And many former students of Utah programs do report successful treatment with wilderness therapy. At a Redcliff Ascent outpost, a destination coveted by students for its outhouse (they usually dig latrines while camping), Richard, a lanky, tanned 15-year-old from the U.K. who prefers his real name not be used, sits with his parents and two counselors around an unused fire pit. There’s no fire because the weather in the region has become too hot and dry, and a ban has been instituted to prevent forest fires. This means that making fire manually, one of the linchpins of Redcliff’s therapy, is not allowed, so instead, students use their equipment to make coals, which are quickly blown out. Richard is done with making coals for the moment, though. He just graduated from Redcliff after an 85-day stay, and his parents seem overjoyed to see him.
“I think we got to the point where things were going to end badly unless we did something,” his mother says when asked why they placed Richard in the program.
“Things got so tough, we were running out of options,” his father says.
“We were on two or three 999 calls a week—that’s the equivalent of 911 in England.”
“I was acting out, being disrespectful,” Richard adds. “I’ve always had a short temper, then I started smoking weed and doing drugs all the time, and it got worse.”
Richard says the first few weeks at Redcliff were extremely difficult for him.
“It was harder than I thought it would be,” he says. “I was in the red suit for a while, and I tried to run. I was being argumentative towards staff; I refused to eat and drink. I wanted to leave.”
Students are made to wear red suits if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others, and according to Redcliff standards, Richard definitely fit the bill when he first arrived.
“We got an amazing letter from Richard in the beginning,” his mother adds. “It was three pages long and beautifully written. Longest thing I’ve ever seen him write, and it basically said ‘Get me the hell out of here.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my God. What have we done?’ But we knew that if we brought him back, nothing was going to change.”
“In the last six hours, we’ve noticed a huge change,” his father says with pride.
“You have?” Richard asks.
“Just the way he looks!” his mother says. “His eyes are just completely different. Before he came here, they had changed color and sunk in. He was gone. Now his eyes have gone back to what they used to be like. When he came walking out of the woods, I couldn’t believe it. His eyes were this bright, amazing, shining blue that just smacks you—like they used to be, before all the trouble.”
Richard’s father pulls out a tablet, displaying a photo of Richard the day he was admitted to Redcliff. In the picture, he’s squinting, his face bloated and spotted with acne.
“Compare that person to the boy you see now,” his father says.
Asked if they’re worried about bringing Richard back home, to a place of familiar stresses and temptations, his father sobers for a moment.
“Richard has changed enormously in the three months he’s been here, but the world and our environment has stayed the way it always was,” he says.
“I wouldn’t go back to that,” Richard interjects. “I’ve caused so many people, and myself, pain. It would be dumb to do that again. I figured out that I would get more out of the program if I worked with the staff rather than against them. Something just clicked. I was taught different values I needed to learn. They were slowly being brought into my life.”
* * *
“Bruce had a heart of gold,” Carla Moffat says, crying. “He knew no stranger as a child. He would have done anything for anybody … but when he was older, he would come home rolling on X, bring pot into the house … it got to the point where I voluntarily put him into the juvenile probation program here. It was in this program that the counselor and I started looking at alternative placement … I didn’t feel like I had a choice. I was scared the next time he ran away, I wouldn’t get him back.”
In October 2011, Moffat decided to place her son, Bruce Staeger, at Tierra Blanca Ranch, a wilderness program in New Mexico. Owned by a man named Scott Chandler, Tierra Blanca made local headlines in 2013, when Bruce’s death from a car accident while at the ranch brought attention to allegations of abuse stretching back years. Steve Cowen, a San Diego lawyer whose son attended Tierra Blanca, compiled a comprehensive report of every recent alleged incident of abuse he could find. Cowen says he started looking into the ranch after seeing the way it had affected the behavior of his son, who had previously been enrolled in one of its programs.
“I got this creepy apology letter from my son about two months after he was in the program,” says Cowen. “It didn’t sound like him … then I didn’t hear from him for a while. So, I contacted this Chandler guy and said, ‘I’d like to visit him.’ I was told, ‘No, you can’t visit,’ so I just started asking questions like, “Are they licensed by the state? Who oversees it?’”
“I tried to get my son out, but I couldn’t do it because my ex-wife wouldn’t agree. When I did get to visit, he told me, ‘Dad, if there was a pile of dog crap over there and they told me to eat it, I would.’ So lots of red flags were going up.”