"Adolescence strikes fear in the hearts of even the best parents," writes journalist Maia Szalavitz in her new book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead Books). That fear, she says, drives well-meaning mothers and fathers to send their misbehaving teens to "tough-love" programs, where they’re subjected to abusive treatment in the name of helping them.
Based on her own research, Szalavitz estimates that between ten and twenty thousand American teens are forced into "boot camps," "emotional-growth centers," and "behavior modification programs" each year. The industry is unregulated, and some programs operated by U.S. companies place children in facilities outside the U.S. What tough-love programs all have in common, Szalavitz says, is the belief that teens should be made to conform to the expectations of parents and society, by whatever means necessary. Critics have accused the programs of using beatings, extended isolation and restraint, public humiliation, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, forced exercise to the point of exhaustion, and lengthy maintenance of "stress positions." Research shows that tough treatment is not effective, Szalavitz says, and can even be harmful.
Szalavitz traces the roots of the tough-love industry back to the Alcoholics Anonymous offshoot Synanon, a 1960s treatment program for heroin addicts that evolved into a cult and was eventually shut down and discredited. She points out that incessant verbal attacks were a core component of Synanon and are now common to tough-love programs. But unlike Synanon, the latter are not for adult drug addicts. They’re for troubled teens, some of whom have never used a single illicit drug.
Szalavitz began her reporting career at the age of fourteen,writing and anchoring her own cable-access news show inMonroe, New York, an hour north of New York City. Seventeenmagazine ran a story about her in 1980, projecting a successfultelevision career for this precocious high-school student. ButSzalavitz developed addictions to cocaine and heroin while atColumbia University and dropped out of college for several yearsbefore seeking help. She went on to graduate from Brooklyn Collegewith a degree in psychology and soon began writing for theVillage Voice. Szalavitz returned to television as a producer forThe Charlie Rose Show on PBS, then worked with Bill Moyerson his five-part series Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home.
Next she teamed up with University of Pennsylvania researcherJoseph Volpicelli to write Recovery Options: The CompleteGuide (Wiley), which outlines the benefits and drawbacks ofvarious drug-treatment options in the United States.
Szalavitz had long wanted to write about the abuse intough-love treatment programs, but publishers showed littleinterest. In the end it took her more than three years to writeHelp at Any Cost. She conducted hundreds of interviews, spentmany days poring over legal and congressional documents,made repeated Freedom of Information Act requests, andtraveled to Utah, Jamaica, and Texas’s death row. The bookfocuses on four programs: Straight Incorporated, KIDS, NorthStar Expeditions, and the World Wide Association of SpecialtyPrograms (WWASP). All but the last are now defunct, but manyformer staffers still work in the industry.
I have a personal interest in the subject, having been througha program that was a predecessor of Straight Incorporated inthe early 1970s.
Polonsky: What is a "tough-love" treatment program?
Szalavitz: It’s any program that operates on the premisethat teens in trouble need to be broken down and rebuilt. Theidea is that suffering is good for the soul; therefore, we willinflict suffering on them to "help" them. Sometimes peopleask me, "Well, there are teen boot camps, emotional-growthcenters, wilderness schools, behavior-modification programs— aren’t they each a little different?" On the surface they are,but what they all boil down to is "Let’s be mean to teens inthe woods," or "Let’s be mean to them military style," or "Let’sbe mean hippie style."
There are some wilderness programs that claim to take aloving approach, but with so little regulation, it’s impossiblefor parents to know what they’re going to get. The peopleselling the program tell consumers what they want to hear.The parents of Aaron Bacon, a teen who died in one of theseprograms, had been told that North Star Expeditions usedkind, gentle methods. Then their son came home in a coffinafter being starved and denied medical care.
Polonsky: What exactly happened to Aaron Bacon, andwhy was he put into the program?
Szalavitz: By all accounts Aaron was a compassionate,highly intelligent kid, but at some point he started smokingdope and taking psychedelics, and then his grades started toof times. His parents also suspected that he was involved withgangs, and they were worried. North Star sold itself to them asa wilderness adventure experience with trained therapists. Aaron’smom thought her son might enjoy it.
