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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