Troubled teen therapy: What
are we doing to our youth?
CBC News Viewpoint | March 3, 2006 | More from
Georgie Binks is a freelance writer living in
Toronto. She writes for the Toronto Star and National Post, and has
written for Chatelaine, Homemakers, Elle, Glow and Style at Home, as
well as salon.com. Georgie is a former CBC radio and television
reporter and editor. She has been a feminist since she wrote an
essay in high school on "The Changing Role of Women in Society" at
her mother's suggestion.
Drinking, drugs, sex, violence, attitude
overload: It's the disease that is teenagehood and way too many
parents these days are running scared.
"As a society we have decided that adolescents
are so dangerous that any help for them, no matter how humiliating,
abusive or dangerous, is better than nothing," says Maia Szalavitz,
author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons
Parents and Hurts Kids.
Those fears have bred a growing industry in
so-called troubled teen therapy, ranging from therapeutic centres to
wilderness camps to military-style boot camps to behaviour
modification schools. The facilities are all pricey, Szalavitz
notes, charging about $3,000 to $5,000 a month.
How do they work? Tough love is the order of
the day at a lot of them, she says.
"They use lots of forced exercise, food
deprivation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, keeping the person
out of contact with the outside world, isolation restraint and
constant forced confessions. You can call that therapy or military
boot camp. It’s the same old tough love repackaged."
Keith Russell, a professor at the University of
Minnesota who has conducted a number of studies on wilderness camps,
notes that at their best and as a last resort, they can work.
"It’s one type of treatment for kids who have
tried other types and aren’t being reached," Russell says. "The kids
in these wilderness programs are pretty far down the road in terms
of getting in trouble with the law, they’ve dropped out of school,
70 per cent have substance use issues and a variety of mental health
issues. They’ve tried outpatient treatment."
But he adds: "A boot-camp-type program is not
appropriate for kids. You don’t denigrate and break down a young
person who is in trouble."
Indeed, two years ago, a 13-member panel
convened by the National Institute of Health in the United States
concluded boot camps and other get-tough programs did not prevent
criminal behaviour and might even make the problem worse because
they brought young people together who were inclined toward violence
and taught them how to commit more crime.
If a child genuinely needs a program away from
home, Russell says, it must be regulated by a licensing or
accrediting body, such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of
Healthcare Programs, the Council on Accreditation or any state
licensing agency for health, family or mental health.
Why? Because kids have died at some of these
In January, for example, Martin Lee Anderson,
14, died in at a military-type camp in Florida. Although an autopsy
ruled out trauma or injury as the cause of death, Florida is
conducting an inquiry. Anderson was sent to the Bay County Sheriff's
Office Boot Camp and died the same day.
He wasn't the first. Teen Advocates USA, a
not-for-profit children's rights and advocacy group, monitors the
privatized troubled teen industry. Its website includes a list of
youths who have died at these kinds of camps.
In some cases, they were suffering from medical
conditions that were ignored, the kids considered whiners and
manipulative. In other cases, restraint was used. And, sadly, some
Other groups are fighting the use of
unregulated privately owned facilities, including teenliberty.org
and the International Survivors Action Committee.
Russell says young people sent to these
facilities must be able to talk to outsiders about possible abuse or
neglect. But most of the camps allow no confidential communication
between parents and kids for months at a time. Licensing and
regulations, he says, would ensure contact and controls.
The lack of regulations is a worry for Canadian
authorities because families here are sending their kids to these
programs in the States.
"There are locked settings in Ontario but the
child advocate has to meet with the child within 24 hours," Judy
Finlay, the chief advocate in the Office of Child and Family Service
Advocacy says. "In long-term closed secure settings, there is a
whole court process. Once parents learn that’s the case, they ship
their kids to the States, where there aren’t those requirements and
restrictions. Its horrifying."
Finally also worries about the possible
long-term harm in sending kids away for extended periods.
