book reviews

Reviewing Troubled: The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs, by Kenneth Rosen

Around the time I finished graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I became very interested in the subject of “teen help” programs. I read a lot about “therapeutic” boarding schools for teenagers in trouble with their parents, abusing drugs and alcohol, or with the law. I discovered that a lot of the programs were abusive. In fact, there have been deaths at a few of them. I read a lot of sad stories from young people who were taken from their homes in the middle of the night by hired “transport” teams.

I’m not naive about this subject. I understand that a lot of teenagers do get into trouble at home. Some of them are in such bad situations that their loved ones fear for their lives. They often come from families who are at least somewhat respectable. Certainly, many of the kids who end up in therapeutic boarding schools have parents with money that comes from somewhere. Those programs, which historically haven’t always been run by people with real qualifications, are extremely expensive. And a lot of them have a religious bent, too– particularly fundamentalist Baptist or Latter-day Saint.

Years ago, I read Maia Szalavitz’s excellent book, Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. I also read Alexia Parks’ less well-regarded book, An American Gulag: Secret P.O.W. Camps for Teens, which was published a long time ago. Parks’ book was mostly inspired by the plight of a relative who was sent to the now defunct Mountain Park Baptist Boarding School, in Patterson, Missouri. That school, as well as its sister school, Palm Lane Academy in Florida, was closed in 2004. But the teen help industry burgeoned throughout the 2000s, and in fact, when I used to watch his show, I’d often see Dr. Phil McGraw sending kids to programs run by the Aspen Education Group, an outfit frequently mentioned in Kenneth Rosen’s book, Troubled: The Failed Promise of America’s Behavioral Treatment Programs.

Rosen’s book, just published this month, is a revealing look at young people who were sent to therapeutic boarding schools. Some were run by the Aspen Education Group. Some were run by the now defunct World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, an outfit that, at its peak, owned schools all over the United States and in countries like Costa Rica, Jamaica, Mexico, and the Czech Republic. The schools’ programs were long on brutal punishments and unhygienic conditions, and short of qualified counseling by people who were trained to work with adolescents.

Kenneth Rosen, who is currently an accomplished and well regarded writer for Newsweek, has also written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine, as well as for WIRED. But Rosen has a personal stake in this subject. Back in 2007, when he was a teenager, his own parents had him roused from sleep one night by a couple of men who took him to a “therapeutic” boarding school for troubled teens. In all, Rosen did time at three different facilities in three states– in New York, Massachusetts, and Utah. And now, it appears that he’s straightened himself out and is using his skills and talents as a writer to inform the world about the plight of the troubled teens who get sent away by their loved ones.

Troubled follows the stories of several young people from varying walks of life. He covers brothers, Mike and Mark, who both got in trouble and were, at first, enrolled in different programs at the same time. Mike, who was the older of the two, had initially gone to The Academy at Ivy Ridge, in upstate New York. The school, which is now closed, was a member of the WWASP network and had a heavy Mormon influence. Eventually, he was sent to another school in Utah, where his brother was enrolled.

Then there’s Hazel, a young woman who went to a “wilderness” program in the Adirondacks because she was doing drugs with her mother, father, and brother. Her mother’s parents had custody of Hazel and decided she needed to be straightened out in the woods, where she spent weeks camping out with other troubled girls.

Avery was a young woman who had been adopted by her godmother and was sent to Louisiana, many miles from where she had spent her formative years. When her relationship with her godmother went bad, Avery was packed up to a “therapeutic” boarding school, where it became clear her godmother intended to keep her until she was eighteen years old, regardless of her progress at getting “better”.

Rosen’s writing is very clear and engaging, and I found the stories about his subjects interesting and poignant. However, I did notice that Rosen was a bit biased in his account. This may be because he had his own experiences at teen boarding schools and they were, apparently, negative. His subjects, on the other hand, did not seem to be quite as negative about the programs as he is. For instance, toward the end of the book, Mike, who was very troubled and never quite got “straightened out”, even admits that he probably belonged in the schools.

Only a little bit of attention is given to the plight of the anguished parents who are watching their children or, in some cases, charges, going down a bad path that might lead them to prison or a premature death. Rosen seems to be most interested in presenting a case against these programs, but not really offering a solution to the problem. As an empathetic person, I can understand why being hauled off by strangers in the middle of the night to a therapeutic boarding school in the wilderness would cause emotional scarring. I also know that sometimes, the kids who end up in those programs don’t actually belong there. On the other hand, I wonder what the parents go through before they reach the point of being willing to spend thousands of dollars a month on a therapeutic program for their children. Some of the programs cost as much as an Ivy League education.

