“Troubled teen industry” abuse: We can’t pretend it’s over yet

TW: Troubled teen industry; child sexual abuse; torture.

Within the last month, Midwest Academy, a residential program for teens that called itself a therapeutic boarding school, came under federal investigation for sexual abuse of a young person in its care.

Midwest Academy was a prototypical program in what is often known as the “troubled teen industry.”  Located in a small town in a remote part of Iowa, the program marketed itself to parents who could pay between three and five thousand dollars a month to have their children allegedly treated, educated, disciplined or some combination of the three.  It claimed to offer this assistance for any number of issues, ranging from physically abusing other people to being sexually active to struggling in school.  In doing so, it relied on what the Iowa Department of Human Services has politely called outdated methods, such as long-term confinement in an isolation room for days or sometimes weeks; food deprivation; stress positions; and sensory bombardment while in confinement.  Students, however, were not able to tell their parents or call the police about these abuses, as their communication with the outside world was severely limited and monitored.

The program is now, thankfully, closed and its owner, the alleged perpetrator Ben Trane, is facing potential prosecution for this incident and other crimes.  This is just the latest in a string of program closures over the last decade, resulting from either lack of business or active state intervention.

Based on this, and the fact that a number of states have added to or tightened their regulations over the years to eliminate or just limit abuse, a lot of people have come to the conclusion that the “troubled teen” industry and other behavioral modification programs are not a serious problem anymore.  In some cases, it’s because there are a lot fewer programs than there used to be.  In others, it’s based on the belief that the programs that have stayed open have changed enough that they are at least not as egregiously bad as they once were.

However, I can’t let go of a feeling of certainty based on pattern recognition that this fight isn’t over in a meaningful sense.

On the historical side of things, the industry has gone through a number of rises and falls since the seventies, and has come back selling all but the same product in new packaging after people have forgotten the last round of investigations, exposés and shutdowns, with the same eventual results.  For instance, fifteen years after Aaron Bacon died of peritonitis after staff at North Star Expeditions in Utah denied him food and shelter and accused him of faking his symptoms, Sergey Blashchishen died of dehydration on his first day hiking in the Oregon desert at Sagewalk after similarly being accused of malingering.  And those two were among the programs that actually shut down after the abuse came to light.

Furthermore, advocates (and society at large) haven’t yet taken on the task of making the legal and social shift necessary to not only close all remaining programs, but prevent another iteration of all the same problems in any form.  Systemic abuse of young people will continue as long as their parents’ and caregivers’ priorities are framed as rights that are given more weight than their own safety and autonomy.  It will continue as long as what would otherwise be called abuse can be convincingly reframed as loving discipline.  It will continue as long as our culture takes and promotes glee in punishing their disobedience to put them in their supposed place.  It will continue as long as we allow space for “last resort” measures that violate the most basic human rights, and then decide that noncompliance is a problem that calls for “last resort” solutions.

Because it’s not random that institutions that work off these ideas end up sexually abusing and even killing the kids in their care, even if that goes farther than what the framework itself generally allows for.  Intentionally making someone’s right to well-being and dignity conditional, especially on an arbitrary definition of good behavior, significantly lowers the moral threshold for abuse.  It both draws in and creates individual bad actors, and it provides them with a set of ready-made justifications for or denials of their actions once they come to light.

Advocates have a chance of ending these systems of abuse permanently if we challenge these beliefs head on and down to their core, however fundamental they might still seem to us, and we have to.  Even if we were to accept the argument that things have significantly improved, “not that bad” doesn’t mean good.  It means fewer people are being abused, possibly less harshly and less often (and more likely in subtler ways).  But if the number of young and disabled people being abused in these programs is above zero, it’s still too high to accept.

If you are a former attendee, a parent/guardian of a former attendee, or a former staff member at a behavior modification program within the last three (3) years, please send me your stories and any supporting documents.  This includes but is not limited to facilities such as boot camps, youth ranches, therapeutic or emotional growth boarding schools, residential treatment facilities, wilderness programs and fat/weight loss camps.  Please be aware that I am not offering to represent you as an attorney, and anything you send me that you don’t specifically tell me to redact may be made public.

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