"What kind of reconciliation process are they
going to have to bring a kid back home and reintegrate into the
family?" she asks. "They have severed the attachment. If there was
difficulty in that relationship previously that kid will never trust
Another serious issue is: Who is being sent to
In many cases, it's a last resort for
out-of-control kids, in trouble with the law, whose families have
tried other methods and are at their wits' end. In some cases,
they're sent by the courts.
But Szalavitz contends that other kids who end
up in these places shouldn’t be there at all.
Youths who may simply be a pain in the ass can
spend months, even years, away from home, she says, their parents
unduly frightened by program officials who convince them they need
to put their children in the facilities to save their lives.
"These programs tell all the parents their
child will be dead within weeks if they don't enrol them. The kids
are told they would have died. If they don't believe that, they are
told they are in denial."
Furthermore, she adds, parents are overreacting
to teens' experimentation with drugs and alcohol. "Parents are
taught if you smoke pot you will die, you will be shooting heroin
tomorrow. Seventy to 80 per cent of the kids in these places have
smoked pot a few times. They’re nowhere near any diagnostic criteria
David Wolfe, a psychologist with the Centre for
Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, agrees.
While parents have to watch for kids who try
drugs at an early age, for the average teen, "smoking marijuana is a
rite of passage. … It's not a gateway drug. It’s considered by our
organization as a low-risk drug compared with others. Tobacco is
much higher risk. Would you send your kid away for smoking
Wolfe says parents have to understand that "you
can’t keep kids safe all the time. They’re going to experiment. But
if a parent has a concern, they should talk to a family physician
and they will refer them to a hospital-based service. Unfortunately,
it takes months before they can get a private referral, which I
advise is the first step."
In the meantime, they've likely been exposed to
the growing cachet of boot camps. The British reality TV show Brat
Camp – where harried parents sign up their kids and watch as their
"spoiled and lazy" teenagers get the "shock of their lives" at a
camp in Utah – is so successful that it's into its third season. And
last season on Desperate Housewives, an out-of-control teen was
dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and whisked off to a
"teen boot camp."
But what may make compelling TV, doesn't
necessarily work in life.
Donna Culbert, executive director of
Toronto-based support group Parents in Transition, says that, in her
experience, results are mixed.
"I know five families who sent their kids to
various and sundry boot kind of camps," she says. "One was very
short term – six months – and they were absolutely thrilled with the
"The other four, when the kids were back in the
real world it went back to the way it was before. If nothing else,
when the kid is at their worst, it gives the family a rest. Parents
think it will cure everything wrong and the kid will come out a
different kid. The kid goes in and the same kid comes out."
Time will tell for Diane’s daughter. Diane (not
her real name) sent the teen to a therapeutic wilderness program two
years ago, when she was 15. "She was completely out of control. She
was smoking marijuana every day and had tried cocaine. She was a
hair away from being a street person."
Diane and her husband had tried parenting
groups and therapy, but nothing worked. They felt this was their
only option. “We wanted to save our daughter’s life," Diane says.
"So we spent the money.”
The teen went on to residential therapy and is
now in a U.S. boarding school, which Diane calls a ‘safe’
environment. “She’s getting a great education, but is she happy?
Would any child be happy?”
Few parents send their kids away just to get
rid of them. But they have to think long and hard about whether
they’re doing more harm than good.
Sometimes a trip down memory lane can serve as
a powerful reminder that time and patience can be the best cure.
Remember how crazy you drove your parents? Well, it’s your turn now.
Last week, a childless friend of mine confided
to me that she was glad she didn’t have teenagers. I didn’t have the
heart to tell her the only thing worse than having teenagers would
be not having them.
I have read Ms. Binks article with great
interest but I think the 2 comments posted present the most
interesting insight into this situation.
On the one hand we have a parent who faced a
"difficult" teen with love, respect for them as an individual,
vigilance and concern. On the other hand we have someone who is
praising the "industry" of helping teens. It seems to me that the
most effective industry would be that of parents putting the needs
of their children first.