I do think Troubled is well worth reading if you are interested in accounts about these types of programs. The abuses that occur in these types of schools are well-documented. It’s a fact that in the not too distant past, there were some therapeutic schools that had serious defects. There have been deaths recorded at some schools. One of the reasons Mountain Park closed down was because a child was murdered there in 1996. Likewise, there was a death at the now defunct Thayer Learning Center in Kidder, Missouri. Sixteen year old Aaron Bacon died in 1994 at a camp in Utah when a perforated ulcer was untreated. Rosen also writes about teens who have died more recently in the wilderness programs because they had medical problems that were ignored. These are definitely points that should be considered. However, I also think it’s worth considering what would drive parents to send their kids to these programs. In most cases, I’m sure it’s a last resort situation.

Anyway, I enjoyed Kenneth Rosen’s book. It’s definitely timely reading, since Paris Hilton recently shared her harrowing experiences after having been sent to Provo Canyon School in Utah. I do think parents should know more about these schools, particularly if they are intending to send a child to one. Not all programs are effective, but most of them are very expensive.

If I were rating it on a scale of one to five, I’d give Troubled a four. Rosen’s writing is mostly excellent, and he offers a lot of further resources in addition to his own book. It’s definitely not a bad read if you’re wanting to learn more about tough love boot camps for teens. Just balance it with other sources, which is something you should always do, anyway, and keep in mind that there is another side to this issue.

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poor judgment, psychology, teen help

Repost: How a Facebook chat convinced me to get VPN access…

Here’s a repost from my original blog. I wrote it in February 2019, about a week before I felt the need to shut down access to that blog because I was being stalked. As I sit here this morning, thinking about what I’d like to write about, I realize that this post was a pretty good one, especially in the wake of Paris Hilton’s revelations about Provo Canyon School. I like to transfer some of the better content from my original blog to this blog when I can. Despite what my stalker and her friends think about me, some of the stuff I write is useful to others. I think this post is one of the useful ones.

As I write this, my husband is probably taxiing to the gate at the Frankfurt Airport.  He’s been gone all week, and I’ve been filling my time with whatever I can.  I watched movies, including Small Sacrifices, which killed about three hours, The Ryan White StoryRight to Kill, and Catherine: An Anorexic’s Tale.  I also watched the premiere episode of Glee, which aired when we lived in Germany the first time.

I was able to watch Glee and The Ryan White Story because I decided to purchase access to a VPN, and that gave me access to American Netflix.  I decided to get the VPN because I’m tired of dealing with geographical restrictions on news stories.  I like to keep up with what’s going on at home.  Unfortunately, the paper I grew up reading, Daily Press, is behind in complying with the privacy laws of Europe.  Consequently, whenever I want to read something on their Web site, I get a message that the content isn’t available in my location.

I used to have a VPN account.  I got it when we first moved back to Stuttgart in 2014, mainly so I could watch Netflix.  But then Netflix started cracking down on VPNs and German Netflix was offering some pretty good shows, anyway.  I cancelled the VPN and mostly didn’t miss it.  What prompted me to get a new account with a different company was a conversation I had on Facebook.

A couple of days ago, I wrote a post about all of the made for TV movies I’ve been watching this week.  One movie I watched was called Without Consent.  It starred a young Jennie Garth, and was about a privately owned psychiatric hospital for teenagers that basically abused them for insurance money.  I mentioned in my post that this was a big issue in the late 1980s and early 90s.  Psych care for “troubled teens” was a very big business in those days.  It probably still is, but I will admit that I don’t follow that issue as much as I used to.

One of my friends mentioned that she had spent time in one of those facilities.  I got the impression that maybe my description of the movie, Without Consent, had offended her.  I had intended the post to be kind of silly and fun, but you never know how you’ll come across, particularly to people who are sensitive to an issue.

Anyway, as we were chatting, I mentioned Charter Colonial Institute, which was a private psychiatric hospital in Newport News, Virginia.  I grew up not far from Newport News, and I knew of a few of my peers who went there.  It always had kind of a mystique about it.  Sometimes, when I worked at Busch Gardens in James City County, Virginia, I’d take a route to work that caused me to pass that hospital.  I knew its tree lined campus was secure, located very close to Warwick Boulevard and the river.  Charter was such a ubiquitous company in those days; young people would simply speak of “going to Charter” and people would know what they were talking about.

