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New York Times Underplays Boot Camp Abuse, Lack of Success
August 17, 2005
Maia Szalavitz
Story examines "promising business opportunity."

The New York Times weighs in on the business side of residential programs for troubled teenagers (8/17/05) today, looking at how they have become highly attractive to investors.

But the paper of record takes a curious perspective on these programs—claiming, with no evidence whatsoever, that today’s centers are not the “tough boot camps” of the past and that they “combine therapy and education” often in an outdoor setting.

In fact, the largest player in the industry, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), provides no therapy at all in its basic programs and there are no educational requirements at all for the staff who lead the “groups” where teens discuss their emotional problems. The program relies on the intense confrontation and strict punishment that are the hallmarks of the “tough love” approach.

The Times played down abuse allegations (and confirmed cases) which have long plagued the industry, quoting unnamed “officials at several companies” who blamed the incidents on “a handful of less reputable programs.” That “handful,” however, is made up of some of the biggest organizations in the industry.

WWASP, for example, which currently holds some 2,500 teens in its American and foreign programs, has been dogged by numerous claims of abuse. Its New York facility is currently being investigated by New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer. The group has had no less than nine affiliates shut down following abuse reports and/or government investigations— Mexico alone has shuttered three of them.

The Times reports that the CEDU chain of schools, again, a large industry player which uses tough confrontation, is a takeover target and that it closed down recently because of lawsuits filed by former students. But the article didn’t note that those lawsuits were related to abuse. The Times also mentions the Provo Canyon School, but didn’t report that it was the loser in a Supreme Court case in which it was charged with abuse and is the subject of an internet campaign to shut it down for abuse.

Even weirder, the Times mentions the ABC reality series “Brat Camp” as a possible source of increased recruitment for the programs (even as it is calling them “feel good” not “tough love”). But it fails to note that two of the nine participants were arrested following their “treatment” before the series even finished airing. That wouldn’t seem to be the greatest advertisement.

What’s most curious, however, is that while the story says that the, “the programs acknowledge that their type of therapy does not work for all teenagers,” and that parents often can’t tell whether the programs worked or their child just grew up, it does not question whether there is any scientific evidence regarding the efficacy of such facilities.

Existing already data shows that tough tactics do not reform troubled teens and that grouping delinquent teens together is likely to make their problems worse, not better—whether the programs are labeled “therapy” or “boot camp.” An NIH consensus statement on the state of the science said that “boot camps, and other “get tough” programs often exacerbate problems,” rather than helping teens.

Researchers who have studied teen treatment universally say that residential care should only be used as an absolute last resort—and that usually, even the most troubled teens can be safely (and more effectively) treated at home.

The article notes that teen programs “fall through the regulatory cracks” and that they are rarely covered by insurance. This makes them attractive to investors because changes in coverage won’t wipe them out—as happened to earlier rehabs when managed care hit.

That may be good for business. However, the Times shouldn’t downplay the industry’s long history of abuse, its complete lack of evidence for effectiveness, and the potential for such investors to lose big when those things finally come to light.

[Note: Maia Szalavitz is the author of the forthcoming Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids,Riverhead, Feb 06].