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Troubled teen industry

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The troubled teen industry (also known as TTI) is a broad range of youth residential programs aimed at struggling teenagers. The term encompasses various facilities and programs, including youth residential treatment centers, wilderness programs, boot camps, and therapeutic boarding schools.[1][2]

These programs claim to rehabilitate and teach troubled teenagers through various practices. Troubled teen facilities are privately run, and the troubled teen industry constitutes a multi-billion dollar industry.[3] They accept young people who are considered to have struggles with learning disabilities, emotional regulation, mental illness, and substance abuse. Young people may be labeled as "troubled teens", delinquents, or other language on their websites and other advertising materials. Sometimes, these therapies are used as a punishment for contravening family expectations.[4] For example, one person was placed in a troubled teen program because her mother found her choice in boyfriends unacceptable.[5]

The troubled teen industry has encountered many scandals due to child abuse, institutional corruption, and deaths, and is highly controversial.[6][7] Many critics of these facilities point to a lack of local, state, and federal laws in the United States and elsewhere governing them.[8] Some countries, such as Bermuda, have been known to send teenagers to programs located in the United States.[9] In addition to their controversial therapeutic practices, many former residents report being forcibly transported to troubled teen facilities by teen escort companies, a practice dubbed "gooning".[10]


The troubled teen industry has a precursor in the drug rehabilitation program called Synanon, founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich.[11] By the late 1970s, Synanon had developed into a cult and adopted a resolution proclaiming the Synanon Religion, with Dederich as the highest spiritual authority, allowing the organization to qualify as tax-exempt under US law. Synanon rejected the use of medication for drug rehabilitation, and instead relied on the "Synanon Game", group sessions of attack therapy where members were encouraged to criticize and humiliate each other.[12][13] Synanon popularized "tough love" attack therapy as a treatment for addiction, and the idea that confrontation and verbal condemnation could cure adolescent misbehavior. Synanon disbanded in 1991, after its tax-exempt status was revoked by the IRS and it was bankrupted by having to pay US$17 million in back taxes.[14]

A large and elegant pink-and-tan building with several archways and two large wings on either side.
The historic Hotel Casa del Mar functioned as the Synanon headquarters beginning in 1967.

Synanon's techniques were highly influential and inspired human potential self-help organizations such as Erhard Seminars Training (est) and Lifespring.[11]

Synanon-style therapy was also used in Straight, Incorporated and The Seed, two drug rehabilitation programs for youth.[15]: 8 

Former Synanon member Mel Wasserman founded CEDU Educational Services in 1967, a company which operated within the troubled teens industry. CEDU owned several for-profit therapeutic boarding schools, group homes, and behavior modification programs. The techniques used by CEDU schools were derived from Synanon's; for example, long, confrontational large-group sessions called "Propheets" took cues from the Synanon Game.[15]: 122 [16] CEDU went out of business in 2005, amid lawsuits and state regulatory crackdowns.[16][17]

Joseph "Joe" Ricci, a dropout from a direct Synanon-descendent program, founded a therapeutic boarding school called Élan School in 1970.[15]: 122 [18] Élan closed down in 2011 amid persistent allegations of abuse.[19]

Synanon's techniques also inspired the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), an umbrella organization of facilities meant for rehabilitating troubled teenagers.[15]: 132–133  WWASP is no longer in business, due to widespread allegations of physical and psychological abuse.[20] Many WWASP programs were shut down by the Costa Rican,[21] Jamaican, and Mexican governments[22] after investigations into allegations of abuse.


Troubled teen programs have been criticized for failing to offer evidence-based therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy or trauma- and violence-informed care.[8] Many or most troubled teen programs share a common lineage descending from Synanon, and use some form of "the game," a group attack therapy session. Additionally, some TTI programs use a form of primal therapy, a discredited form of therapy which involves reenacting traumatic and painful moments such as rape.[23]

Many practices used in troubled teen programs, especially punishments, have been singled out as constituting child abuse or neglect. These include but are not limited to: restricting communication with family and peers; use of physical and chemical restraint (i.e., in the form of sedative drugs); use of seclusion as punishment; gay conversion therapy; excessive use of strip search and cavity search; denial of sleep and nutrition; aversion therapy; etc.[23]

In 2007, the Government Accountability Office published a study verifying thousands of reports of abuse and death in TTI facilities dating back to 1990.[8][24][25] The National Disability Rights Network published a report in 2021 reporting common issues at troubled teen facilities including the aforementioned forms of abuse as well as chronic staffing shortages, deprivation of education, and unhygienic and unsafe facility conditions.[26]