A vintage ad for one of Charter’s many private psychiatric hospitals.  Charter Colonial Institute aired similar ones in my area back in the 80s.

Several years later, Charter’s burgeoning business began to falter.  The hospital changed hands and it was known as Colonial Hospital for a few years.  Then Colonial Hospital went away… and for the past few years, that same “secure” building has been known as Newport News Behavioral Health Center, which is a privately run facility.  I was curious to learn more about what was going on there, so I started searching.  I ran across a couple of news articles from the Daily Press.  Of course, they were blocked in Germany, so I used the cell access on my iPad to start reading, which makes it look like I’m in New York.  But then I ran out of free articles…

I found some news about a young woman named Raven Nichole Keffer.  She was seventeen years old last June, when she arrived in Newport News for treatment for an addiction to heroin.  Born in Montgomery County, Virginia back in 2001, and in the custody of rural Giles County, she had recently spent time in Arlington, Virginia getting treatment for her drug problems before she was sent to Newport News.  For at least a week, she’d complained of feeling sick, but the staff evidently ignored her symptoms and complaints.  Keffer had trouble walking, breathing, and eating.  She even vomited blood at one point.  Still, for some reason, the staff at the center did nothing for her, and she apparently languished for just over a week before someone finally did something.  It came out later that some staff members felt Raven was drug seeking, and that’s why they didn’t call for help.  

On June 29th, 2018, Keffer collapsed at Newport News Behavioral Health Center.  An ambulance was called, and Keffer was taken to Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Newport News.  It was there that she died a few hours later, officially at 10:33pm.  A staff member at the center mentioned to one of the first responders who had picked up Raven that she’d been sick all week and nothing had been done for her.

After I read about Raven in the Daily Press, I found a more detailed account on WAVY TV 10’s Web site.  That site was also blocked for me in Europe, but thanks to the VPN, I was able to hear her family members speak on video about what had happened.  To add insult to injury, Raven’s body was cremated about ten days after she’d died.  Her family was notified after the fact.

In October of 2018, investigators determined that staff members at Newport News Behavioral Health Center violated 13 state regulations in Raven Keffer’s case.  From the beginning, it appears that her even being at the center was inappropriate.  Raven Keffer had been recently hospitalized before she was admitted to the Newport News Behavioral Health Center and, according to its own admissions guidelines, Keffer should not have been admitted there.  The center’s admissions policy states that it doesn’t “accept patients who are addicted to drugs and need medical care for detoxing”.

Officially, Raven Keffer died of natural causes stemming from complications from lymphocytic adrenalitis, an auto-immune disorder that affects glands that produce adrenaline.  But she also had a serious heroin addiction that had required her to seek hospital care just prior to her admission to the center in Newport News.  Discharge instructions from the hospital where she’d been on June 13th indicated that she would need a follow up visit and perhaps surgery.  However, it’s clear that no one in Newport News did anything to arrange follow up care for Raven.  Her initial admissions paperwork was never even completed; there were several items left blank.

Video surveillance footage shows Raven being helped to see a nurse practitioner.  She had a registered nurse and a fellow patient supporting her, since she couldn’t walk unaided.  Once they reached the nurse practitioner’s office, the nurse walked away, leaving Raven to lean on the patient.  The nurse later left the unit and the other patient was shown on video dragging Raven across the room on a comforter.

In the wake of this fiasco, there’s been re-training at the center.  The nurse who abandoned Raven has been fired.  However, in November of 2018, the Newport News Behavioral Health Center was in the news again.  This time, it was because Child Protective Services in Newport News reported that a juvenile male at the facility was assaulted by a staff member.  The employee allegedly “punched the patient about the face, pushed him, and grabbed him”.  Other staff members tried to intervene and the patient was treated for injuries.  CPS noted that he had bruises on his face and marks on his neck and on an arm.

According to the news articles I’ve read, Paul Kirkham is the CEO of Newport News Behavioral Health Center.  I’m sure that his job isn’t easy, as teenagers in trouble are not an easy population.  However, if I were him, I’d be sweating bullets.  It really appears that extreme negligence is a problem at his facility.

