When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far

Troubled teens are occasionally sent to corrective outdoor programs, where they hike for days or perform manual labor. But some parents are saying the physical exertion verges on abuse.
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It’s dusk in the high desert of Utah. The heat of the day is starting to abate, and the cooling air smells of sage. There’s nothing but rough terrain for miles—the closest town, a tiny hamlet called Enterprise, is about an hour and a half away by car.

A group of teenagers huddle together by a tarp shelter. They are members of the latest crop of students at Redcliff Ascent, a wilderness program for troubled youth. They talk animatedly, exuding a kind of brittle bravado—all except for one of them, a heavy-set, red-faced girl who cries under the tarp with her knees pressed to her chin.

“I just want to go home!” she wails. “Please, I just want to go home!”

The boys and the other girl in the group don’t seem to notice her distress. Instead, they exchange tales of how they came to be in this camp—leagues away from their familiar world of running water, soft beds and Playstation 4s. Two adults stand close by with watchful eyes.

“They woke me up at 4 a.m.,” one of the boys says. “My parents came in and told me, ‘We love you,’ and then left me alone with these goons … after that, I just tried to act nice, but I was really pissed. I didn’t cry or anything, but my bat wasn’t in my room, so I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“I tried to run, and they arrested me,” another girl says. “I was listening in on my mom’s conversation over the phone, and I heard that these people were coming to get me. I ran, so they put cuffs on me and put me in the car. I was crying my eyes out. I almost had a panic attack. This place is hell … I didn’t do that many bad things that I should get sent away to a place like this.”

Eventually, she’s led to a pickup truck, where she sits in the backseat. She’s being moved to another group, an all-female one, and she’s not happy about it.

“I hate women,” she mutters. “All my friends are guys.”

After a while, she heaves a sigh.

“I mean, I know I need help,” she says. “I’m fucked up in the head. Maybe I do need to be here, but I don’t want to be.”

There are dozens of institutions similar to Redcliff across America, and they promise therapeutic treatment for teenagers who are engaging in drug use or other behavior frowned upon by their families or schools. Parents often hire transport agencies, which are charged with delivering the teens to their programs, forcibly or otherwise. This industry, which has only reached mainstream popularity in the last couple of decades, is still controversial. Its proponents maintain that this type of isolation, away from the temptations and perils of society, can benefit youth who are straying down the path of addiction and dysfunction. They present a multitude of success stories and insist this type of therapy can be life-changing.

Programs differ in intensity and duration, although typically, they involve activities such as hiking and learning wilderness skills. At Redcliff, staff teaches students how to make fire using only materials gathered from the wild, a seemingly simple task that actually takes weeks to master. Most teens admitted to wilderness programs are there for a few months, although some stay as long as two years.

But critics of other wilderness programs point out the lack of regulation for these businesses, citing abuse allegations as well as deaths that have taken place at such programs. No one, not even the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which compiled a report in 2007 on the dangers of wilderness and other teen facilities, knows the exact number of fatalities at adolescent therapeutic programs, although the highest unconfirmed count is 86 deaths since 2000. Many states don’t require background checks for staff, and there have been multiple investigations into sexual abuse and arrests for sexual assault at teen residential and wilderness programs in recent years. As recently as six months ago, police began investigating allegations that a counselor at Second Nature Blue Ridge, a wilderness program in Georgia, forced a 14-year-old into a sexual encounter. That investigation is ongoing.

Redcliff itself has been embroiled in several legal battles over alleged abuse. One lawsuit began in April, when a girl and her mother filed complaints against Redcliff, including unlawful search and seizure and involuntary servitude. The case is still pending.

“Our attorney has filed to have this lawsuit dismissed on the grounds that it is frivolous,” says Steve Schultz, Redcliff’s media representative. “There is a lot of sensationalistic language and allegations … there is also a lot of information that is minimized or conveniently left out.”

Another court case took place in 2004, when a student, Jared Oscarson, complained of severe stomach pains. The lawsuit alleges that staff ignored him, and he was made to hike five miles in spite of his complaints, until he fell down and had to be taken to the hospital for appendicitis.

“The student complained about a stomach ache,” says Schulz. “This is not unusual behavior for students and can be everything from not properly cooking their food to malingering and manipulation. It did take some time to evaluate the seriousness of his pain. We … decided to take him to Cedar City to the doctor. The doctor diagnosed appendicitis and recommended he have surgery immediately. The family lived in Las Vegas and refused to have surgery in Cedar City. The boy was transported by ambulance to Vegas and on the way his appendix burst in the ambulance.”

The Oscarson case was eventually dismissed on the grounds that “the parties … have fully compromised and settled their difference,” according to court documents.

Some politicians have taken their concerns regarding unregulated adolescent therapeutic programs to Congress. In May 2013, Congressman George Miller, a Democrat from California, reintroduced legislation that aimed to better protect adolescents in such facilities from abuse and provide easily accessible information for parents on the safety records of the programs. The bill has repeatedly failed in the House.

“What we’re trying to do is set minimum standards that would then be instituted at the state level,” Miller says. “For example, they would not be able to deny children things like water, food, clothing, shelter and medical care. We would like to have professional staff who are trained in the care of these children and have experience, and that’s often not the case.”

Others have pointed out strong ties between politicians and the adolescent treatment industry. Just before the 2012 presidential election, Salon published an in-depth investigative piece detailing Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s connections to CRC Health Group, which owns Aspen Education, a large umbrella organization that encompasses several wilderness programs.

Still others complain that these ties go much deeper at the local and state level.

Nicki Bush, a child psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco, works with the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic, and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (ASTART), an organization of medical professionals, family members and former residents of such programs. She says ASTART often encounters obstacles because of strong local ties.

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Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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