As a parent who has raised 2 kids into
adulthood I can testify to the number of teens who moved through my
home whose parents did not know what they were doing, did not seem
to care and who took much more time ensuring that their careers were
on track than ensuring that their kids were safe.
I picked up late and drove home many kids whose
parents did not seem to think this was a normal part of raising
kids. Parents who seemed to assume that somehow their kids would get
home or rather that someone would get their kids home.
I suspect that it is this parenting style that
is serviced by this "industry" parents who would rather pay someone
else to do a tough job than knuckle down and do it themselves. It
reminds me a great cartoon in which a man is drowning and a man on
the river bank says "I'm sorry I don't swim but would $20.00 help?"
Some times money is not the thing that will do the job.
It at one time crossed my mind that it would
work on my daughter. Fortunately, we don't have that option here so
we sucked it up and went on what we called a roller coaster ride.
I realized all the fears I had, and with all
the things I had gone through on my own had turned me into an
overprotective mother with my three kids. That, combined with our
oldest daughter's behaviour turned into a rough ride. I could have
been more lenient, but the friends she was hanging out with at the
time had no restrictions and never seemed to have to answer to
anyone. We went through a few rough years.
We ended up in council ling, after months of
what seemed like no progress, the councillor told us she would have
to hit bottom on her own and we should just let her go. I was
We would always go find her if she didn't come
home, we stopped her from leaving at ungodly hours. We were there
and we always told her we loved her. We all have work hard at
parenting. We need to make sure our children know we love them. We
had them in the first place for that reason, and just because it
really is work, we shouldn't look for the easiest way out.
Unfortunately, that councillor probably gave
other parents this advice, and their kids are on the streets.
Fortunately, my husband is a police officer and whenever he has to
deal with others going through what we did with our daughter, he
tells those parents to keep trying. Never give up. It was a
difficult and exhausting time.
I realized that I had to stop and listen to
her. My child doesn't have to see things the way I do. So, when she
pierced her lip, I was angry, but I didn't call her down for it.
When she coloured her hair outrageous colours, I didn't make her
feel bad. She is her own person, and as we found out, she's
incredible. Our daughter is 20 now, in college, and we are all
closer than ever!
—Laura | Thunder Bay,Ont.
I am an education consultant who has worked
with youth and families across Canada for more than 20 years.
I share Ms Binks' concern for the welfare of
teens in care. I also support her view that typical adolescent
experimentation or rebellion should not require treatment, but
rather should be an opportunity for child and family to
differentiate from each other in a healthy way.
However, her piece on the perceived dangers and
futility of residential therapeutic teen programs is not only
misguided but irresponsible. Families in real crisis are vulnerable
and often conflicted themselves; those whose children need this help
deserve our understanding and support, not scorn and derision.
Families who seek this sort of help beyond our borders have
typically explored all alternatives without success, only to find
nothing else is even being offered.
Ms Binks maligns a very necessary and
misunderstood industry as a whole, which for the most part has
considerable success assisting a very hard to serve population. The
teen help industry, like many others, has had, and continues to
suffer its share of rotten apples. Disreputable and poorly
supervised programs have caused inexcusable harm to those in their
care. However, the vast majority of adolescent residential
therapeutic programs are licensed, regulated, well established and
run by dedicated, ethical and competent staff who greatly improve
the future lives of those they serve.
By writing without context, Ms Binks does not
provide a cautionary tale. Instead, she exploits every parent's
worst fears using the very scaremongering and reactionary tactics
against which she herself typically rails. Even more disappointing
is that this piece does not reflect the thorough research and human
touch that generally characterizes her writing.
—Janyce Lastman | Toronto
* * *
My response, check the
list of deaths and perhaps it will make it more understandable
why we are fighting against an industry gone mad. Sure there are
success stories, but there are a lot of unsuccessful stories as
well. Parents need to be warned about the dangers of this industry
and what to look out for before turning their children over to
complete strangers. That, Janyce, is the message we are trying to
get across. www.caica.org.