Therapeutic Schools Come Under Harsh Spotlight After Public Allegations of Abuse

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Brought to light by Paris Hilton and TikTok, many treatment facilities meant to help troubled teens are finally being punished for the unthinkable trauma and harm they caused those through their programs.

Teenagers have it hard, and sometimes parents desperate to help their children turn to a last resort by sending their child away to theraputic boarding schools and wilderness retreats in hopes to help their struggling children. On the outside, it appears these schools are helping teenagers, however in reality some are the source of horrific abuse and unethical practices, something which has been brought to light in a series of court cases against many of the programs, and by many survivors speaking out on social media.

Socialite Paris Hilton’s 2020 testimony against abuse she encountered while at the Provo Canyon school, a therapeutic boarding school in Provo City, Utah, helped bring light to the unethical practices at many of these boarding schools. Similar abuses are occurring at wilderness retreats all over the United States as well.

Wilderness programs claim to treat a wide range of issues. Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, located in the Blue Rudge Mountains in Georgia, advertise on their website that “Families … have often reached a point of significant conflict and struggle in their home. Often, time and space from each other after such conflict is necessary in order for a family to rebuild an atmosphere of caring and support for one another.”

They go on to describe that they treat a range of issues from depression and anxiety to “entitlement” and “Promiscuity and Risky Sexual Behaviors.” Wilderness therapy utilizes the radical change in environment, along with challenging experiences, to hopefully change the troubled student’s behavior.

An article from Vox explains that it is hard to know exactly how many wilderness programs are currently operating in the United States. “Attempts to count them [the programs] produce wildly different results, anywhere from dozens to over a thousand. Some are licensed, others are not. Some states require that programs register with a regulatory board, but many do not.” Most of these programs are privately owned, and require almost no certification from state governments.

According to the American Psychological Association, these programs became popular in the early 1990s.

Vox explains how so many parents willingly send their children to these retreats, and draws attention to a website called Answersforparents.com. This company, based in Utah, acts as a free referral service for concerned parents. However, it is partnered with many of these programs and acts as a pipeline, and has “delivered cash and kids to controversial residential facilities for more than 30 years, experts say.” Many of these programs are located in Georgia or Utah, two states under which the law makes it easier for parents to sign over temporary custody.

The common story among survivors of the programs is as follows: in the middle of the night two men come and whisk the “troubled teen” away. They are taken (most of the time) to a different state, stripped of every possession they own, given a backpack and flimsy camping equipment, hiking boots, and send into the wilderness into a group of teenagers struggling with a wide range of issues. For the first few days at “camp,” they are in what’s known as “Earth phase.” There are four phases, one for each element. In Earth phase, the teens are given a notebook or packet and told to reflect on their choices and what lead them to the program. While in this phase they are not allowed to speak, and fellow group members are not allowed to speak to them.

These so-called therapeutic practices may seem ruthless, but they are only the beginning of the harsh reality many children face, even today. Now these victims are speaking up on social media.

Sophie Harned, a young adult who posts on TikTok under the account name @futuretripping, said she was forcefully put in the Blue Ridge Therapeutic wilderness when she was fourteen. She explained in a video that “there would be times we got our drinking water out of literal puddles.”

Another survivor, Kendee, who posts TikToks under the account name @www.Kendee.com, recalled the horrifying experience she endured in a letter which she sent home to her parents. “This past week I’ve been getting eaten alive by gnats. I have about 50 different bites on my face and ears, and neck and a trillion more on the rest of my body. I have a bunch of bites on my waterline. I woke up this morning with my eye swollen shut.”

She then went on to explain that “we didn’t have bug spray, we weren’t allowed … so we ended up scratching our skin raw.”

Survivors often post videos under the hashtag #breakingcodesilence, which refers to breaking the silence and social isolation often used as a punishment. Searching this hashtag on any social media platform yields hundreds of heartbreaking accounts from hundreds of teenagers.

Joe Katz, a Williston Counselor, spoke about the methods implemented in order to “help” teenagers in these programs. The code of silence, he explained, is harmful to anyone, of any age.

“One of the big things that I try to focus on in my practice is having people become more comfortable expressing themselves, and learning how to use their voice, notice their emotions, and be able to effectively communicate them,” said Katz. “One of the challenges to being a little more mentally healthy is being able to express ourselves in ways that are rewarding, or align with our own beliefs.”

Many wilderness and therapeutic programs are focused on the “break you down to build you back up” philosophy, which, in Katz’ experience, doesn’t work

“I think you can build someone up by being supportive and nurturing,” he explained “Think about a garden, I’m not going to go out and yell at my tomato plants and tear them out of the ground when I want them to grow, I’m going to care for them and give them what they need in order to grow and thrive.”