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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mental health, musings

We now return you to “the arts”…

I often get reminded of things and go looking for information about subjects most people have long forgotten. That happened to me the other day, while I was killing time cruising the Internet. I went through a phase about twenty years ago during which I became kind of obsessed with learning about the “teen help” industry. In those days, there was a burgeoning industry in which affluent parents with “wayward” children would hire goons to pick up their kids in the middle of the night and haul them off to some school in the middle of nowhere.

Back in the early 00s, there were many of these schools operating in the United States and other countries. One of the biggest players in the “teen help” industry was the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, otherwise known as WWASPS. Robert Lichfield, the man who founded WWASPS, and his younger brother, Narvin, were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons. In 2003, when his company was still going strong, Robert Lichfield was also a big contributor to the Republican Party. Starting in 1977, Lichfield worked in the “teen help” industry, straightening out “troubled teens”. By 2003, WWASPS was raking in many millions of dollars from parents desperate to “save” their teens… or get them out of their hair. And these kids would be sent off to schools in Jamaica, Mexico, the Czech Republic, or somewhere in the United States– South Carolina, Utah, Montana, or Mississippi, among other places. They were kept in deplorable conditions and many of them left the schools with worse problems than they had when they went in.

As it happened, during the same time I was researching WWASPS a lot, Bill and I were getting acquainted. He was a Mormon when we met, having joined the faith with his ex wife. I didn’t know a lot about Mormonism when I met Bill. I had only met a few church members and read one book, a poorly received by the religion but excellently researched book called Secret Ceremonies, by the late Deborah Laake. Active church members were highly discouraged from reading Laake’s book, because Laake was an apostate who was trying to share her truth about being LDS. But even though members were discouraged from reading Secret Ceremonies, they would still dismiss its contents as lies. Bill and I later read it together and he told me that Laake’s account was very accurate. Later, I ran into one of Laake’s friends on RfM (Recovery from Mormonism), Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist and famously ex Mormon Steve Benson, whose grandfather was a “living prophet”. Benson knew Deborah Laake and confirmed that she was an excellent journalist.

I also noticed that Bill’s ex wife was using the church as a toxic parental alienation tool to separate Bill from his daughters. Although all of the Mormons I have known personally have been good people, I couldn’t ignore how the religion was being used to abuse people. I started researching it obsessively. I read RfM every day and read many books, which I documented in a thread on my original blog with links to my reviews on Epinions (sadly now defunct).

A few days ago, I remembered a riveting account of a WWASPS parental “training” event attended by Karen E. Lile and her then husband, Kendall Bean. I write “then husband”, because I have the impression that they are now divorced, since Karen Lile does not appear to be using the name “Bean” anymore. But I think they were still married years ago, when I first found their written account of attending parent training for the WWASPS program, held at a hotel in Livermore, California. The other day, I went looking for their accounts because they popped into my head. Sure enough, I found them. Here’s Karen Lile’s account, and here is Kendall Bean’s account.

In 1997, the Beans sent their daughter, Kyrsten, to Tranquility Bay, a WWASPS program in Jamaica. The Beans, like the Lichfield brothers, who had founded WWASPS, were members of the LDS church. You can read in their very lengthy accounts about what kind of people they claimed to be. Karen Lile is all over the Internet. She frequently mentions her long heritage in the San Francisco area. She appears to have many trappings of success, too. For instance, she mentions graduating with high honors from college, and working with her husband (ex?) in a high end piano buying service. Most recently, she’s listed as a contributor to an outfit called Sail Sports Talk. If you click the link, you can read all about her pedigree. She’s clearly a woman of education and means… or so it appears.

Same thing with Kendall Bean. He is reportedly a well-regarded concert pianist and co-owner of the piano restoration and brokerage.

This was a couple that appeared to have everything they could want. But apparently, they had a troubled daughter and decided to send her to Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. It sounded like an idyllic place, with a name that evoked visions of beautiful beaches, sea breezes, and blue skies. The reality was far from that image. According to Google, Tranquility Bay opened in 1997, the same year the Beans’ daughter attended. It was supposedly one of the harsher schools in the WWASPS system. Many “students” would reportedly go there and get sick, due to the lack of hygienic facilities, and they would be subjected to mental, physical, and emotional abuse. But they would not receive any treatment or sympathy. For this, their parents were paying thousands of dollars a month and, in the case of the Beans, relieving the financial burden, in part, by convincing other parents to send their children. From “Breaking the Vow of Secrecy“, the article Karen Lile wrote:

Why she initially stayed in the obviously abusive training…

When I first read these accounts of WWASPS years ago, I was shocked and horrified. I thirsted for more information, and I easily found it. Fifteen or twenty years ago, these types of schools existed all over the place. Not all were affiliated with Mormonism. Some were with the Independent Baptist Church, like Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy in Patterson, Missouri, and Victory Christian Academy in Jay, Florida. Some programs, like Thayer Learning Center (TLC) in Kidder, Missouri, appeared to be offshoots of the WWASP programs. The people who ran TLC were also LDS, but ran the school like a military boot camp. Here’s an account of one former student’s stay there.

