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.

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.

“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.” 

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.

“Christ, yes.”

“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.”

After learning of his quest, many former ranch residents contacted Cowen with stories of violence and psychological torture. Other incidents came to light—in 2006, a boy escaped from Tierra Blanca in shackles and called 911, only to be returned to the ranch by local police. Eventually, Cowen’s report was sent to New Mexico authorities, which set into motion an investigation that culminated in an attempt by the Children, Youth, and Families Department, in conjunction with state police, to rescue nine boys from the ranch. In response, Tierra Blanca filed a lawsuit against CYFD, which was settled in February with the stipulation that the state would be given “limited oversight” of the ranch. Since Tierra Blanca is officially designated a wilderness program, it’s not subject to CYFD licensure. Despite an inquiry into what CYFD called “significant evidence” of psychological and physical abuse, no criminal charges were ultimately filed against Chandler, and Tierra Blanca Ranch remains open for business. CYFD did not return emails or calls for comment.

In the months before Bruce’s death, former students say, he was subjected to sustained, long-term starvation and abuse, triggered by his alleged theft of Scott Chandler’s billfold, which had contained money and credit cards. Gunner Hatton, one of the boys who attended Tierra Blanca at the same time as Bruce, says that for three months after the billfold was stolen, Chandler punished all the boys with hours of brutal physical labor and drastically cut their food rations. According to Gunner, Chandler did this to encourage them to take their anger out on Bruce, a method other students claim was often used at Tierra Blanca. Multiple boys who also attended the ranch have corroborated Gunner’s story, according to Cowen.

“We would get up at five in the morning and run for an hour and a half, then go work, and throughout the day we’d do like two to three more hour-and-a-half running sessions and then we’d go back to work,” says Gunner. “We were all just getting super pissed off because the running was getting worse and worse. Circuits became unbearable … then we had to pick up tires and run with those. We were just beyond tired. And then he put us on white beans and rice. Then Scott takes Bruce out of running and attaches him to either a chair or a tree and makes him watch us run … and he puts him in shackles for the rest of the day. We’re just all super thin at this point.”

After experiencing weeks of this treatment, Gunner says, the boys finally snapped.

“I’m ashamed of it, but I’d lost who I am when I did that,” he says. “I will forever be sorry that I did to Bruce what I did. But all of us just started beating him. Just beating him with our fists, beating him with sticks and clubs, socks with a rock in it … so for the first couple of weeks after that started, we just—we’d beat the shit out of him like five or six times day.”

Bruce wasn’t the only boy who received this kind of treatment at Tierra Blanca, according to Gunner and other boys on the ranch at the time.

“I saw a 300-pound staff member just beat the tar out of this kid,” says Marc Fleming, another former Tierra Blanca student. “That was scary.”

Describing the same incident, Gunner recounts how Morgan, the boy who had been misbehaving, was made to squat against a wall for hours, and severely beaten by a staff member named Harold when he kept falling down.

“At that point, it was physically impossible for him to keep it up,” says Gunner. “Harold gets this little thing called a Kubaton off his keychain. It’s made out of titanium but long, probably eight inches long by two centimeters in diameter. Every time Morgan is not sitting flat on the post, he starts hitting him on the head with it.  This kid is getting beaten over the head with the baton for like an hour and a half. So we wake up in the morning and Morgan’s head is about twice the size as it was the day before. His eyes are swollen completely shut. He just looked like an alien. He couldn’t even walk without someone helping him.”

Another former Tierra Blanca student says he’s suffered permanent physiological damage as a result of his treatment at the program. Terryk Carlsen was 12 when he was admitted to the ranch. He still remembers exactly how long he was there—two years, two months, two weeks, and three days. Carlsen says he started having epileptic seizures while he was at Tierra Blanca, and instead of taking him to seek medical help, staff at the ranch insisted he was faking.

“Every time I’d have a seizure, they’d punish me for it,” he says. “I woke up one day outside in the dirt with a terrible headache, and I asked one of the other students, ‘Why am I in the dirt? Why am I hurting so bad?’ And he said that I’d had a seizure, and one of the staff members told me to stop faking or he was going to kick me in the head. I was having a seizure, and I wasn’t coherent, so he came and kicked me in the head. I was still having a seizure, so he decided to throw me off the porch. They would also punish me by giving me up-down exercises, and circuits, which means an hour of straight running and other exercises. They wouldn’t let me sleep, either, because I snore, and they gave my roommate permission to dump a pitcher of water on me every time I snored.”

Carlsen now suffers from chronic epilepsy and is considered officially disabled, something he says wouldn’t have happened if he had been treated when he first started exhibiting symptoms.

“My condition has worsened to the point where I have them all the time,” he says. “I’m not allowed to drive or have a normal job. I couldn’t join the military like I had wanted to. In fact, I can’t do about 80 percent of the things I want to do, because it’s too much of a liability. If I had been taken to a doctor, or fed better food and not worked like a slave, things would be different.”

