Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Do These Places Help Kids, or Abuse Them?

For some reason, lately, I have been reading about different parents who have had to send their children to residential treatment centers. In the cases I have read about, the parents are foster or adoptive parents, and the children are kids who lived through serious abuse and neglect early in life, leaving them with such trust issues and such severe behavioral problems that it is virtually impossible for their parents/foster parents to have them live at home and be able to keep them safe, as well as keep other family members safe.
Parents often have to make difficult and heart-wrenching decisions to admit that their child's problems at that time are too severe for the parents to handle alone. They often start out by hospitalizing a child for days or weeks at a time, attempting to stabilize a child who has been hurting himself or hurting others in the house. When several hospitalizations fail to make a big enough difference for the child, the parents have to scramble to find another place that will provide good care for their child on a long-term basis. These places are usually referred to as Residential Treatment Centers. They are licensed and accredited, usually held to strict standards by local social child welfare departments, and include social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, special education teachers, etc. The goal in these places is not exactly to punish a child for her behaviors, but to teach a child how to handle her emotions well enough to eventually be able to live safely with her parents or foster parents, in a group home, or independently.
That said, there is another, similar phenomena that must not be confused with Residential Treatment Centers.
There are said to be hundreds of private "residential treatment facilities" in the USA, meant to straighten out the behaviors of troubled teenagers. While the populations of the centers we talked about earlier tend to be children in foster care or children adopted as older kids who went through traumas, the populations of this second type of facility are very different.
They are geared towards the wealthier families in the country, who are willing to get "help" for their child at any cost. Why do these children need help? The possibilities are endless. Perhaps they have been getting bad grades in school, fighting with a parent or stepparent, have been having trouble dealing with symptoms of ADHD, depression, eating disorders, etc... While some parents truly are resorting to drastic measures to rescue their child from very unsafe behaviors, sometimes parents don't seem to need a solid reason. In some families, parents are busy with work or second marriages, and don't seem to have the patience to deal with even typical teenage behaviors like grouchiness, messy rooms or strange clothing.
Because these facilities are privately run, they are not always subject to the same standards as licensed and accreditted residential treatment centers. Some states do have strict standards for these places, but the programs in states that don't have strict standards recruit families from all over the USA. Private facilities can often employ staff members who don't have a lot of actual training to work with troubled kids. Instead, they are trained by the people who run the facilities, who often have created their own theories of how to treat these kids.
When a parent decides to enroll their kid in one of these schools, the process often begins at the teen's own home. It is doubtful that many teenagers will quietly get in the car and get driven to one of these places, so many parents hire "escort services." The teen is woken up in the middle of the night by burly strangers, who whisk him into a vehicle and drive him to the facility. Many kids report that they really thought they were being kidnapped at the time, and yelled out for help.
Once at the facility, kids are subject to "therapeutic" techniques that may include being kept in isolation for alarmingly long amounts of time, being made to keep uncomfortable postures for long amounts of time (at one school, certain kids were made to lie face down on a tile floor for 18 hours a day, for months at a time!) Hunger, prevention fro going to the bathroom, and sleep deprivation are used as consequences for rule infractions such as talking to peers or even looking at peers. Kids are forced to do extreme amounts of physical exercise and labor. They are often denied medical attention when they get hurt or feel ill. There have been several instances where kids have actually died, collapsing from doing too much physical labor or exercise while also being deprived of food and sleep. (One girl was actually enrolled in a facility because she had been raped. Her parents had read the facility's literature and thought that the intensive "therapy" would be good for the girl, would help her deal with the trauma of the rape, and would build up her confidence and self-esteem. Tragically, she was one of the kids who died, collapsing from deyhdration after being forced to walk in the wilderness for five days.) Others have died from being improperly physically restrained.
One teenaged girl was tied to a van, which was then driven down a rode, with the girl being forced to run alongside it. When she fell down, the van continued to drive, dragging her behind it.
Kids can be punched, slapped, kicked, etc by staff. Mace and stun funs can be used. Some facilities also encourage kids who have been in the program longer, or who are on higher levels, to help "discipline" newer kids. Other horror stories include kids being tied up, kids being sexually abused by staff members, kids being forced to eat their own vomit.
Kids may try to tell their parents what is going on in these places, but it is very hard. Phone calls are monitored, letters are read, and kids may face consequences for telling their parents about what goes on in the facilities. From the time that the kids arrive at the facilities, the parents are warned not to believe anything the kids may tell them in letters or phone calls. Parents are told that the kids will become extremely "manipulative" and will say anything just to get out of the facility.
So, what should you do if, as a parent or relative as a child, you find yourself in the position of having to seek intensive help for a very troubled child or teenager? The situation may seem hopeless... you could take your chances trying to keep your kid safe at home, or you could try to find somewhere else to send him where he will recieve treatment and also be kept safe. The second choice is not impossible. The National Association for Therapeutic Schools and Programs offers some advice on searching for and choosing a therapeutic facility. The site also offers a directory where you can search for a program by state, by your child's gender, or by his or her treatment needs. The directory includes only accreditted, licensed schools. By doing your research, you can ensure that your child will not be going to a program where she will be abused.
It is also very easy, these days, to enter a school's name into an Internet search engine to find out what people have said about it. A facility may direct you specifically to parents and alumni who have great things to say about it, but on the Internet you may find different opinions and stories that the facility wouldn't want to share.
Avoid sending your kid to boarding schools in random foreign countries such as Jamaica or Mexico, where child abuse laws aren't as strict. Many of the worst stories about mistreatment have happened in these far-away schools. If possible, look for a facility that is somewhat close to where you live. (For instance, if you live in New York, a facility in California might not be your first choice!) Also, I have heard a lot of bad things about the Worldwide Assicoation of Specialty Programs, or WWASP. Several of their schools have been closed down due to children dying or being abused there.
You may also want to look into actual residential treatment centers. A true residential treatment center will have licensed doctors and therapists on staff. Your insurance may even pay for this. Residential treatment centers can be harder to find than private therapeutic programs, because they often don't do as much blatent advertising or recruitment of families. However, you can find a state-by-state list of some programs here.
Look for the least restrictive environment necessary. If you had a child with a mild learning disability, would you have him put in a classroom for children with severe developmental delays? If your child wore glasses, would you put him in a classroom for children with severe visual impairment? Similarly, if you have a child who has been struggling with severe depression and anxiety, a school that focuses heavily on behavior modification for kids with behavioral issues might not be what your child needs. If your child has an eating disorder, a facility that uses physical exercise as a consequence for poor behavior should be avoided!
Most of all, trust your own instincts. If you view a website, visit a facility, or read information about a facility, that makes you feel nervous, look for something better. If a school doesn't even have a website, or the website doesn't offer any information at all, or you are discouraged from making a visit to the facility to preview it before sending your kid there, keep looking.
Parents of troubled kids are in a vulnerable position... and unfortunately, there are people and places out there who make their money by exploiting desperate families. If you do your research and trust your instincts, you can avoid having yourself and your family fall victim to one of these places!

1 comment:

Righteous said...

thanks for the article.
this will never stop until laws get past to protect children forced into private institutions/rehabs.
My Brother's Story