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The Trouble with the Troubled Teen Industry

By Dr. Megan Ross

Path’s Mission 

We are on a mission at Path, one built on the abolitionist dream of a world where children are not put in cages and told they are the problem. Our mission is to stop institutional child abuse in Canada through civil litigation with survivors of the troubled teen industry; to build towards a society where youth are respected and supported within their communities to flourish. 

Overview of Canadian Troubled Teen Industry 

There is a thriving Troubled Teen Industry in Canada with thousands of children- often ripped out of their beds in the middle of the night by strangers- and sent against their will to private facilities. These facilities have several different names- boot camps, behaviour modification facilities, wilderness therapy, gay conversion- but they are all marketed to parents who feel like they need to change their child’s behaviour and are known collectively as the Troubled Teen Industry National Youth Rights Association. Because the industry is so diffuse and unregulated in Canada, it is difficult to estimate annual revenue. Organizations in the United States have estimated that the annual revenue of the Troubled Teen Industry is 1.2 billion. 

The services claim to fix anything the parent thinks is a problem; being disrespectful, staying out late, drug use, entitlement, or playing too many video games can all fall under this category. The diagnosis method is often a brief online questionnaire that is almost guaranteed to yield a disorder. If the parents decide to heed the program’s advice, their children are trapped in highly unregulated and often secludedcamps with no means of defense or outside contact. National Youth Rights Association 

“Therapeutic” methods 

Programs for troubled teens market themselves to parents, therapists, government, and judicial agencies as providers of therapeutic treatment. Instead of delivering evidence-based treatment, many of these programs deliver a myriad of maltreatments, such as physical, verbal, and sexual abuse; isolation; forced hard labour; chemical sedation; food and sleep deprivation; and humiliation. Unsilenced, the Voice of Troubled Youth 

In more extreme cases young people have experienced solitary confinement, strip searches, and death. A recorded 350 youth have died in these facilities in the United States. Unsilenced, the Voice of Troubled Youth No records are kept for the deaths in Canadian programs since so many are completely unregulated.  

Harms of Institutionalization 

Putting a child in an institution causes them harm. Every one of these programs deny young people any say in whether they get to participate. They lose autonomy, cannot report abuse, or leave the facility. These youth become completely isolated from their family and friends. The people who work with them often treat healthy and normal behaviour as a problem and fail to understand the importance of consent in the treatment. National Youth Rights Association The research is clear: forcing young people out of their communities and labelling them as the problem, while placing them in institutions with other youth who are struggling and calling it treatment does not work. Unsilenced, the Voice of Troubled Youth 

Growing Survivors Movement 

There is a growing movement of people who have survived these teen programs and are now speaking out about them. Organizations like Unsilenced and the National Youth Rights Association are organizing survivors in the United States. In Canada, there are countless online support groups for people who have left these programs with complex trauma and in need of community and support. There is growing urgency, particularly in Alberta, for children’s rights and bodily autonomy to be respected. The survivor’s movement is speaking out against the troubled teen industry and in doing so, they are carrying out critically important human rights work for children. These young people are demanding that the rights of children be taken seriously. This is imperative during an era of increasing government regulation of children’s rights vis a vis their parents’ right.  

The survivor’s movement is fighting for the rights of all children to be free from incarceration.  They are fighting a battle over how our future society will be shaped, and how we will treat our next generation’s children. They are fighting for a new world where children’s rights are respected and valued. Many of them are traumatized, and as a result, are seen as unbelievable. We believe survivors at PATH. We believe it is important to stand beside these brave youth as they take on the goliath systems that seek to control them. 

Potential of Lawsuits 

Lawsuits have been working in the United States and we believe they can work in Canada, too. Actions taken by former students against these programs are causing some to close and policy makers to initiate more oversight of the industry. For example, in 2011, a lawsuit helped to bankrupt an institution called Hidden Lake Academy. One parent testified about how her child was subjected to attack-therapy: a brutal emotional assault and public humiliation aimed at breaking down her “problematic” personality (see The New York Times, The Troubled-Teen Industry Offers Trauma not Therapy). 

Another notable case was the brave activism of the Circle of Hope Ranch Girls. Multiple lawsuits were filed against the ranch in September 2020 by former residents. These residents alleged, among other things, that they had been raped, molested, denied food and water, handcuffed, chained, and forced to stand in front of a wall for hours on end. The institution was closed because of these lawsuits. Amanda Householder is another courageous example. She settled lawsuits against the troubled teen school her parents ran, alleging forced labour and abuse. The lawsuits were against the school and the church it was affiliated with (see How I Got my Own Parents Charged with Abusing Teen Girls). 

The Path Forward 

If you are a “troubled teen”, we see you. Some of us were you. We grew up to become the lawyers we needed when we were young. We are here to fight with you against institutional abuse, no matter how big the goliath is that you are up against.  

If you would like to discuss your legal options against a troubled teen program that you attended, please reach out to us.  

If you are a parent and are concerned about a program you have sent your child to, please reach out to us.  

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