The notion of the “bad kid” has been around as long as parents have threatened to send such children off to reform schools and “scare them straight.” 

But in recent years, it has come to light that some institutions physically and mentally torture children and even prevent them from getting an education.

Such places have become a multi-billion-dollar industry, seeing business boom as parents grapple with new issues related to having a “bad kid.” Those issues include the opiate epidemic that’s sweeping the United States and the country’s rising divorce rates.

The Los Angeles LGBT Center has teamed up with Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA) as well as with state and federal lawmakers to bring regulation to the so-called “troubled youth” industry. 

California State Sen. Ricardo Lara has introduced the Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act. It would not exempt religious-based groups that operate such facilities. 

On a federal level, the Los Angeles center is working with Rep. Adam Schiff to get legislation introduced in Congress.

In some cases, institutions will tell parents they can scare a kid “straight” in more ways than one – even promising to “help” a gay child become heterosexual. So while it was natural for the center to take up the cause, the problem of children being tortured in such facilities goes far beyond those being scared straight in terms of their sexuality.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in just one year, 1,619 employees of these programs — in 33 states — were involved in incidences of abuse. SIA officials report more than 300 young people have died from abuse in these institutions or have killed themselves.

“It’s outrageous that neighborhood nail salons are more regulated than the industry of residential schools, camps, and wilderness programs that are entrusted with the lives of kids,” David Garcia, the center’s director of public policy, said in a news release. “We’ve heard from survivors forced to endure torture techniques that include food and water deprivation, physical abuse, and electric shocks. We’ve also spoken to devastated parents whose children died in these programs.”

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Twelve Steps Plus Torture, Toxicity

Filmmaker Nick Gaglia made a dramatized narrative of the time he spent in one such facility on the East Coast called KIDS. Actors are used in the film.

His parents sent him and his sister to KIDS for treatment of their drug problems. Both later escaped.

In the film “Over the GW,” viewers see some common practices used in addiction treatment but in a setting managed by abuse and manipulation. 

For example, counselors are relentless in getting teens to admit they are powerless over drugs or alcohol. Admitting one is powerless is the first step in Alcoholics Anonymous. But even after a year sober, locked up in the reform facility, residents still would wail in group therapy as counselors would warn them they’re doomed to a life on the streets if they ever leave the institution. 

“If you admit you are powerless over yourself, that can be used against you if swung in the other direction in a toxic way,” Gaglia told Healthline. 

“If you can’t trust yourself, you need to trust us,” he said was the mantra at the program. “If you don’t, you will die.”

Image source: Courtesy

Besides children with substance abuse problems, such institutions also promise to reform children with behavioral problems that may be medical, such as bipolar disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But often children do not receive proper medical care in such facilities. 

“I did need therapy, I was drinking and smoking weed, which is something a lot of kids do, especially when born into the trauma of poverty, divorce, alcoholic parents, or whatever it may be,” Gaglia told Healthline. “There are going to be behavioral issues. If I had a therapist and meditation that would have been perfect for me.”

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No Oversight: Getting High at Rehab

The issue of unregulated centers falsely claiming to find success getting people on the right path goes beyond rehabilitation of troubled teens. In Florida, legislation has been introduced to establish state oversight of alcohol and drug treatment facilities.

Critics say the primary motivation of many such facilities is money, not getting someone sober. Instead of abuse, some facilities go to the opposite extreme. Patients live in luxury for 30 days in some cases and still get high on the side.

In Florida, authorities have raided so-called upstart “sober houses” resulting in allegations of insurance fraud and other unethical business practices.

In a news release, Bryn Wesch, chief financial officer of Novus Medical Detox Center, said such places have sprung up out of expanded access to substance abuse treatment.

“The recent government raids have demonstrated that a number of those unlicensed providers engage in unethical and criminal activities, suggesting that they’re motivated more by profits than the well being of their patients,” Wesch said.

In healthcare, many treatments not grounded in science and not endorsed by the mainstream medical community boast official sounding accreditations. While these accrediting groups look and sound official, getting their stamp of approval sometimes requires little more than paying a fee.

In the case of teen rehabilitation centers, the Federal Trade Commission in its facts for consumers urges parents to ask about licensing. Legitimate accrediting organizations include Joint Commission on Healthcare (JCHC), the Council on Accreditation (COA), and Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF).

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Parental Peace … But At What Cost?

Gaglia’s film depicts a troubled teen coming home from a night out in what appears to be a drunken, drug-induced rage. The boy tears up the family home while fighting with his sister. Soon after, he’s going “Over the GW” bridge thinking his mom is taking him on a shopping trip. Instead, she is taking him to KIDS.

“If there is chaos in the home, and they put the kid in a residential treatment center, what happens the second the kid isn’t there? Peace,” Gaglia told Healthline. “In a lot of situations, the parent has their own problems to work through.”

Often times, recently divorced parents find common ground in sending away troubled children, Gaglia said.

The website A Start For Teens offers parents many resources about finding help for their troubled child. If a parent does choose a residential treatment center, Gaglia said they should make sure they have access to their child. 

“Parents should be able to visit and talk with their child in private,” he told Healthline. “They should never be told not to believe their child.” 

And if they repeatedly are unable to see their child, consider that a red flag, too.

“Isolation and restraint should never be used in addiction treatment. I was personally restrained over 100 times and never did anything violent to warrant it,” said Gaglia. “They used this as a control technique.”

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