Scott Chandler has not responded to three emails and three phone calls asking for comment over the course of several months.

Neglect and abuse at wilderness programs have sometimes proven to be fatal. Cynthia Harvey, who is now a board member at ASART, lost her daughter Erica in 2002 when she was sent to the Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program, which was closed in 2012. Harvey says Erica died because she was denied water and shelter from the heat of the Nevada desert.

“After we got the autopsy results … we finally understood that she had been exhibiting signs of hyperthermia for many hours before she died, and they ignored her or told her she was being defiant,” says Harvey. “There was this cascading series of incompetence about her death. After she went down, the counselors didn’t touch her or try to help her. They observed her for something like an hour when they finally realized she was basically in her death throes, after which they tried to perform CPR … the only reason we got this information is because we sued. It was probably two to three years before we had a clear understanding of the actual sequence of events. They came out through depositions.”

Although there was an investigation, no criminal charges were ultimately filed against the program, just as in the Tierra Blanca case.

“From what I understand … this information has gone all the way up to the governor of New Mexico, to the State Police,” says Carla Moffat, Bruce’s mother. “There was a special investigative unit formed—and they continue to say there isn’t enough information to do anything about it.”

New Mexico State Police denied requests for comment.

*  *  *

The Bobcats, an all-female group of students at Redcliff Ascent, sit under a tarp at their campsite to escape the heat. They’re grubby-faced and streaked with dirt, but the mood is light-hearted. Some of the girls are working on their fire-making equipment, while one of them practices making a coal with her bow and spindle. She’s overjoyed when she manages to produce a single glowing ember.

“That’s my fourth fire,” she says. “Now I get honey.”

The students earn honey, as well as spices and other food, after meeting fire-making quotas. Fires also allow them to move up in the phases of Redcliff’s therapy, which is how they progress towards graduation.

“Most days, we hike,” says Maddy, one of the girls. All of them preferred not to use their last names to protect their privacy. “We wake up, do the breakfast process, which involves cleaning our hands faces and feet; then we cook breakfast on our little stoves. Then once that’s done, we pack up all of our stuff and do our camp chores, and make it look like nobody’s ever been here. Then we put our packs on our backs and hike, anywhere from three to 15 miles … and at first, we don’t even have the real packs. You have to earn those, so when you first get here, you have a tarp, and you put all your stuff in it and roll it up into a ball that has straps, and that’s what we carry.”

“Doesn’t matter if we’re sick,” one of the other girls says. “If we’re puking, if we have diarrhea, we still hike.”

Brandi Heiner, a Redcliff counselor, rolls her eyes. “It’s not that dramatic. If you guys are really sick, we send you on a med run.”

Later, Nicole, a new addition to the Bobcats, talks quietly in a clearing a few feet away from the campsite. Her hair is fashioned into two long braids, and she’s wearing a red jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled up to reveal dozens of horizontal scars on her arms.

“I’m in a red suit because I overreacted,” she says. “I told them I was going to hang myself with a pack cord. I didn’t really mean it; I just wanted them to send me to the hospital, because I’d rather be anywhere but here … but I’m really disappointed that I did this to myself. I put myself here. No one else did. My mom did it because she cared. I’m not saying it’s a bad place here, but it’s not a place you want to be.”

After the sun sinks over the mountains, three of the girls who have been at Redcliff longer sit cross-legged in a circle. Asked what brought them there, they all flash sheepish smiles.

“I started smoking weed a long time ago, when I was 14, and it kind of just progressed into other things,” one says. “I hung around kids who were doing heroin, and I tried it once myself. All my friends were doing meth and smack, and they weren’t good people to be around. I wasn’t going to school, and I just didn’t have any direction in my life.”

The two others have similar stories, and they say despite their initial dislike of the program, Redcliff has taught them how to live more meaningful, responsible lives.

“I never really focused on life … now I’m noticing the little things that I do in the present,” says Penny, another senior Bobcat. “It just makes me think how much time I wasted on the outs.”

The third girl, who has striking red hair and light blue eyes, jumps in.

“It was so hard being away from my parents, being in the middle of nowhere and realizing I had to face my problems full on,” she says. “But everything here is a metaphor for life. Like, learning how to build a fire, or hiking, which is a big stress. You go into bowing thinking, no way can I make a fire with a stick and a rock. It’s so hard the first time, but you learn how. I remember the first time I tried, I was crying, like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this.’ But now I can.”

Their experience stands in stark contrast to Marc Fleming’s stay at Tierra Blanca. Even over the phone, the pain in his voice is palpable.

“My only escape from the program was when I would sleep, because then I would dream that I wasn’t there,” he says. “I actually created a world where the program was the nightmare and my dreams were my real life. I would tell myself this is all just a bad dream and eventually it’s going to be over and I’ll never have to experience it again.”

He pauses for a moment. “Then I would wake up and realize where I was, and that nobody—not a single person—was going to come help me. I was completely alone.”

Presented by

Sulome Anderson

Sulome Anderson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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