Survivors are speaking out against the troubled teen industry

Key Takeaways

  • Survivors of the troubled teen industry say they leave the program with more issues and problems than when they arrived.
  • Lack of federal oversight allows some agencies to provide inadequate care.
  • Doing your research before sending your child to a facility can help ensure a more successful experience.

You may not have heard of what is colloquially referred to as the Troubled Teen Industry, but it is a growing enterprise. Estimates say 120,000 to 200,000 children are part of the system—sent there against their will. Within this system, adolescents go to live in facilities designed to provide a variety of behavioral treatments. It could be a correctional facility, a group home, a boot camp, a wilderness program, or a residential treatment center—all of which are problematic.

“Typically, parents contact these institutions when their child reaches a stage where the child’s behavior is destructive, or they are a threat to themselves or even others. Sometimes a child has a mental illness and needs high-level care treatment for safety and intensive treatment purposes,” explains Erin Rayburn, LMFT and founder of Evergreen Therapy.

Although the established objective is to help children and their families, many former participants say this is not the reality. Participants, including celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Paris Jackson, say they suffered physical and sexual abuse, isolation and inhumane living conditions.

We look at concerns about the troubled teen industry, the mental health impact of these experiences on teens, and options for getting help for a teen who needs it.

Understanding troubled teen art

The youth treatment programs that make up the troubled teen industry got their start in the early 1900s, with schools and residential centers offering programs to help teens. Although the specific focus may vary, most facilities help teens deal with issues ranging from delinquency and drug use to disciplinary and mental health issues. Workers offer a pathway for parents to help their children solve their problems and find solutions to deal with their problems.

“Many goals are to treat adolescent mental illness and addiction problems and to provide environments that contain dangerous behaviors and encourage support by providing supportive care,” Rayburn notes.

Experts say they have seen success in some treatment centers. Staffing and program execution are critical.

“While some of these ‘problem youth’ centers do not execute their programs well or have unfortunate incidents, many institutions are ethical and good at what they do,” Rayburn says. “Where these centers get a bad rap is a problem that often occurs. Sometimes such institutions begin to take on clients who are challenged with issues outside the program’s scope of practice.”

Lack of guidance in the industry allows such situations to occur. Federal regulations do not exist, and there is no specific set of rules implemented by each state.

“Obviously, lack of clear controls, oversight, appropriate resources or high standards of care will lead to poor outcomes despite good intentions. “If you don’t have well-trained mental health professionals or a healthy functioning system, it’s unrealistic to expect that engaging youth in that system will work,” notes Peggy Lu, PhD, licensed psychologist, director of Manhattan Therapy Collective.

Peggy Lu, Ph.D

The lives that adolescents return to after discharge look nothing like what they had in the treatment setting—and yet they are expected to maintain any progress they made. This is a setup for ultimate failure.

– Peggy Lu, Ph.D

Additionally, participants noted that treatment was short-term and short-sighted. Even with caring staff, a well-executed program and a supportive environment, without a long-term perspective, treatment is difficult to sustain.

“Adolescents return after discharge looking nothing like they would in any medical setting—and yet they can be expected to maintain any progress they’ve made. This is a setup for events
failure,” added Dr. Lu.

Another concern is day-to-day operations. Each facility develops its own program, and its own measure of success. Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach is put in place and does not meet the needs of every child.

“I think one of the biggest problems with these schools is that they’re not specialized enough. So, they use pseudo-science, or these aren’t really developed, evidence-backed strategies to get people to adapt and modify their behavior,” explains Emily OldenquistA TTI is alive.

While in a treatment program, his behaviors were labeled as positive or negative and given specific points. Doing something positive, like agreeing to wash the dishes, earned 250 points. Refusal to perform the task may result in deduction of 1000 points. At the end of the day, her total decides whether she can talk to other people, have extra snacks, or have extra time to call her parents.

“The way I held my posture, from the amount of eye contact, to the way I made my bed, determined whether or not I would really have basic human rights at the end of the day,” Oldenquist notes.

Impact on adolescents

After dealing with her mother’s death and living in an abusive home, the court system sent Kayla Muzquiz to her first group home at age 12.

He was there as a part of the foster care system to receive therapy to deal with the trauma he had endured. Instead of help, he says he found “A Lockdown facilities that used isolation (and) solitary rooms, physical restraints, psychotropic drugs and peer intervention techniques made the environment very bad,” he said. “These environments are social through isolation and the overuse of pharmaceutical drugs or physical force to change behavior. and impair psychological development.”

Muzquiz has closed facilities in North Carolina, Utah and Texas. He couldn’t get approval to stop treatment and live with his grandparents, so he stayed in the system until he was 18. She says she survived years of abuse and is now advocating for change.

So is Oldenquist. She dealt with sexual abuse, mood disorders and was hospitalized multiple times. Once he reached the peak of hospitalization, long-term care was advised. At age 15, his parents gave him a choice – get on a plane to a school in Utah for treatment, or they’d force him on a plane. With no other choice, he left.

He spent three years at the facility. Although he feels that going saved his life because it kept him away from suicidal thoughts, he paid a heavy price.

“I left the program with PTSD, a lot of shame, distorted social skills because I didn’t really get a chance to practice them, (and) subpar academics because I had to teach myself a lot. I also experienced a lot of medical negligence,” Oldenquist said.

Treatment options

Methods exist to help parents and children cope with difficult family dynamics. Experts recommend allowing your child to choose a therapist they feel comfortable with. It gives a child the feeling that their voice matters.

Also, seek family therapy. Family dynamics can significantly contribute to your child’s behavior. You can also try an outpatient program that allows your child to stay at home. As your teen gets help, the family can continue to work toward healing.

If your family determines that a troubled teen program is the best solution for your family, know what to look for.

“If the program promises to treat such a wide range of disorders or struggles, that’s a red flag. These programs should really specialize in what your child is struggling with. A place that promises to deal with anything from autism to schizophrenia is not the place for your child,” notes Oldenquist.

Muzquiz says that even when dealing with behavioral problems, your child needs your support.

“Ask your child to share his thoughts more often and ask him to take control each time. All in all, just be there for them,” concluded Muzquiz.

What does this mean for you?

Thousands of teenagers are “treated” to the troubled teen industry each year and often leave with lasting trauma. Family relationships and dynamics with teenagers can be complicated, but it’s important to be careful about the type of care your child receives. Take the time to research the right programs or outlets to help your family and be aware of red flags that may indicate an unsafe environment.

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