Managed care is one reason why private psychiatric hospitals have gone down the tubes.  In the 80s, psychiatric medications were not as good as they are today.  Nowadays, many people who would have been hospitalized years ago can be treated outpatient.  You have to be pretty sick to wind up in a hospital, for any reason.  Managed care also pays less for fewer days.  But Charter’s woes also came about due to a public relations situation.  In 1999, an unflattering news report was aired regarding Charter’s business practices.  Terrance Johnson had a master’s degree in social work, but he took a job as a mental health technician.  While he was on the job, he wore a tiny camera, which recorded everything going on as he worked at his $8.35 per hour position.  People were paying thousands of dollars a day for “treatment”, but they were being watched over by “big guys”.  Really, being “big” was the number one qualification for the job.  Johnson’s size was more of a prerequisite for being a mental health technician than his MSW was.

I’m not sure if what Terrance Johnson encountered at a Charter hospital is still how these kinds of facilities are run.  I have read a few horror stories.  But it does sound like at least at one former Charter hospital, it’s business as usual.  My heart goes out to Raven Keffer’s family and anyone else who has suffered at one of these places.  And now that I have a VPN, I can read all about it.

celebrities, healthcare, lessons learned, mental health

I have new respect for Paris Hilton…

I owe Paris Hilton an apology. There’s a lot more to her than meets the eye. I’ll admit, I never paid a lot of attention to her, mainly because of her ditzy party girl image. I vividly remember back in May 2007, when she was 26 years old and sentenced to 45 days in jail for violating probation. She went to the slammer and became so distraught that she was illegally transferred to house arrest. Judge Michael Sauer ordered her back to jail and it was big Internet news for awhile. There was even a parody song done for her.

A parody about Paris done to the melody of her song, “Stars Are Blind”.

At the time, I will admit that she seemed like an overprivileged Hollywood brat. The media had portrayed her as a rich heiress who never had to work a day in her life. Well… having just watched her YouTube documentary, “This is Paris”, I now know that Paris is no dummy. In fact, as I watched the ending, I was both impressed and rather emotional. I couldn’t believe it, but I felt really sorry for Paris.

Worth viewing.

It’s been in the news lately that Paris Hilton was sent to Provo Canyon School (PCS) in Provo, Utah. I’ve mentioned PCS in this blog more than once. It’s a place where troubled teens are sent. Paris Hilton did get in trouble a lot. I’m sure her parents were at their wits’ end with her. She liked to party when she was a teenager and her parents were very strict. They didn’t want her to wear makeup or model or do any of the things she was drawn to as a young woman. So she rebelled, and they sent her to a variety of “teen help” programs meant to straighten her out. She ran away from several other programs before she finally landed at Provo Canyon School, where she stayed for eleven months. There was no escaping Provo Canyon School, and Paris got the full treatment. Now it makes total sense as to why she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown before she went to jail in 2007. But back then, no one other than her fellow inmates at PCS knew what she’d been through at the school.

I’ve written a lot about so-called “teen help” programs over the years. In fact, I recently reviewed Cameron Douglas’s book Long Way Home. In his book, Cameron Douglas mentions PCS, describing it as a place no one wants to be. It was a notoriously abusive, hard-core facility for troubled kids. In fairness, Cameron Douglas actually was a troubled kid and did end up doing time in prison. But Paris really seemed to be more misunderstood than ultimately headed for the big house.

In her documentary, “This is Paris”, Hilton explains that she has recurrent nightmares. They begin with her being kidnapped out of her bed in the middle of the night. That actually happened to her. She was “kidnapped” by paid actors, escorts hired by her parents to take her to PCS. I have read a number of articles and researched a lot of organizations that charge big bucks to “abduct” troubled teens from their homes and send them to pseudo-psychiatric boarding schools. Parents pay a lot of money for their children to be “treated” by poorly trained “counselors” who employ abusive and sometimes violent methods of getting their charges to comply. I also know from prior research that some programs, such as those run by the now defunct World Wide Association of Special Programs and Schools (WWASPS), actually gave parents discounts on tuition if they recruited other parents to sign up their kids. Teen help is a big business, especially in Utah.

It’s worth mentioning that Provo Canyon School was owned by a different organization when Paris Hilton went there in the late 1990s. Hilton spent eleven months in the facility when it was owned by Charter Behavioral Health Programs; it is now owned by Universal Health Services, Inc. Charter was a big corporation in the 80s and 90s and constantly aired ads advertising its services for troubled teens. We even had a facility near where I grew up. It was called Charter Colonial Institute and I knew a couple of people who were sent there. Charter got a lot of bad press about some of its “treatment” methods, which included physical restraints, use of psychiatric drugs, solitary confinement, and boredom– staring at a wall.