Many troubled teen institutions offer youth transportation through teen escort companies, in which minors are transported to their facilities against their will. Parents who sign their children up for troubled teen camps will sign over temporary custody to the teen escort company.[27] This transportation is a service offered in the United States and elsewhere, and is a practice that has been criticized on ethical and legal grounds as being akin to kidnapping.[28] Some of the subjects report not realizing they were transported with permission of their parents until days afterward.[29][2][30] Clients have reported being ambushed in their own beds at home, or tricked into believing they are going elsewhere.[31] Those who have been in the troubled teen industry call this process "gooning".[32] There have been incidents where transportation staff have impersonated government officials.[33] Former clients of troubled teen programs have made efforts to pursue legal recourse through civil lawsuits targeting both parents and the companies associated with these programs.[34]


False imprisonment[edit]

19-year-old Fred Collins Jr. found himself falsely imprisoned by Straight Inc., after initially visiting a family member who was enrolled in the program by his parents.[35] Upon arrival, he was kept in a windowless room for six-and-a-half hours, and the staff refused to let him leave until he agreed to enroll into the program.[36] At one New Mexico program, Tierra Blanca Ranch, the authorities found that the adolescent clients had been shackled and handcuffed.[37]

Forced labor[edit]

Numerous troubled teen programs have been reported to engage in the practice of compelled labor, wherein program participants are required to perform physically demanding tasks such as wood chopping and horse manure shoveling.[38][39][40]


Elizabeth Zasso was an emancipated minor living in the state of New York who was illegally kidnapped by a teen escort company hired by her parents and taken to the state Utah where she was enrolled in a wilderness therapy program called the Challenger Foundation.[41] It was ruled that the Challenger Foundation had violated her constitutional rights.[42]

Stress positions[edit]

In certain instances, troubled teen programs have employed a torture technique known as "stress positions" as a form of discipline against their clients.[43]

Strip searches[edit]

Many troubled teen programs conduct forced strip searches against the will of adolescent clients.[44][45]

Solitary confinement[edit]

Numerous troubled teen programs, including the well-known Provo Canyon School, have faced allegations of employing solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure. Solitary confinement is a controversial practice that involves isolating individuals from social contact and is the subject of extensive debate regarding its ethical and psychological implications. Additionally, the now-defunct program known as Tranquility Bay, located in Jamaica, has also been reported to have utilized solitary confinement as part of its disciplinary methods. This practice has garnered considerable attention and criticism from various quarters.[46]

Psychological abuse[edit]

Numerous reports have surfaced, documenting instances of psychological abuse inflicted upon clients within troubled teen programs. One particularly disturbing example of such abuse involves mock executions, wherein students were coerced into digging their own graves as part of a psychologically distressing exercise. These allegations highlight the gravity of ethical concerns within these programs and have sparked significant scrutiny and criticism from various outlets.[47]

Regulatory laws[edit]

Utah, California, Oregon, Montana, and Missouri have all enacted laws aimed at increasing oversight of troubled teen facilities. Utah's law was proposed in 2021 after noted celebrity Paris Hilton came out with her story about her experience at Provo Canyon School. Hilton's testimony triggered a state investigation into the facility, and she later advocated for the law when it was in the process of being passed.[48]

In the United States Congress, bills were proposed to regulate troubled teen facilities every year from 2007 to 2018.[48] In 2021, the Stronger Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was passed by the House of Representatives. As of May 2024, it has not been passed by the Senate.

Legal history[edit]

On June 27, 1990, Kirsten Chase died from heatstroke whilst enrolled at the Challenger Foundation, a Wilderness Therapy program located in Kane County, Utah. The county's district attorney charged the owner of the program, Steve Cartisano, with nine counts of child abuse and one count of negligent homicide.[49] Lance Jagger was also charged with negligent homicide and child abuse, but the charges were dropped after he agreed to testify against Cartisano.[50] A jury acquitted Steve Cartisano on all charges.[51]

On January 15, 1995, Aaron Bacon died from acute peritonitis while attending the North Star Wilderness Program in Utah.[52] Nine staff members, including company co-founder Lance Jagger, were charged with abuse and neglect.[53] Lance Jagger, William Henry, and Georgette Costigan pled guilty to negligent homicide.[54] Craig Fisher was found guilty of third-degree felony abuse or neglect of a disabled child.[55]

