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“Treatment Centers” for Troubled Teens Are Gothic Nightmares



Nora Caplan-Bricker

Mostresidential treatment centers that promise they can turn around the lives oftroubled teenagers are dangerous places with a proven track record of makingthings worse, according to a disturbing longread published Tuesday by theHuffington Post.

ReporterSebastian Murdock tells the appalling story of a facility in Utah, formerlyknown as Island View, and now, under new management, called Elevations RTC. Butthe takeaway from his extensive reporting is that the options pushed onstruggling parents may be hurting, not helping, their at-risk kids. Theauthoritarian tack that most centers take won’t turn their charges intofunctional adults, Ira Burnim, legal director of the Bazelon Center for MentalHealth Law, told HuffPo. “You can teach them to be compliant in an institutionbecause they get the reward of … getting out,” he said, “but once they getout, it’s the same old problem, and they haven’t learned how to better managetheir condition.” Worse, these centers often deeply traumatize their inhabitants.A 2014 lawsuit against Island View’s parent company, Aspen Education, allegedthat the center “maintained a prison-like environment where physical andpsychological torture were used against students,” Murdock writes. As oneformer Island View resident, a 25-year-old named Michelle Lemcke, told him:“Long-term treatment facilities are like … a jail without having doneanything illegal.”

Anyonewho wishes to understand the gothic list of abuses suffered by Island View’steenage residents should read Murdock’s piece, but even a brief perusal isenough to make the blood run cold. A former staff member named Vlad Diaz whoquit in 2008 told the journalist that he “wouldn’t treat a dog” the way he wasordered to handle the children. He claimed he saw multiple kids attempt suicideat the facility. One former resident told Murdock about being strip-searched onarrival; when he refused to remove his piercings, he said, “They restrained meon my back and physically removed each one of my piercings, which tore my fleshopen … I still have scars from it.” Teens were required to publicly criticizeand humiliate one another during so-called Problem Solving Groups. They wereharshly and physically restrained by staff; one family sued unsuccessfully in2014 after the guards “mangled [a student’s] arm, causing severe andirreparable orthopedic and neurological damage,” per the suit. Murdock alsofound that staff’s policy was to sedate students with high doses ofantipsychotics—drugs whose efficacy at combating conditions like depression andbipolar in adolescents has never been established.

Perhapsworst of all, though, was the “time-out room,” described by Murdock as a “smallwhite chamber, approximately 4 by 4 feet, with a large metal door,” wherestudents were subjected to solitary confinement—a disciplinary tactic whose useon juveniles is outlawed in federal prisons because of its harrowingpsychological effects. The doors remained unlocked when the students wereinside, but staff monitored them from the other side. A site inspector for theUtah Department of Human Services told Murdock that the rooms were a place forstruggling students to “cool off,” not a punishment—but that’s not what thereporter heard from Island View’s former charges. One of his sources, Emily Graeber,told him she can’t expunge the mental image of her friends trapped in the tinycells. “I’m still really haunted by the screams,” she said. “Sometimes I havenightmares just from the screaming.”

Muchof this torture was probably legal. “The troubled-teen industry is almostentirely unregulated,” Murdock writes. “In 2011, a federal bill that would havebanned physically abusing or starving children at such facilities died incommittee. … [L]ike most states, Utah has no rules outright prohibiting isolation,humiliation or physical restraint. So facilities like Island View still can—anddo—isolate, humiliate and physically restrain children. In many states, theycan withhold food and water as punishment.”

Sowhat should be done to reform nightmare institutions like Island View? Murdocksuggests that the answer is to abandon this failed model altogether. Instead,parents of disturbed children should be able to get the support and expertguidance necessary to keep their young ones at home. There is a “virtualnational consensus among people in the mental health field that children withmental health difficulties and behavioral problems should be treated at home,”Burnim, the mental health law expert, told Murdock. “I don’t think you need tolegislate against RTCs. You just need to create an alternative that sellsitself.” Of course, that’s easier said than done.

ICSA News Desk shares articles of interest or importance with ICSA members who have signed up for News Desk.  Selection of an article for the News Desk mailing does not mean that ICSA, its directors, staff, volunteers, or members agree with the content. ICSA provides information from many points of view in order to promote dialogue among interested parties.

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