creek’s
original beginnings in the 1970s, when founder Steve Cawdrey bought
the original 80 acres along Blue Slide Road northwest of Thompson
Falls with visions of creating a new educational experience. The
school, called Spring Creek Community, was the first of its kind in
the area and stressed an outdoor adventure model of education. Over
the years the school grew to become part residential boarding
school, part outdoor adventure program and part character-building
and self-improvement camp. Many of the smaller teen programs that
exist today in Western Montana are run by former employees and
colleagues of Cawdrey’s.
A third reason is
that in Montana, private programs that do not receive state funds
are not required to register with the state, and the state has no
authority to license or regulate them. In other words, there’s no
federal or state oversight of programs responsible for the care of
roughly 1,200 children in approximately 35 facilities located
throughout the state. More than a third of those kids are at Spring
Many in the
industry agree that some form of licensure is needed. The industry
supports the idea for two main reasons: licensure gives the programs
credibility, and it provides for some state oversight and protection
of the children in the industry’s care.
What the industry
is overwhelmingly opposed to is having what its representatives call
a “medical model” shoved down its throat.
Senate Bill 101,
drafted by DPHHS and carried by state Sen. Trudi Schmidt, D-Great
Falls, in the last session, called for registration of all teen
programs in Montana. The bill required DPHHS to appoint a working
group to develop and present recommendations to an interim DPHHS
committee and to report to the Legislature regarding proposed
legislation for 2007 that would require licensure. That bill died in
the House with industry representatives battling hard against it.
Spring Creek Lodge alone registered five lobbyists for the 2005
session, and by their own account spent more than $50,000 on
State Rep. Paul
Clark, D-Trout Creek, owner and operator of his own teen program
called Galena Ridge Academy, called on industry representatives to
work on an alternative bill to SB 101. What resulted was House Bill
628. The difference between the two bills is that SB 101 put
oversight in the hands of DPHHS and HB 628 puts oversight in the
hands of the state Department of Labor and Industry and creates a
five-member, governor-appointed board to explore appropriate
regulation of the industry. The board, not yet seated, will consist
of two citizens and three representatives of the industry.
teen programs feel they are best qualified to determine the breadth
and scope of any future regulation. They fear that government
bureaucrats do not possess the expertise or knowledge to impose
effective and responsible legislation. They say that if left in the
hands of DPHHS, unnecessary rules and regulations could stifle
creative and effective therapeutic techniques.
That fear is not
unjustified, says Lon Woodbury, of the Woodbury Reports website.
Woodbury is one of the nation’s top educational consultants and an
expert on the teen help industry.
“In some states
regulations have been destructive,” says Woodbury. “They can put
unnecessary restrictions and requirements on a very effective and
The teen behavior
modification industry is “often misunderstood,” says Jan Moss,
executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic
Schools and Programs (NATSAP). “People tend to view it as more of a
clinical or medical model. That’s sort of at the extreme of what we
do. We want to make sure that the regulations and laws put into
place fit what we do.”
The future of teen
programs and the level and scope of state regulation is a battle
that will continue into the 2007 legislative session. Proponents of
teen therapeutic and wilderness programs will push for
self-regulation and licensure. Groups like the Coalition Against
Institutionalized Child Abuse (CAICA) and the International
Survivors Action Committee (ISAC) are working on community awareness
and outreach to educate parents, legislators, and legal and health
professionals on the tactics used by teen programs.
Sen. Trudi Schmidt
now sits on the board of directors for the newly formed CAICA.
“I got involved
because of the overall concern that I had about what was going on in
these places,” says Schmidt.
Schmidt says she’s
received e-mails from parents from around the country asking her
what the state is doing to regulate teen programs in Montana.
Woodbury, the demand for these types of programs is still growing.
There seems to be no shortage of parents willing to spend tens of
thousands of dollars to send their kids away in order to shape them
up. In an article published on his website, www.strugglingteens.com,
Woodbury states that new private residential and wilderness programs
are popping up all over the country, suggesting that “a number of
astute people have analyzed the market and concluded that the
potential in this market is sufficient to take the major risk of
undertaking the very difficult task of creating a new private
residential program for high-risk teens.”
By all accounts,
the teen help industry is lucrative and booming. The question for
Montana lawmakers is: how much oversight of this lucrative
enterprise does the state want to take on?
“We want to make
sure that the right people are appointed to this new board,” says
Sen. Schmidt. “We’ll have to wait and see if this new piece of
legislation will give the state the kind of oversight it needs. It
all depends on who ends up on that board.”
