Boot Camps for Wayward Youths Offer Hope, Help, Hell

Date: 1999-06-13

Rehab: Teen Help oversees seven strict, spartan residential programs that some call lifesavers. Others say they use abuse and brainwashing to mold 'Stepford children.'

Michelle Ray Ortiz
The Associated Press

Ensenada, Mexico -- The 130 residents of the converted beach-side motel are mostly teenage and mostly American, but you wouldn't know it by listening: No shouts, no stereos. Just the rhythmic crash of surf.

Under strict order, the youths at Casa by the Sea go about their day's routine of quiet exercise, study, chores and, when approved, group discussion.

Not long ago, before their arrival, their days were spent in a dark, defiant cycle of drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior, many of the teenagers say.

Those who have been in the program long enough to be allowed to speak to outsiders claim a commitment to turning their lives around, to positive and constructive action. Their families often express joy and relief.

But the methods used to achieve that conversion are criticized by some former participants in the program and by some families who say it involves coercion, brainwashing and, in some cases, physical abuse.

Youth Says Casa Worked for Him

A high wall separates Casa from the coastal highway, and a cliff separates it from the Pacific Ocean.

Justin Bell stands atop the cliff and looks out. In nine days, the slender, clean-cut 18-year-old will go home to Midland, Texas, the place where he once struggled with depression.

Many residents are barred from speaking with outsiders, but school officials are allowing Justin to tell his story.

One evening last year, he says, he went out of control in his backyard, ranting and waving a metal pipe at anyone who approached. Psychiatric treatment had failed to prevent the breakdown.

His parents, at wits' end, decided on a drastic alternative. Four days after the episode, strangers walked into Justin's bedroom, woke him and whisked him off into the night.

Hired by his parents, the "escorts" drove Justin to an airport and took him to Jamaica, to a school called Tranquillity Bay, a sister school to Casa by the Sea.

Eight months of living under a strict code of behavior, and in spartan conditions, taught him a lot, Justin says: to value himself and his family, to take control of his future. In three additional months at Casa, he has prepared to return home, go to college and join the everyday world.

He credits the program not just with turning his life around, but with saving it.

"If I hadn't gone into the program I'd be dead right now, because I would have killed myself," Justin says. "To anybody who says the program is inhumane or doesn't work, I say, 'Hey, I'm alive.' That's all I care about."

"Desperate situations need desperate solutions," he adds.

Drastic Approach Used

That could be the motto for the World Wide Assn. of Specialty Schools, a nonprofit group in LaVerkin, Utah, also known as Teen Help. It oversees seven rehabilitation programs, including Casa and Tranquillity Bay, with a total enrollment of 950 youths ages 12 to 18. Their families pay between $1,990 and $3,490 a month.

The program employs a kind of boot-camp method of "behavior modification" that includes spare living conditions, a strict code of conduct and swift punishment for violating that code. The drastic approach has not been accepted by everyone.

Two associated schools, in Cancun, Mexico, and in the Czech Republic, have been shut down by authorities amid allegations of abuse. Some parents, believing their children were treated too harshly and subjected to unsafe and unhealthy living conditions, are denouncing the program.

In May 1996, Mexican authorities conducting an inspection of the Cancun school, called Sunrise Beach, found 41 girls who lacked proper immigration papers. Most were American.

They also found a 3-by-5 1/2-foot isolation room where girls said they were held for rule violations.

Investigators accused the school's directors, Steve and Glenda Roach, of illegal deprivation of liberty and operating a youth shelter without proper permits. The St. George, Utah, couple was ordered to report regularly to authorities. Instead, they fled Mexico.

Czech police found the Roaches last November at Morava Academy, a Teen Help school where employees reported that children were harshly treated--isolated, tied up and kept from using the toilet.

The Roaches were charged in the Czech Republic with cruelty to people in their custody and curtailing students' freedom of movement. They face up to eight years in prison if convicted.

Glenda Roach left the country under a medical waiver. Czech officials say her husband apparently skipped bail and could face an international warrant.

The Roaches could not be located for comment. Karr Farnsworth, president of the World Wide Assn. of Specialty Schools, said the Roaches no longer work with the program.

Farnsworth denied any wrongdoing at either school, saying authorities "overreacted" and chose to listen to children who were trying to "manipulate" their way home rather than to those who were happy.

"We have nothing to hide," he said. "Parents are . . . very much in support."

A Mother Is Shocked by Conditions

Some parents, however, have strong criticism for the program. Donna Burke, a Houston real estate agent, said her two teenage sons were mistreated at Tranquillity Bay's $30,000-a-year program and turned into "Stepford children."

Burke's ex-husband had their 13-year-old son, Scott, taken away because he was smoking marijuana and sneaking out at night in her car, she said. Later, Scott's elder brother, David, also was sent to Tranquillity Bay.

Burke said the Teen Help videotape showed tropical scenery and happy teens. She recalled thinking: "This looks like Club Med."

When a letter from Scott arrived, complaining of harsh treatment and poor living conditions, Burke called Teen Help officials and was told to ignore it. It was common for defiant children to try to manipulate their parents' feelings, they told her.

But Burke eventually went to investigate, and was shocked by her boys' appearance. They were thin, and there was "terror in their faces," she said.

"Somehow the vegetation and the water can camouflage that it's really a prison," she said. "There was a 10-foot fence around. The kids were washing their clothes in a bucket. There were more than 100 kids, and it was totally silent."