Provo Canyon School is located in Provo, Utah, which is at the heart of Mormonism, as it’s also the location of Brigham Young University, the church’s most prestigious institution of higher learning. PCS is staffed by a lot of BYU students with varying levels of qualifications for working with troubled youths. Many LDS church members are involved in the “teen help industry”, and as it’s mentioned in Paris’s documentary, a lot of the people who work at the many teen help facilities in Utah go on to open their own businesses, straightening out teens. I’ve written a lot about the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS), which operated some of the worst of the teen help programs around the world, but there were other programs out there that have since closed. Thayer Learning Center in Kidder, Missouri was one such facility that operated a military style program. It closed after someone died. Baptists are also well-known for running programs for troubled teens, especially in Missouri and Mississippi.

Paris Hilton happened to be a teenager when these programs were really thriving. I’m sure her parents thought they were helping her by sending her to “boarding school”, not to mention restoring some sense of normalcy in their home. But they had no idea what Paris went through at Provo Canyon School. She couldn’t tell them, and in fact, didn’t tell them until just recently. Paris’s mother, Kathy, is in the documentary, as is her sister, Nicky, but her dad, Richard Hilton, who was one of the youngest of the famous Hilton siblings, was not shown in the film.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t really that interested in most of the documentary. I mostly wanted to hear what Paris had to say about her time at Provo Canyon School. However, I must admit that she comes across as very intelligent and compassionate in her documentary. I was especially impressed by the women she had over to her house who had known her when they were at PCS. They all suffer the aftereffects of having been sent to that place. It’s obvious that a lot of damage was done to them, not just because they say it, but because of the way they say it. My heart kind of broke for them.

And now that I’ve seen the documentary, I no longer think Paris Hilton is a vapid, spoiled, filthy rich asshole. There’s a real person behind that party girl image. She’s smart and talented and deserves more respect. And she did not deserve to be beaten up, drugged, stripped naked, and put in solitary confinement. I’m sure her parents are horrified. Her mom was shown on camera as Paris told her about it and she did, in fact, look really shocked.

The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran an article about PCS. Unfortunately, I can’t easily access it in Germany, but it may be worth a read for those who are interested. It’s easily found if you Google Provo Canyon School. I really think these types of “teen help” programs should either be outlawed or much better monitored. A lot of young people have been irreparably harmed by them, and some have even died.

The deaths aren’t a new phenomenon, either. In 1995, 16 year old Aaron Bacon died in a wilderness program in Utah, having developed a bleeding ulcer that turned into peritonitis. In 1996, Anthony Rutherford, then a teen at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy in Missouri, murdered another teen, William Andrew Futrelle II while they were gathering firewood. And in 2007, fifteen year old Roberto Reyes, who was at Thayer Learning Center in Kidder, Missouri, died after being forced to exercise when he was sick. Fortunately, these programs have since closed, but others still exist and are not given the state oversight that they should have.

What Paris Hilton endured at Provo Canyon School is definitely abuse. It would not have been tolerated if it was reported as going on at her home. Why so-called “boarding schools” are allowed to get away with this shit is beyond me. I’m sure it has a lot to do with money, though.

Drew Barrymore also did time in “teen help”. She was a notorious drug abuser when she was a teenager. I read her book, Little Girl Lost, in the early 90s.

In the above clip, Paris says she hadn’t meant to talk about her experience at PCS. She just wanted to talk about her business ventures, which are quite impressive. Paris apparently inherited and developed a head for business. But I am so glad she talked about this experience. She’s going to help a lot of people. And from now on, when I read a fluffy article about what an “airhead” she is, I’ll know it’s bullshit. Paris Hilton is no fool, and she’s laughing all the way to the bank. And she deserves happiness and more respect than she gets from people who have bought into her rich girl persona.

Now Drew Barrymore, on the other hand, was genuinely a very troubled child who did need some real help and, by her account, she ultimately got it. And fortunately, where Drew went was not as bad as PCS was. Drew has straightened out nicely, too, although I think I like her more as an actress than a talk show host.

Drew must have been ordered to make this special with Corey Feldman.

Here’s a treasure trove of information about these programs from people who have been there. I used to read it a lot in the early 00s, when I was researching this topic a lot.

Here’s a link to Breaking Code Silence, an online place for testimonials and videos from survivors of teen help programs.