Programs that rely
on “scare tactics” to prevent children and adolescents from engaging
in violent behavior are not only ineffective, but may actually make
the problem worse, according to a National Institutes of Health
state-of-the-science panel convened last fall.
One of the major
challenges facing parents, regulators and legislators when defining
which programs are safe and effective is the lack of comparison
tools at their disposal. The schools in Montana run the gamut from
short-term wilderness therapy programs to long-term residential
programs. Some are “tough-love” behavior modification programs,
others are small mom-and-pop operations that teach children
responsibility by allowing them to make decisions for themselves.
One of the things
that the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs
has done is develop a firm set of ethical guidelines and
best-practice standards under which its members must operate. That
includes reporting to NATSAP information on academic accreditation,
financial affiliations, admission policies (including applicant
screening), employee background check policies, etc.
Not all programs in
the state ascribe to the same standards; therefore Montana programs
have recently formed the Montana Adolescent Alternative Private
Programs Association, or MAAPP, to develop similar guidelines for
“[MAAPP] is a venue
for programs to get together and look at standards that need to be
in licensing structure,” says Rep. Clark. “It’s a venue where
programs can present their research to the board and say, ‘Here we
are and this is what we think is essential.’”
members will look to NATSAP’s guidelines to help them develop their
own set of best practices for Montana programs.
Fewer than half of
the teen programs in Montana are currently members of NATSAP. No
WWASPS facility has ever been a member, nor has any applied for
One of NATSAP’s key
ethical guidelines, shared by the Independent Educational
Consultants Association (IECA)—a nationwide network of professional
educational consultants who help parents place their children in
teen programs—deals with referral fees or “finder’s fees.” Teen
programs in the NATSAP association are forbidden from paying finders
fees to educational consultants, and any educational consultant or
firm found to have accepted referral fees from programs loses IECA
“That kind of
exchanging cash corrupts the whole system,” says Woodbury.
educational consultants usually require a battery of tests and
interviews with prospective clients to determine the nature and
extent of the teen’s problems. The consultant will then recommend
programs based on the child’s needs and the expertise or specialty
of the program.
Woodbury sends out
a survey every year to educational consultants nationwide asking
them to rate teen programs across the nation in terms of whether
they would refer children there. Only schools earning top marks are
included in “Places for Struggling Teens,” the directory Woodbury
publishes. He says WWASPS programs consistently score poorly in his
survey, and in recent years their numbers have hit rock bottom. One
of the main reasons for that, says Woodbury, is WWASPS’ practice of
encouraging parents to refer other families to the program in
exchange for free tuition or cash.
are not thought well of in the industry,” says Woodbury. “They are
seen as very dubious.”
“Definitely an eye
celebrated her 18th birthday with her family back home in
California. If her mother hadn’t pulled her out of Spring Creek
Lodge, she would have celebrated her birthday by “taking her exit
plan.” Some students of Spring Creek, whether they have graduated
the program or not, leave come their 18th birthday. If their parents
don’t want them back, they try to find a ride to Missoula or Coeur
D’Alene or Spokane.
Sometimes they end
up at Missoula’s Poverello Center, where they stay just long enough
to get in touch with a friend or a relative willing to send them a
plane or bus ticket back to wherever they came from, says the Pov’s
recognizes why her parents sent her to Spring Creek, and deep down,
she says, she doesn’t hold it against them. She says she learned a
lot from her experience, but not what Spring Creek wanted her to
“Yeah, it was
definitely an eye opener. I learned a lot through a bad experience.
I learned that I could be a lot worse off. I could be like the kids
still stuck in Spring Creek.”
Today, nine months
since she was sent off to Montana, Christina says she’s trying to
avoid the kinds of behavior that drove her parents’ to desperation.
She admits that she still sneaks a cigarette now and then (mostly on
her breaks at work), and she’s not going to promise that she will
never drink as a minor. She’ll have to work hard over the summer to
earn her diploma. She’ll have to work even harder to fully earn back
her parents’ trust. But in both cases, Christina says she’s
determined to succeed.
“I think it put her
in a bad situation,” says Janet, acknowledging that she regrets
sending Christina to Spring Creek. “I don’t know if it’s going to
permanently bother her or not. I mean, that poor girl killed
Janet knows her
daughter remains defiant, and it will be a challenge to keep her on
the right path, but she’s hopeful, and glad to have her daughter
back home where she belongs.
“She just might
pull through. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed.”