She said her sons displayed ringworm scars and chemical burns suffered while mixing cleaning solutions for their janitorial chores. They showed her plywood beds where they slept on soiled mattresses, and they had no soap, no toilet paper, no fans, no hot water.

She fought to have them returned home, and they finally were, in late 1998. Burke's boys have been reluctant to speak about their experience. They are, however, perfectly behaved.

"There's no lip, no back talk, no arguing," she said. "All of those things are nice, but I want normal kids. I don't want my kids doing drugs, but I don't want robots. I got back two strangers."

Burke's ex-husband, Stoney Burke, said he didn't want to discuss his sons' experience.

High-Pressure Sales Tactics

Dace Goulding, Casa by the Sea's director, says Teen Help combines a strict code of behavior and social structure with group sessions where young people learn to look at how they behaved in the past and to plan a different approach for the future.

New arrivals find every minute structured. They wear uniforms and cannot speak out of turn. They earn liberties by improving behavior and attitude, spending on average one year to climb the program's six levels.

Escorting a visiting journalist, Goulding passes down a hallway where girls in green sweatsuits wait for lunch, lined up with their foreheads pressed to the walls. They are lower-level students, so they cannot make eye contact with the opposite sex, he explains.

Minor violations can result in a "self-correction form" where students come up with a way to avoid such mistakes in the future. Serious trouble, such as smoking, running away or a self-inflicted injury, can cause a student to drop a level, pay a fine from parents' weekly allowance or be tested on assigned motivational or educational tapes.

Sometimes kids are sent to "time-out" rooms, where they do nothing, said Farnsworth, the association president. The length of the time-out typically is short--part of a day. But there have been teens who spend a week, with breaks for meals and sleeping, he said.

In the group seminars, teenagers work on issues such as "trust, choices, responsibility, anger and especially self-esteem," according to program literature. Details of the seminars are confidential.

Karen Lile of Clayton, Calif., pulled her daughter out of Tranquillity Bay after attending part of a weekend seminar that Teen Help holds for parents. She was disturbed that the speaker bullied the parents to divulge their "deepest, darkest secret" to strangers, she said.

"They used intimidation, humiliation, verbal abuse, peer pressure and psychologically dangerous techniques to persuade us to accept something we did not want to accept," Lile said.

She also felt she had been pushed to sell the program to other parents, with a credit of one month's tuition for every teen she recruited. "It was about the most heavy-handed, high-pressure sales tactic I've been through," she said. She recruited three teens.

Methods used in the Teen Help seminars are based on those of the "human potential movement" that was widely popular in the 1960s and '70s, said Janice Haaken, a psychology professor at Portland State University. She said they also are similar to those used by the military, mental hospitals and other institutions "aimed at bringing people's behavior under control."

New participants are put in a strict environment under the leadership of an authority figure who "appears to have total control," she said. Rewarded for cooperation, "eventually you begin to concede that control."

For a teen in emotional crisis, such leaders can become very attractive, she said.

But there can be "a high risk of abuse of power," Haaken said, because the program operates with only minimal regulation. The seminars are run by facilitators who are not required to be trained therapists and by teens in the programs' upper levels.

Haaken said the program's reliance on strong authority may not give adolescents enough opportunity to test their own judgment for the real world. Burke, the Houston mother, agreed.

"What does this do to them, to be snatched from their homes at midnight, put in handcuffs as their parents watch, then to have their letters ignored?" she said. "I don't know if my children will ever trust any professional, if they will ever trust me or their dad."

Farnsworth stands by Teen Help. He points to an association survey of families who completed the program between 1996 and 1998, which he says found 95% of parents pleased with the seminars and 84% happy with their child's progress.

No independent studies are available. As critics note, no agency regulates the schools because they do not receive public money and can operate without medical or educational licensing. Casa, like most other Teen Help programs, has no licensed therapists on staff.

Farnsworth said licensed therapists are not used because the seminars are not intended as "therapeutic therapy sessions."

When asked about Casa by the Sea, Mexican educational and health regulators for Baja California state had never heard of it, but the program is educationally accredited in the United States.

Tom Burton, a California lawyer who has filed three lawsuits against Teen Help, said the schools are profiting off parents and deceiving them into thinking they are paying for top-quality therapy. "For that kind of money you could have disciples of Freud," he said.

Farnsworth said the cost is comparable to other teen programs and cheaper than traditional boarding schools.

Colette Netwig, a 17-year-old from Chicago, will be leaving Casa in nine days. The energetic blond gets testy when asked about criticism of the program. She shows off photos of what she once looked like: a dark-haired wannabe gangster smoking pot and drinking every day.

"Man, you can point out everything negative about anything," she says. "But talk to me, and I've changed my life. Talk to me, and I've got a relationship with my parents. I'm headed somewhere in my life."

The program can be rough, she says, but "when you come to the program a little punk, a little smarty know-it-all, you need someone to smack you in the face and say: 'The world does not revolve around you.'

"Other kids sharing lunch with Casa director Goulding nod in agreement. (Other teens in the program were not made available for interviews, and Goulding limited access to Casa's facilities, saying he didn't want to disrupt activities.)

Lile said the program's strict, one-size-fits-all approach can hurt teens who may be less emotionally stable. For her daughter, now 17, it has been "very difficult for her to deal with the fact that we sent her."

"The thing that galls me the most is I sent my child to this program and paid for this to happen," she said. "There are other parents who say: 'Well, if that's what it took to turn my kid around, I don't care.' But that's not how we feel."

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