So one morning at six, two men — one a 280-pound former militarypoliceman — came storming into Aaron’s bedroom. His parents werethere too, assuring Aaron that they loved him, butthat he had to go with these men. They brought him to North Star inUtah and put him and a group of other boys under the care of untrainedsurvival guides who wouldn’t let them cook their food to make it edibleif they couldn’t start their own fire. They gave Aaron boots that were toosmall, a sleeping bag, and a backpack, and theybasically starved and froze him to death over the course of a fewweeks. Near the end, Aaron was so weak he was falling downand incontinent, and the guides laughed at him and called hima "faker." It’s a well-documented case, because Aaron kept ajournal, and the other boys were witnesses.
Polonsky: What about the therapists?
Szalavitz: There were no therapists. The guides werenineteen, twenty, and twenty-one years old. Among the threeof them, they didn’t have a year’s experience leading wildernessexpeditions. They served at most a few days in jail afterAaron’s death, and some of them even violated probation byimmediately going back to work in the industry.
Polonsky: There was a boy who died in a facility in Floridaearlier this year. Are there any similarities between his caseand Aaron Bacon’s?
Szalavitz: Not in the particulars, but in the root cause.Fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was in a boot-campstyleprogram. He complained of trouble breathing and couldn’tcomplete his drill exercises, but the instructors thought hewas faking, so they punched, kicked, and "restrained" him.When he lost consciousness, they tried to revive him usingammonia capsules, and he asphyxiated, either on the fumesor because the capsules were pressed against his mouth andnose and he couldn’t breathe.
The boot-camp instructors still maintain that they didnothing wrong because they were legally permitted to use"pain compliance." Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1982that agencies acting "under color of state law" may not usepainful disciplinary tactics, that decision does not apply toprivate corporations. In addition, Florida made a special legalexception for its youth correctional boot camps, exemptingthem from a ban on pain compliance, which includes punches,kicks, and pressure to the head. Ironically, if parents treatedtheir own children this way, they’d be charged with child abuse,but it’s all right for them to pay "professionals" to do it.
Polonsky: Are all tough-love programs this bad, or areyou just focusing on the worst of them?
Szalavitz: Some may not be as bad as these two; I wasn’table to research every one of them. But it’s clear the industryattitude is that troubled teens are not people in pain, butmanipulative liars who deserve rough treatment. Their philosophyinevitably leads to abuse, whether it’s as mild as ignoring someone’semotional needs or as severe as ignoring a medical condition.
Polonsky: There are hundreds of similar programs in the UnitedStates today. You focus on just four in your book. Why those four?
Szalavitz: I always knew Straight Incorporated had to be in the book,because it was the first heavily publicized tough-love program. Itstarted in Florida, but at its peak it had facilities operating ineight states.
In Straight you spent twelve hours a day sitting on hard chairs andflapping your arm to be called on. If you didn’t get called on, you’dnever advance in the program and get to go home. And whenyou did get called on, you had to have a good confession tomake about how terrible you’d been before entering the program,or else you’d be attacked verbally. If you didn’t comply,if you didn’t pay attention, if you didn’t say what they wantedto hear or you mouthed off, they would literally throw youon the floor and restrain you, with somebody sitting on yourtorso and restricting your breathing, another person sittingon your legs, two more people sitting on your arms, andsometimes somebody holding down your head. This wouldall be done by your fellow participants, which is not the wayrestraint is handled in any legitimate psychiatric institution.People had limbs broken.
Polonsky: And this restraint was administered as punishment?
Szalavitz: Yes. Sometimes people were restrained fromrunning out the door, but more often it was done as punishmentfor violating all manner of rules. Straight also heavilyrestricted access to the bathroom, so kids would wet and soilthemselves. It’s all part of the humiliation strategy employedby many of these programs: an exercise of power and demonstrationof the teens’ helplessness.
Polonsky: And what about the other three programs: KIDS, North Star, and WWASP?
Szalavitz: North Star, of course, was the wilderness programin which Aaron Bacon died. KIDS was founded by MillerNewton, who had been Straight’s national clinical directorand a charismatic leader within Straight. He falsely claimedto be a psychologist. (He did eventually get a degree from acorrespondence school.) KIDS was like Straight, only worse.
The World Wide Association of Specialty Programs is thebiggest tough-love organization currently in operation. It’ssimilar to Straight in that you gradually work your way up byconfessing and verbally attacking other teens. Their "curriculum"includes confrontational weekend seminars, where theysometimes make young girls dress up as hookers to humiliatethem. Newcomers are assigned "buddies" who monitor themand have the power to punish them, even though these buddiesare not staff, or even adults.
