There is a troubled teen industry out there—boarding schools, outdoor programs, and “boot camps” that are not licensed, not certified, and not experienced with youth with disorders. Maybe you’ve seen the ads that promise to improve your teen’s behavior in the back of some magazines. They promise that their program will “fix” your child. They promise that your teen will learn important lessons about respect and about following your rules. There are quotes from satisfied parents about how the program saved their teen’s life, but you can’t contact them. The ads claim that staff are highly trained, strict, and caring. The location is usually too far to check out easily, an airline flight away from home, often in a rural area. The cost is outlandish. To help with payment, the program provides financial advice to parents about getting loans and 2nd mortgages.
It’s a red flag if they >promise< to ‘fix’ your child.
You’re a desperate parent and you’ll do anything you can to stop the craziness and get a break. You tell yourself it must be a nice place, especially if it advertises a religious approach*, even though you haven’t seen it in person. The representative on the phone seems to know exactly how you feel and what your teen needs. If you’re desperate, you may not think to ask if the organization is a legitimate behavioral health treatment facility. Many are not!
*Claiming a religious affiliation is no guarantee of a genuine, effective faith-based program.
What to ask:
What is the training and licensure of staff? You want to know if they have therapists with MSW degrees, registered nurses, psychiatrists or doctors, and if a professional is available on site 24/7. Mental health programs are about treatment and stability through medication or therapy, and positive activities with lots of emotional support. Safety must be paramount. Staff must be aware of the types of things that can go wrong and how crises should be handled.
Does the camp or school have a business license in their state? Are staff licensed to practice behavioral health? Do they have grievance procedures?
Is the camp or school accredited as a treatment facility, and by whom? Does it have mental health agency oversight? Are emergency services (hospital, law enforcement) a phone call away? If your child’s mental health is a concern, read “What to know about psychiatric residential treatment.”
Can you call and talk to your child when you request? Can you visit? Can your child call you when they request it? Some of these programs limit or disallow parental contact. Why? According to a testimonial at a children’s mental health conference, a young man was used as slave labor at a camp. The staff kept communicating to his mother that he was misbehaving, that he hated her and didn’t want to talk, and that they recommended he stay another 6 months. In this way, they drew out his stay for 3 years.
I’ve heard personal testimony from parents and troubled young people whose condition was worsened by the camp or school, or who felt betrayed by their families. On rare occasions, children have died at the hands of young, untrained staff who thought they were just disciplining the child. Other stories included teens being offered drugs by staff or other campers, or sexual relationships with staff or campers.
Check out the article below. The problems in the “troubled teen industry” are significant enough such that an advocacy group has formed to change state laws to protect youth.
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Unlicensed residential programs: The next challenge in protecting youth. –excerpt-
By Friedman, Robert M.; Pinto, Allison; Behar, Lenore; Bush, Nicki; Chirolla, Amberly; Epstein, Monica; Green, Amy; Hawkins, Pamela; Huff, Barbara; Huffine, Charles; Mohr, Wanda; Seltzer, Tammy; Vaughn, Christine; Whitehead, Kathryn; Young, Christina Kloker
American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Vol 76(3), Jul 2006, 295-303.
According to this article, many private residential facilities are neither licensed as mental health programs nor accredited by respected national accrediting organizations. The Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment (A START) is a multi-disciplinary group of mental health professionals and advocates that formed in response to rising concerns about reports from youth, families, and journalists describing mistreatment in the unregulated programs. There is a range of mistreatment and abuse experienced by youth and families, including harsh discipline, inappropriate seclusion and restraint, substandard psychotherapeutic interventions, medical and nutritional neglect, rights violations and death.