| “Does my teen need help?”

The McGill Daily’s Nadja Popovich looks at abuse in “tough love” rehabilitation facilities for teens.

In 2006, Martin Anderson, a 14-year-old Florida teenager, died at a “boot camp” for troubled teens. When a video surfaced showing a group of guards repeatedly attacking the teen while a nurse appeared to look on, public outcry against this type of correctional facility came to a boiling point. Amid controversy over whether Anderson’s sickle-cell blood trait was the cause of death, the verdict was finally rendered that he had, in fact, died of suffocation from the guards’ abuse.

While Anderson’s boot camp was a state-run facility, privately-owned versions abound. “Tough-love” rehabilitation camps for teens are prevalent throughout the United States, with a disturbing lack of formal regulation.

“No one knows how many of these programs there are out there. They aren’t very regulated,” says Maia Szalavitz, author of several articles and books on abuse in tough- love programs and senior fellow for Stats.org, a media watchdog web site. “Many programs work outside the States too: in Mexico, Samoa, Jamaica, all over really. And they have these incredibly ironic names. like ‘Tranquility Bay.’”

Though not always manifesting themselves as a “boot camp,” all of these so-called tough-love programs seem to be based on the same approach: with enough confrontation, kids may undergo a sort of “reality check” that will allow them to put their past behaviour behind them when reintegrated into society. But according to many recent studies, including a National Institute of Heath State-of-the-Science conference statement on Violence and Related Health-Risking Social Behaviour, this is simply not the case.

“No matter what these places may call themselves – boot camp, ‘tough-love’ drug rehab, or emotional-growth boarding schools, or wilderness programs – the basic concept is always the same: break the kids down in order to fix them,” says Szalavitz.

Though much more prevalent south of the border, it would be naïve to think that Canada was devoid of boot camp rehab centres.

“I was shocked this place existed in Canada!” attests Rebecca Smith, a former “client” of a Canadian tough-love drug rehabilitation facility. “My Canada, which I know has a great human rights record. I could not fathom that this place was allowed to exist. While there, more than once I said, ‘You can’t do this! I have rights!’… and they said, ‘Druggies don’t have rights.’”

The breakdown

Szalavitz has traced the proliferation of most modern teen rehabilitation programs from Synanon, the first “tough-love” rehabilitation prototype, in Santa Monica, California. Initially a drug rehabilitation centre in the late fifties, Syanon gained cult status by the seventies, before it closed its doors in the 1990s. Its legacy still casts a large shadow on the drug rehabilitation field.

Founded in 1958, it was the first program of its kind, and it promised “lifetime rehabilitation.” The basic therapeutic idea behind Synanon was a “game” in which youths were encouraged to use humiliation and insults to break each other down. The organization, by then named the Church of Synanon, was raking in millions each year. It gained public infamy after a report was issued by a Grand Jury accusing the facility of child abuse – stunningly, no steps were taken to shut down the organization at the time. Synanon closed in 1991, however, facing financial problems and a multitude of allegations.

Since the closure of Syanon, a host of other tough-love teen rehab programs have come and gone. Even with crusaders like Szalavitz making their cases against these programs, the moment one centre closes, another one opens.

The latest in a line of controversies came from a rehabilitation chain named Kids Inc., a successor to Synanon’s breakdown model. Though no Canadian Kids programs were ever officially opened, so many Canadian youths were sent to Kids of Bergen County in northern New Jersey that a Kids of the Canadian West program, based in Alberta, was in the works in the early 1990s. But following several allegations of abuse against various Kids facilities, centres all over the United States were shut down.

Plans for such a Canadian Kids facility were scrapped. Instead, the man set to head the Kids camp in Alberta, Dr. Dean Vause, went on to found his own facility: the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC), in Calgary. While there have never been any formal charges laid, and the AARC firmly denies any allegations, a preliminary report done in 2003 by the nonprofit International Survivors Action Committee (ISAC) concluded that the AARC bore an all-too-striking resemblance to its Kids predecessors.

“With respect to allegations of abuse, I have yet to encounter one,” an AARC representative wrote to The Daily in an email: “If this did occur, however, it would be considered a critical and urgent clinical issue to be addressed by our clinical committee.”

Confined to recovery

One of the biggest problems with many of these programs is that they promise a quick-fix solution to deep-seated psychological problems. Usually these tough-love facilities are not staffed with psychological professionals.

The AARC, for one, touts its “teen-on-teen” care as integral to the rehabilitation process. “Addicts are adept at manipulating and conning others. But they can’t con a con,” reads the AARC web site. In fact, many peer counsellors are graduates of the program itself. “They know all the lines and have heard all the excuses – they’ve used them. Many counsellors have degrees, giving them a powerful blend of real life experience and clinical expertise.”

This model, however, cannot provide kids with adequate psychological help if they really do need it, asserts Szalavitz. Helpatanycost.com, Szalavitz’s accompaniment to her book of the same name, notes that one of the major questions parents should ask when considering sending their wayward children to one of these programs is: “What are the qualifications of the line staff who work directly with the teens?” According to Szalavitz, anything less than a Masters-level psychology degree for all group leaders should be considered a red flag.

Meanwhile, what Rebecca Smith and many other clients of tough-love programs find most unsettling about these facilities is the basic and uncompromising confinement that is integral to the rehabilitation models. As minors, teens have no control over their placement or stay at rehabilitation programs. As long as they are deemed “in need,” their parents can send them to any private rehabilitation facility, separated from friends, family, and the greater world, for an indefinite period of time.

This unconditional confinement is frustrating for those enrolled in these programs, but it can also be dangerous. Though she has grouped a wide range of programs into the tough-love category, Szalavitz argues that categorizing a program as specifically for “troubled” teens leaves youth stigmatized and vulnerable. When combined with a lack of control over their own circumstances, this labelling can prove deadly.

Szalavitz recounts a story from her book about a teen named Aaron Bacon who died of internal bleeding after a treatable ulcer ate through his stomach lining in 1994, during a “wilderness therapy” excursion.

“The ulcer could have been treated with over-the-counter medication,” she says, “but, instead, it ate through his abdomen over the course of several weeks. The program insisted he was faking.”

“An ‘outward bound’ trip with so-called normal kids can be very good and nurturing,” she continues. “But that’s with normal kids, so, [if you complain of something being wrong] you’ll be believed.”

Troubling labels

Tough-love programs’ remarkably low requirements for admittance is another troubling element, according to Szalavitz.

“I would call [what really drives admittance] a wallet biopsy,” she says. “If the parent can afford it, the child needs the program…[and] if you fill out any of the forms you can make a normal teenager seem troubled. These are not legitimate mental health evaluations.”

One web site, bootcampsforteens.com, offers a “Does My Teen Need Help?” section to guide parents through the process of evaluating their child’s “need” for these camps, concluding with: “When it comes to seeking help for a child in danger it is better to have sought help a little too early than a little too late.”

Not according to Szalavitz, however.

“Some [parents] have been terrorized by the drug war into thinking, ‘Oh my God, my kid is smoking pot, they’ll become a heroin addict.’ This won’t happen; the vast majority of marijuana users never even try heroin. People think, ‘It’s better to be safe than sorry,’ but these programs aren’t safe,” Szalavitz says.

She argues that most teens do not need medical attention for being “troubled,” arguing that developing better communication with teens and family therapy sessions with schooled psychiatrists, social workers, or psychologists as one route, and postsecondary education as another.

“If you actually want to prevent long-term addiction, get your kids through college!… Finding meaning and purpose in their life is the key to overcoming addiction, and you can’t force people to find meaning and purpose.”

Some names have been changed in this article to protect the privacy of those involved


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