On the licensure of behavioral modification programs for at-risk teens

by Jay Stevens 

Montana has a loads of “behavior modification programs” for at-risk teens. We’ve got the rugged terrain they thrive on, and a distinct lack of oversight.

The programs generally rely on a boot-camp-like atmosphere combined with an almost cultish message and style, especially the schools subscribing to the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs theory of behavior modification. The member, and former member schools, divide teens into “family” groups, use a points system, and demand complete obsequious to the program’s “message.” Oh, and the kids can’t leave.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding these schools – some claim that it’s institutionalized child abuse – several have been shut down, and there are scads of lawsuits out against these schools. The most notorious incident involved the suffocating death of a fourteen-year old boy, Martin Lee Anderson, at the hands of “boot camp” guards – which was caught on film.

Montana’s most controversial program is at Spring Creek Lodge, where a girl recently committed suicide and a boy was savagely beaten by fellow inmates. The Independent’s John Adams has written extensively on the abuses at Spring Creek Lodge and other schools: I heartily recommend reading every word he’s written on the subject.

In the last state legislative session, responding to allegations of abuse, HB 628 put oversight of Montana teen programs into the hands of a five-person governor-appointed board under the Department of Labor and Industry – the brain child of Representative Paul Clark (D-Trout Creek), who also runs a teen program, and an intensive lobbying campaign on behalf of the teen program industry.

The problem with this solution is that it puts the foxes in charge of the hen house: three of the board’s members are representatives of the industry, and the bill ducks licensure of teen programs, as proposed by Senator Trudi Schmidt (D-Great Falls) in SB 101, which would also put regulation under the Department of Health and Human Services. That makes sense – the problem with the teen programs is with the mental and physical well-being of the program participants, not labor issues.

If Adams’ well-written and –researched stories don’t underscore the importance of decent licensing of the industry, check out Montana PBS’ documentary, “Who’s Watching the Kids?” which is a great summary of all the issues and provides video evidence of abuse.

Or check out the testimony on sites created by teen behavioral modification “survivors,” like the Community Alliance for the Fair and Ethical Treatment of Youth,” and the “Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse.”

Bottom line is this: Maybe the programs work. Maybe they don’t. But kids have died, and it’s our responsibility to ensure that abuse isn’t occurring at these teen programs. We need real oversight. We need a real and effective licensing program.

  1. Jay,

    Be VERY VERY careful lumping all “at risk teen” programs together. There are some really good programs in Montana that show excellent results. Not all of them are run for profit, either. I would recommend a crash course in what programs exist and target the ones that are having problems instead of lumping them all together. You will find that not all teen programs are the same…

    If you would like some insight into one of those programs, hit me in private and I would be more than happy to give you the bio of one that WORKS.


  2. I completely understand, Moorcat. But what do functioning programs have to fear from good oversight? Wouldn’t requiring the worst offenders of teen programs to either improve or disband only improve the reputation and effectiveness of the ones that work?

    I hope I didn’t lump them all together. I was originally planning on commenting on some of the good outdoor programs, but didn’t have the room. The links to Adams’ stories pretty much make it clear that it’s mainly one branch of the programs — the WWASP camps — that seem to be the worst offenders…

  3. Tryn

    I read Adams’ stories before responding to this. Good idea, cooled me off a bit. I can only hope that others who read them also see the line that made me relax a bit. He indicated that the programs he’s talking about are ones who are PRIVATE AND DO NOT RECEIVE STATE FUNDING. Whew.

    I can agree that all of the programs dealing with at-risk-youth should fall under some serious oversight. It protects the kids, which is what these programs are supposed to be about anyway. The one that I am the most familiar with, Montana National Guard Youth Challenge, has extensive oversight…by the National Guard no less :) The staff undergo extensive training 2x a year, plus have the opportunity to go to advanced training on the national level as well.

    Reading his stories hit me on another level altogether. When I was having lots of problems with my son, a number of years ago, I was looking into residential programs and seriously thought of sending him to Tranquility Bay. The only thing that stopped me at the time was that I could not afford the tuition. I cannot tell you how glad I am now that I’ve read what he wrote. Even though Tranquility Bay is really only mentioned in passing, what IS said indicates something VERY wrong.

  4. The problem here is the use of the word “good” with the word “oversight”. Rarely in our governmental system does that work well…

    Unfortunately, the programs that do work well are usually the ones that keep a low profile – and most of them are government run anyway (they already have oversight). What scares me is that if you start dicking around with those programs, they will stop working.

    It has been my experience that when you institute blanket governmental oversight – expecially when the organizations being put under that oversight are diverse – what you eventually end up with is Zero programs working well. All too often the well functioning governmental programs are throttled and the poorly working private programs (you know, the ones that can afford to pay off oversight…) get promoted – even the ones that don’t work.

    I would far rather see the microscope focused on the programs that are failing – regardless of their money connections – and the ones that are working left alone. All too often, we end up cutting our nose off to spite our face and what we end up with is an endless series of oversight committees and no decent programs for the “at risk teens” to go to…


  5. Thanks for clarifying, Tryn.

  6. Punky

    Ok Jay – you know this is a hard one for me – since I spent 3 years working at one of these non-traditional private schools that was “contraversal” My eyes were opened to some pretty crazy things. Some of them worked very well. But I could tell you things that would curl your toes.

    There are always going to be stories – some true and some not so true. Many are escalated by students who will exaggerate so they can be taken home. There are definately places that need regulation. Unfortunately the State of MA wanted to regulate our school too. Some of what they did was great and some was counter productive to what was the basis of our program.

    There were two main theories that we used:
    First – teenagers are more apt to listen to other teenagers than adults. We used peer motivation and it worked wonders. The kids who were doing well served as mentors to the newer kids. They would in a sense – run their dorms.

    Second – Parent involvement was key. A student couldn’t remain in the school if the parents weren’t involved in their own groups with monthly meetings and school visits. We also made it mandatory for the parents to spend a few days during the year working as a dorm parent at the school. Our goal was to send a child back to a home where the dynamics were different than when they left.

    These were two things that the State couldn’t get a handle on.

    I have heard many things from these schools all over the nation. I’ve met many of the people at conventions. There are definately some schools out there with shady reputations. Also, as I remember Montana was one of the few states where there were really no regulations at all.

    It is easier said than done to keep these kids safe. I’ve seen kids cutting themselves, punching out windows, running away so they can get drugs. I’ve seen 13 year old Heroin addicts and kids who lived on the streets (and daddy was a doctor).

    I don’t want to go on and on – but it’s close to my heart because I know some places get a bad rap and some truly deserve to be closed.

  1. 1 Sen. Trudi Schmidt’s (D-Great Falls) proposed regulation of teen programs « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] regulation of teen programs January 16th, 2007 I recently wrote about abuses occurring at a private behavioral modification program for at-risk teens, and called for stricter regulation of teen […]

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