On March 2, 1998, Nicholaus Contreraz died from complications due to an infection. Among his symptoms were chronic urinary and fecal incontinence, for which staff would force him to eat meals on the toilet and sleep in his soiled underwear as punishment. The autopsy revealed Contreraz had died from empyema with a partial collapse of his left lung.[56] He had also contracted strep and staph infections with pneumonia and chronic bronchitis, and the coroner also discovered 71 cuts and bruises.[57] During the investigation by the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, it was found that Nicholaus had been cleared for physical training activities by staff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation opened an investigation into civil rights violations at the location on a broader scale.[58] The California Social Services Department investigation found widespread excessive use of physical restraint and hands-on confrontations by staff members.[59]


  • 1967: CEDU High School is founded by Mel Wasserman, a former Synanon member, in Running Springs, California.[60]
  • May 30, 1970: The Élan School is founded by Joe Ricci, a former resident of Daytop Village, in Naples, Maine.[61][62]
  • February 16, 1982: Nancy Reagan visits Straight, Inc. in Florida.[63]
  • December 27, 1982: Philip Williams Jr. dies in Elan School boxing ring.[64]
  • May 26, 1983: A federal jury awards a Straight, Inc. patient $220,000 after finding said patient to have been falsely imprisoned by the foundation.[35]
  • November 11, 1985: Princess Diana and Nancy Reagan visit Straight, Inc.[65]
  • 1987: Scientology's troubled teen program Mace-Kingsley Ranch School opens in California.[66]
  • January 15, 1995: Aaron Bacon dies from acute peritonitis while attending the North Star Wilderness Program in Utah.[52]
  • December 21, 1996: Craig Fisher is sentenced over his role in Aaron Bacon's death.[55]
  • 1998: Robert Lichfield creates the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools.[67]
  • 1999: National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs is founded.[68][69]
  • February 2001: 14-year-old Ryan Lewis commits suicide while enrolled at Alldredge Academy in West Virginia.[70][71]
  • July 2001: 14-year-old Tony Haynes is forced to eat dirt and dies at a desert boot camp for teenagers.[72][73]
  • July 15, 2002: Ian August dies from heat exhaustion while attending the Skyline Journey Wilderness Program in Utah.[74] The Utah Department of Human Service revoked Skyline Journey's state license on the 25 October 2002.[75]
  • December 25, 2002: 17-year-old Kiley Jaquays falls to her death while visiting the Bloomington Caves in Utah with her residential treatment center, Integrity House.[76]
  • May 23, 2003: Costa Rican government officials shut down the Academy at Dundee Ranch, a behavior modification program run by the US-based company World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools.[77]
  • February 8, 2004: 16-year-old Daniel Yuen goes missing from CEDU High School in California.[78]
  • October 2004: Karlye Newman dies by suicide at Spring Creek Lodge Academy.[79]
  • 2006: Yang Yongxin establishes an "Internet-addiction camp" inside the Fourth Hospital of Linyi in China and begins practicing electroconvulsive therapy.
  • August 28, 2009: Sergey Blashchishen dies from heat exhaustion during a hike whilst attending Sage Walk, a wilderness therapy program operated by Aspen Education Group.[80]
  • February 8, 2013: The hacking collective group Anonymous launches #OpTTIabuse, a campaign against the troubled teen industry.[81]
  • November 2015: Ten teenagers are arrested after a riot at Copper Hills Youth Center in Utah.[82]
  • February 2017: 16-year-old Ben Jackson dies by suicide at Montana Academy.[83]
  • July 10, 2019: Red Rock Canyon School in Utah closes after a riot breaks out in April 2019.[84]
  • April 2020: 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks dies while being restrained at youth program in Michigan.[85]
  • October 9, 2020: American socialite Paris Hilton and other former residents of Provo Canyon School lead a silent protest against the school in Provo, Utah.[86]
  • August 31, 2022: Agape Baptist Academy is served an indictment for transporting a California teenager and violating a protection order.[87]
  • January 11, 2023: Agape Baptist Academy announces plans for permanent closure.[88]
  • February 3, 2024: A 12-year old boy dies after one night at Trails Carolina wilderness program.[89]
  • February 2024: All children are removed from Trails Carolina pending manslaughter investigation.[89]
  • February 15, 2024: Open Sky Wilderness closes after years of controversy surrounding the effectiveness of wilderness therapy programs.[90]
  • June 24, 2024: The autopsy report for the boy who died at Trails Carolina is released. The cause of death is determined to have been asphyxia caused by smothering, and the manner of death is determined to have been homicide.[91]



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Further reading[edit]