And here’s a video about someone who went to Thayer Learning Center. She mentions the book Pure, which I have read and reviewed. Actually, I highly recommend listening to this video if you have any curiosity about how people can be spiritually abused, particularly in the LDS church.

Anyway… this very long build up has led to a discovery I made the other day. As I was reading about the Beans and their experiences with WWASPS training back in the late 1990s, I somehow found their daughter’s Web site. It turns out she’s a writer and musician herself. There doesn’t seem to be a lot to her site, but I did find her blog posts very interesting and illuminating. She’s writing about her experiences going to Tranquility Bay. Like a lot of people who were sent there, she was under the impression that it was a normal school. Jamaica sounded like a great place to be– probably better than home, where she was not getting along with her parents. She had no idea of what awaited her.

I think about reading her parents’ account of the disturbing training they had received. Their daughter had already been at Tranquility Bay, and they were evidently ignorant to what was happening to her there. And they were paying thousands of dollars a month for this… and convincing other parents to sign up their teens, too. I think about the young people who were subjected to that treatment and how it’s affected them today. Judging by her blog, Kyrsten Bean is still very much affected by her time in a WWASPS facility. I wonder what kind of relationship she has with her parents today… these people who, by what I’ve seen on the Internet, are highly accomplished, respectable, and educated people. If you know where to look, you can easily see beneath that facade.

I don’t like Mormonism. That has never been a secret. There was a time not long ago when I could think of very little good with the church, even as I recognized that there are many good people within it. But then Bill’s daughter told him her story of escaping her mother’s clutches and people in the church helped her. Just as the Army gave Bill a place to go once Ex was through with him, the LDS church gave his daughter a place to go once her relationship with her mother had gotten to the point that they could no longer live together. For that, I’m grateful… although I really wish she had come to Bill instead. We would have helped her. But I also understand why she felt she couldn’t.

I think it’s very sad to think about how parents betray their children by sending them to these kinds of facilities. And sadly, even though the WWASPS schools are now closed, these programs are still around under different names. It’s a very lucrative business, straightening out other people’s kids.

As I sit here writing this post, I am reminded that you just never know how you will affect people. I often think my life doesn’t matter much… but then I realize that this family in San Francisco has no idea that I’ve read so much about them and their fascinating story. I’ve read about them for years. And I can see by the people who hit this blog that there are people who are similarly interested in my story, for whatever reason. Like, for instance, one reader continually hits a post I wrote in April about how a guy on a cruise insulted me. I wonder why that post is so interesting to him… does he think it’s funny? Can he relate? Who knows?

Another person often finds me because of posts I wrote about Erin McCay George. I wonder if he’s fascinated by her so much that he needs to reread posts over and over again. But who knows? It’s hard to tell what interests people. I know I had one reader who read simply because she was returning and reporting to our former landlords… and, I suspect, hoped we’d pay for things that she and her family did in the house before we moved in. I like to think most readers are good people and not out to get me, but sometimes it’s hard to be sure. Especially when I see that Kyrsten Bean is now on YouTube– and very easily found. Apparently, she went on to have a relationship with a narcissist, something else with which we can commiserate.

I keep writing because it’s helpful for me. I’m sure that’s why Kyrsten writes, too. I have a hunch that her ex fiance isn’t the only one in her life who is a narcissistic abuser. But, of course, that’s only a hunch. I don’t actually know her… just like people who read this rag, by and large, don’t really know me. I’m just saying the signs are there, and once you’ve had anything to do with a narcissist, you can easily spot them. Unfortunately, narcissists can also spot people who will tolerate their bullshit. That’s why it’s best to express things… write about it and tell people. Don’t keep secrets. Because that is how abusive people continue to abuse. Just look at how long the abusive people running WWASPS were able to hide what they were doing as they financially ruined hundreds of parents and left their children with lingering physical, mental, and emotional problems.