Why you should care
Boot camps for troubled teens are flourishing despite their terrible reputation.
At Mesabi Academy in Buhl, Minnesota, former inmates say boys were forced by employees to battle in a so-called Fight Club — but only in rooms without security cameras. Other children were allegedly sexually abused by staffers. Between 2009 and its closure in 2016, Mesabi generated 64 complaints about conditions and treatment, far more than any of the other 60-plus juvenile facilities overseen by the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Mesabi Academy was owned and operated by the Pennsylvania based nonprofit KidsPeace. In addition to Mesabi, KidsPeace owns and operates a collection of behavioral health centers and foster programs across the country, including residential treatment centers like Mesabi in Georgia, Maine and Pennsylvania. And while KidsPeace Director of Communications Robert Martin told OZY that allegations against the facility were investigated and no maltreatment was found, attorney Jacob Reitan — who is representing 17 plaintiffs, some as young as 12, in a suit against Mesabi — says exactly the opposite is true. The report itself has not been made public.
The report, according to Reitan, outlines numerous allegations about the use of solitary confinement, assault on minors and reports of staff members using racist language to describe children at the program. But that’s not unusual in these centers: There have been allegations of abuse against residential treatment facilities in 28 of the 30 states that have them, and despite attempts to regulate the industry, it’s still growing.
The number of teen residential treatment centers has grown 23 percent since 2017.
There are currently 185 such programs for teens across the country, according to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, including “tough love” boot camps, wilderness programs, drug rehab facilities, detention centers and therapeutic schools. In 2017, there were 150.
While 27 such facilities have closed in the last two decades, that can be a deceptive figure. Several programs have even claimed they’ve closed when they really just transferred ownership and changed their name. After several allegations of abuse, Island View in Utah closed and reopened as Elevations RTC: the same school with the same students, just under different management. Nearly 80 percent of the staff stayed the same.
Watchdog group the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) found that many such programs don’t need state licensing or the monitoring accorded to traditional mental health care. Instead, parents get information produced by the houses themselves as marketing material.
One former attendee of SUWS Wilderness Program in Idaho, who wished only to be identified by his first initial, C, says his family was duped by misleading marketing practices. When he was 13, he was struggling with depression. He says his mother, who took out loans to afford the program, thought that some time outdoors would help him de-stress — and he only learned the brutal nature of the month-long wilderness program she signed him up for when he was strip searched on arrival. During his time there he says he had the opportunity to bathe only twice and was forced into isolation against his will for more than a day.
Leona Levine, whose son Nick attended the facility Casa by the Sea operated by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, says she also fell for deceptive marketing tactics. “I was always skeptical when people fell for things by being brainwashed, but now I know that if they get you in the right time of your life, they can make you believe just about anything. I look back and wonder how I could have been so foolish,” Leona says.
Once she was hooked, she lost a lot of rights as a parent. According to Leona, Nick’s group leader recommended a specific High Impact program — and though she vetoed it, they put her son on that track anyway. She says the program lied to her during their weekly calls.
According to Leona, once in High Impact, Nick was forced to sleep in cages and the kids he was with sometimes had to make their own fire or — if they were unable to do so — eat raw chicken or go hungry.
This is far from unusual and fairly common across this industry, says Allen Knoll, who attended Bethel Boys Academy in Mississippi while a tween and is working on a documentary on the troubled teen industry. “I experienced all kinds of crazy brutality when I was there,” he says. “I was held down and had buckets of water poured all over my face. I was essentially waterboarded. I have had pit bulls forced on me. I was forced to hold on to electric fences.”
The school changed its name multiple times but was allowed to stay open despite lawsuits and accusations of torture. William Knott, who was in charge of discipline at the camp, went on to manage Restoration Youth Academy in Alabama, which was the subject of a 2017 Newsweek exposé calling it “Alabama’s Most Sadistic Christian Bootcamp.” He’s now serving a 20-year sentence for child abuse.
A KidsPeace facility in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has also been used as part of the federal government’s controversial family-separation policy. Within the last year the center has held immigrant children, though it hasn’t been disclosed how many. Between February 2013 and May 2018, 18 incidents of physical maltreatment and seven of staff sexual assault on children were reported at the Bethlehem KidsPeace facility, which is still open.
There have been promising developments in recent years. In 2017, the Alabama state legislature passed a comprehensive law requiring facilities to have trained medical staff and giving police and state officials the right to visit and inspect a property at any time within normal business hours. Children also have the right to have an unmonitored phone call with their parents.
The law could set a national precedent — but some efforts have been less successful. In 2015 and again in 2017, Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, introduced the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act after a student died at a center in his district. It never made it out of committee.