Land of the Caged Minors: A Look into the the Troubled Teen Reform Industry
Bruce Staeger was the typical rebellious teen; smoked weed, ditched classes, blasted thrash metal in home, etc. After he ran away from home and was found alongside meth addicts, his mother and stepfather increasingly found the idea of a boot camp ideal to turn their rebellious teen into a responsible teenager. The one they found was called Tierra Blanca, whose director, Scott Chandler, was perceived as “John Wayne” by the mother. With its promise of “real change”, his parents signed his legal rights away and hired two men to forcibly take him to Tierra Blanca. Within two years, he was not only beaten by his campers at Chandler’s instruction, forced to do manual labor for Chandler’s enrichment, and forced to do brutal exercises, but died in a truck accident from internal bleeding due to negligence(NBC News). What has been done to prevent this modern day Lord of the Flies from ever happening again? If you guessed nothing, you’re correct. In the last 30 years, teenage behavioral correctional camps(which go under many names, like wilderness camps, wilderness therapy programs, boot camps, etc.)designed to change rebellious teenage behavior with “tough love” have become more widely accepted in society and turned to by parents who cannot control their child’s behavior. However, with no federal regulation and many cases of outright abuse, these “correctional facilities” can result in irreparable harm done to youths. Despite some success in positively changed teenagers, prominent negative cases cannot allow ethically minded and educated people to allow these camps to remain in operation without significant reform to ensure effective treatment and care for these teens. Furthermore, the demographic bodies that tends to occupy the tenders and attended makes change more difficult.
The biggest problem of this billion dollar industry is the complete lack of federal regulation. Despite these camps having almost unlimited legal authority over their youths, there is no federal law that dictates that these “campers” should have rights to water, food, shelter, etc and these camps do take full advantage of this. The result is camper abuse. One notorious example was when a teenager was found in shackles running away from Tierra Blanca after calling 911, only to be returned by the local police (The Atlantic). If anyone is being physically restrained by shackles without legal authority from the government or without due legal process, not only the camp’s complete authority over teens, but whether their existence can be ignored with clear conscience? Why are teenagers being treated like hardened criminals for typical teenage rebellion?
However, federal regulation is difficult to obtain and implement. Nicole Bush, a child psychology professor at the University of California, reports that the benefits boot camps bring to the usually remote areas where they are found encourages strong local support. For example, the camp can provide jobs and stimulate the local economy, which disincentives the idea of reform for the townspeople(Huffington Post). George Miller, a congressman from California, repeatedly attempted to introduce legislation in 2013 and 2015 to guarantee that campers could not be denied basic necessities of food, shelter, water, etc., but the legislation failed to gain a majority each time(The Atlantic).
The model of tough love comes from a cult movement in the 1960’s called the Church of Synanon, where the recipient of the “treatment”, a drug abuser, is yelled at and physically abused in order to stop his or her addiction. This tactic, having no actual science backing that tough love works to permanently change behavior, are still used on campers to cure them of their rebellious nature, who are not protected by law because their parents have signed away their child’s legal rights(Vice).
The vile record of these “boot camps” trails back from 1990s to the present. A simple Google search of, “problems with the troubled teen industries”, can report horror stories that seem unreal for a progressive stronghold of democracy. A 2007 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that there were thousands of legal allegations between the years of 1990 and 2007 (Vice). Despite all these incidents, a teen boot camp promoter site did not cite any of these incidents, rather listing the worst possible outcome as changing the teen’s mentality that might makes right (Teen Boot Camps). In the case of Terryk Carlsen, yet a 12 year old that was forced into a camp, he experienced seizures during his imprisonment. The staff thought he was faking and punished him every time he had a seizure. They also encouraged other campers to abuse him and to hit him when he was sleeping (The Atlantic). Hence, because of his experience, he has no control of his seizures (now classified as a medical condition, chronic epilepsy) and legally is considered disabled, which prevents him from having a normal job, drive, or enlist in the military, his dream.
The lack of professionalism of the staff in this scenario, as well as many others, urges the need for reform to protect campers from harm and abuse. Another famous case occurred in 1994, when 16 year old Aaron Bacon died of peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal area, because he failed to receive care for an infection (NY Times). The only effects of this case was that seven staff members were convicted to charges of felony neglect and negligent homicide. The final example In terms of change in regulation, absolutely nothing was done. Even with cases that do not result in death, the effects are still apparent and are absolutely negative. Nick Quinn, a teen enrolled in Swift River for smoking weed, exemplifies this. Instead of being a reformed citizen, he now has anxiety disorder, suffers nightmares from his seven month enrollment, and still smokes weed, not to mention his parents spent 150,000 dollars for his stay (Vice). The list can go on and on, with stories of teenagers being put in 4 by 4 feet cells for 72 hours, being physically restrained to the point where their arms are broken, and other abominations that seem far out of place in the United States of America (Huffington Post).
The demographics are another concern. In all of these cases, abuse or negligence by staff are the grounds for prosecution. However, directors will dismiss any callings of abuse, blaming teen as “the dregs of society”, as Chandler of Tierra Blanca, and claim teen viewpoints cannot be trusted because they will do anything to get out. This can easily destroy a teen’s credibility, as teens sent to troubled teen camps are hardly model students and do have a reason, perhaps not always legitimate reason, but a reason nonetheless for successful treatment. This perception can lead to conflict as court cases bog down and usually is the adult’s word against a teen’s(Atlantic).
Unfortunately, teenage correctional camps are usually ignored by the mainstream media and news stories of yet another account of abuse rarely, if ever, makes headlines on the national level. However, like any other reform movement, the real change comes from an increase in awareness from the people who lobby for legislation. Despite other political issues at hand, change and regulation is far overdue for the protection of the nation’s youths in these unethical institutions.