Don’t Let Them Go

Outdoor portrait of a sad teenage girl looking thoughtful about troublesEvery so often, I threaten to sell my kids on craiglist, give them to our neighbors, or donate them to science.

I usually make these threats after the limits of my patience have been seriously tested. Like when I walk in on the aftermath of a brutal stuffed animal fight and find the curtains down, Lego sets destroyed, and pillow stuffing strewn about the carpet. Or when my oldest throws a tantrum because I finally managed to beat him at a board game he’s won the previous four times. Or when the younger one tells unending knock-knock jokes about butts and bodily functions, regardless of whether anyone actually responds with the requisite “Who’s there?”

Of course, the only circumstances under which I am actually willing to give up my kids are those involving the loving care of their grandparents or the responsible teen babysitter down the street. And, of course, I only relinquish my boys in the short-term; Grandma understands that I get to take them back after I’m done having that meeting, enjoying a date night, or hiding from the world at the coffee shop. Because however much my little rugrats frustrate me, exhaust me, or defeat me, I can’t imagine my life without them.

But I’m not trying to parent a troubled teenager. Would my attitude still be the same if I were raising a 16-year-old with a drug problem? Or a 14-year-old who habitually cut herself and refused to speak to me unless hurling obscenities? How about a 17-year-old who was failing out of school and didn’t seem to care? I know I would still love my children fiercely, even if they did follow one of these unfortunate paths. But I think it would be hard for me to live with them.

Here’s what some parents are resorting to in order to manage difficult teens:

I can’t imagine resorting to public shaming of my kid, but I do know one thing I know for sure: I would be screaming for help. And judging by the insane amounts of money raked in by the “Troubled Teen” industry each year, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The Troubled Teen industry consists of a variety of services, some of which are legitimately helpful and therapeutic. Many clinical counseling services for emotional and behavioral problems, in-patient treatment units for eating disorders and drug problems, and rehabilitative support groups for juvenile offenders have positively impacted the lives of struggling adolescents and their families.

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How I pictured life at a residential program

Most of us are aware that residential programs for troubled teens exist. I remember hearing about a place a few hours away from my hometown, a camp of sorts in the middle of the woods, where defiant boys were sent to chop wood. At the time, I pictured something lovely and wholesome, kids getting in touch with nature for a couple weeks, getting their frustration with the real world out of the system. I pictured them sitting around a campfire in the evenings, having therapy sessions with licensed professionals, working out their problems in a healthy manner. In all honesty, I sort of envied them.

And programs like the one I imagined do exist. A caregiver with the knowledge and resources to thoroughly research residential programs could certainly find one.

But in among the healthy residential treatment options, there are many programs that exist solely for the purpose of making money. Programs that are not accredited by the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs or any other organization, or regulated by any federal guidelines, or subject to any rules other than the whims and preferences of their administrators. And because many caregivers are unaware of the dangers—or so desperate for help they can’t see the warning signs—they make themselves and their children easy targets.

In fact, the caregivers are so desperate, they often pay thousands of dollars to have their children kidnapped in the middle of the night, dragged to remote locations far from home, and held against their will for months and even years at a time. Often spouting “Christian” mores as the basis for their methods, the programs focus on a cruel means of behavior modification that includes beatings, forced marches, isolation from friends and family and, ultimately, abandonment of free will.

EscuelaCaribeOver the past decade, the dangers of unregulated residential programs have been exposed through books like Help At Any Cost and advocacy groups like the Survivors of Institutional Abuse. These resources have provided a platform for stories of families who turned to residential programs for help in straightening out their trouble teens. In some cases, the teens had legitimate problems such as drug addiction, eating disorders, and mental illnesses. In others, caregivers hoped the programs would rid their teens of homosexual tendencies; they essentially paid the camps to make their kids straight.

Through her documentary Kidnapped for Christ, Kate Logan recently shed additional light on the potential dangers of unregulated residential programs. When she arrived at Escuela Caribe in the Dominican Republic, Kate was a young evangelical missionary aiming to document students receiving a positive Christian education. What she found horrified her. After being smuggled to a foreign country in the middle of the night without warning, Escuela Caribe students were repeatedly humiliated, forced to engage in grueling manual labor, and punished through severe isolation and beatings. They were brainwashed into believing that they deserved the torture and abuse they received on a regular basis.

More recently, Rolling Stone ran an article about a teenage boy named Bruce who died at Tierra Blanca, an unregulated residential program in New Mexico. The article details the inhumane work regimen the boy endured for the months leading up to his death, the emotional trauma he went through before ultimately perishing in a car accident on a lonely stretch of road outside the camp.

Bruce’s mother wasn’t a bad person. I wanted her to be a bad person, a neglectful mother who turned her back on her teenager and the problems he’d had since being abandoned by his father. Of course, she could have done more research, could have asked more questions, but she wasn’t a bad mother. She was just desperate. Desperate for her son to stop using drugs, to start attending school, to emerge from the seeming endlessness of his dark, angry mood. And like many of us would, she trusted the system, assumed that a program charged with helping teens would do just that.

teensadI shudder to think of my own children suffering an experience like those of the students at Escuela Caribe or Tierra Blanca or one of the hundreds of programs like them, living through the physical and emotional abuse they endured. But beyond that, I imagine the sense of abandonment and betrayal they would feel. How could I ever ask my children to trust me again, or trust anyone for that matter, after I had sent them away to be tortured? How would they ever feel safe again? How would they ever regain the months and years of their adolescence lost to malicious people whose only goal was to make money? Even if my children survived such a place, I doubt I’d ever really get them back.

The Troubled Teen industry needs to change, and it needs to change now.

Some motivated activists and lawmakers have already started the fight through efforts like these:

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