After being released from these programs, many teensimmediately return to dangerous behavior, and some areso traumatized that they are unable to function in a collegeenvironment. Others can’t afford to go to college because theirparents have spent their entire college fund on WWAS P. Theoverseas programs cost about three thousand dollars a month,and the ones in the United States cost four to five thousand amonth. And there are additional charges on top of that, suchas for bringing the kid to the program in handcuffs.
Polonsky: What kind of teen gets sent to a place like WWASP?
Szalavitz: Anyone who has annoyed the hell out of hisor her parents, who is mouthy and disappointing and maybeisn’t doing well in school or is using drugs. Many teens withdepression or serious mental disorders end up there. WWASPseems to take anyone. There are no restrictions. Even a childwho has never smoked pot and gets straight As will be acceptedas long as the parents believe the child’s behavior requiresdrastic action. A WWAS P official told the press that 70 to80 percent of their students are not hard-core drug users orcriminals; they just have trouble communicating with theirparents. Paul Richards, a WWAS P graduate I interviewed formy book, had never even smoked cigarettes. But most of theboys and girls are somewhere in the middle. Maybe they weresmoking pot every weekend, or they took acid.
Polonsky: How do parents find out about these programs?
Szalavitz: In the eighties and nineties many parents werereferred to them by ToughLove, a nationwide network of supportgroups for parents of troubled teens. The couple whofounded ToughLove had written a book in which they toldhow they’d refused to bail their daughter out of jail, and theyclaimed that this was what had saved her. To its credit, theToughLove network eventually denounced Straight Incorporated,but only after recommending it to parents for years.Nowadays parents might get referrals from so-called educationalconsultants, who are not required to have licenses andwho often get kickbacks from programs for giving referrals.An "educational consultant" could easily be another WWAS Pparent who will get a thousand dollars or a free month in theprogram for their own child in return for a referral. Thenyou have school guidance counselors and psychologists andother professionals with whom the tough-love programs cultivaterelationships. And of course, if you search for "troubledteens" on the Internet, multiple WWAS P-sponsored websitescome up.
Polonsky: Do parents have any idea what’s really goingon in these programs?
Szalavitz: Phil Elberg, an attorney who successfully suedMiller Newton and the KIDS program, liked to say that it wasthe parents who really belonged to the KIDS cult, not the children.In most of these programs, the parents proselytize toother parents and meet in groups and encourage each otherto stay strong and be tough. If the parents weren’t convincedthat tough love works, these places couldn’t operate.There’s enormous pressure for parents to take the tough loveapproach. After an article I wrote about the troubled-teenindustry appeared in the Washington Post, I got dozens ofe-mails from parents who didn’t want to send their childrento these programs, but everybody was telling them it was theonly way and that they were hurting their son or daughter bynot doing it.
Polonsky: Don’t the teens inform their parents of what’sgoing on?
Szalavitz: They try to, but the parents are told to expectcomplaints and treat them as lies or attempts at manipulation.And almost all communication is monitored, with disciplinefor kids who complain. Also the programs teach the kidsthat it’s all their fault, so most of them come out saying that.Unfortunately, that’s exactly what many parents want to hear.It’s hard for parents to accept how much harm they have doneto their children by placing them in these programs. I havetalked to parents who were horrified when they discoveredhow bad it really was. They spend years trying to make up forit. Some, however, prefer to stay in denial.
I would say the vast majority of parents who send theirchildren to these programs are devoted mothers and fatherswho would honestly prefer to have their child at home. Mostwould likely have chosen family therapy were it more widelyavailable and had they known that research supported it overthese programs. A large percentage of these parents are in themiddle of a divorce. Their children are acting out, unhappy,and vulnerable. That’s why family therapy makes the mostsense. But the parents don’t want to think the divorce is what’scausing their son or daughter to rebel or take drugs.
Many parents are simply fooled. Unless you’ve been toldotherwise, you’d think these programs are run by expertswho have some knowledge you don’t. Aaron Bacon’s parentsare smart, well-intentioned, and kind. They were in no waynegligent; they asked all the right questions, consulted allthe right authorities. But they were lied to. It could happento anybody.