When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far

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.

“What we see is that these places are almost always in remote areas or near small towns, and they create a situation where everyone in the region is a big proponent of the facility,” Bush says. “They provide a lot of jobs and stimulate the local economy, and that creates a sense of pride that they’re helping the youth of America. So there’s social capital to having one of these in your area. Moreover, because the youth that are put there are predominantly at risk for something—either they have some peer problems or behavior problems or social problems, etcetera—when something happens to them, people tend to dismiss it as, ‘Well, they’re bad teens.’”

Bush is concerned that the lack of regulation is creating an environment where untrained staff is often given free rein with an extremely vulnerable population.

“[These programs] call themselves wilderness therapy or come up with their own categories so that they can avoid the criteria that would apply to, for example, a mental health treatment facility,” she says. “Then because they’re not regulated, no one is really ensuring that their staff has adequate training, and in many cases we’ve seen, the staff are by no means qualified to provide the type of care that is being advertised and certainly not the type of care that these facilities require.”

According to Redcliff’s clinical director, Eric Fawson, their staff is more than adequately trained in wilderness therapy and isn’t allowed into the field before undergoing an extensive orientation program, although there aren’t any educational requirements for them to work at Redcliff.

“Wilderness staff are very passionate about what they do,” he says. “You have to be … a lot of our staff is educated. They have Bachelor’s degrees in all kinds of different fields … but as far as education, there isn’t an expectation.”

In Utah, which has many such programs, there is a regulatory body within the Division of Administrative Rules that oversees wilderness programs, with an extensive code of rules. And some of these businesses, including Redcliff, have formed an organization, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP), which has its own guidelines and requirements for membership, although they aren’t as specific as the Utah regulations. 

Despite the fact that some medical professionals view wilderness therapy as a kind of unreliable fringe treatment, Fawson says that’s because they associate these programs with the widely discredited “boot camp” mentality that was so pervasive at the therapy’s inception. He maintains that wilderness therapeutic methods have evolved greatly since they were first conceived.

“We’re actually in the process of trying to be one of the first programs to set standards for wilderness therapy as well,” Fawson says. “The research we have indicates that wilderness therapy is extremely impactful. I think that the larger psychological community doesn’t understand it because it’s so far outside the box.”

Fawson says Redcliff’s approach ranges from disrupting unhealthy family dynamics to teaching teenagers responsibility and independence.

“Wilderness therapy is all experiential and metaphoric as well,” he explains. “The hard part to conceptualize … is the actual sand and the dirt and the sagebrush and the tarps, and digging a pit, and what all that means in the process. That’s not therapist-driven. That’s driven by the wilderness … the other thing that Redcliff is built on is that mundane part. I mean, we embrace that, to let them go ahead and fight and sit in the dirt for a while and see what that’s like … but we’re also a very clinically sophisticated program, with therapists that regularly see the kids.” 

Presented by

Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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