The Cruelty Franchise: WWASPS and the
Torture of At-Risk Kids
By Jane Weinkrantz
For most parents, discipline takes the form of setting limits for their children, whether it is enforcing curfews, limiting television, knowing their children’s whereabouts at any given time, being aware of possible alcohol use, or making sure that a certain percentage of each day is devoted to studying. However, for the small number of parents whose children are truly out of control, parents of kids who steal, are chronically truant, run away, have drug or alcohol problems, discipline can mean calling the police, involving social services or enlisting the help of other forces.
It is the other forces that Maia Szalavitz seeks to educate her readers about in the newly released Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. Szalavitz’s work is an expose on the "tough love" boot camps and "behavioral treatment centers" attended by troubled---and sometimes not so troubled---kids and the abuses that are commonplace. As I am writing this, many of the practices that we would more commonly associate with Abu Ghraib and Guantanomo, are being used on teen-agers in the U.S. and abroad as a way to break their spirits and make them comply. Szalavitz makes it clear that love has very little to do with the tough discipline meted out at these "schools." (Author’s note: The terms "schools" and "students" are used in this article for want of better terms. As the reader will see, "jails" and "captives" may have been better choices.)
Many of the facilities are affiliates of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP) in locations as diverse as Utah, Montana, South Carolina, New York, and Jamaica. (WWASP schools have been closed in Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Mississippi, Mexico and Western Samoa.) Typical practices in these programs include literally kidnapping children to take them to the facility; physically restraining students with duct tape or hog tying, using pepper spray when they are uncooperative, not letting them have any privacy, even while in the bathroom, severely limiting food and beverages, isolating students, punishing them for not revealing their most personal problems; making them wear clothing and shoes that do not fit properly, virtually ignoring academics , limiting contact with their parents and other students and generally maintaining them at the lowest level of survival. Worse, teens have no idea when they will be released from the program; the facility ‘s staff determines when their "cure" is complete, and it is in their best financial interest not to rush anything.
Why would parents send children someplace where they would be treated so cruelly? For many families who are at a loss as to what to do with an at-risk child, such institutions seem like a great alternative. They are told that their child will learn discipline and gain the self-control and maturity they so seriously lack. Often the exorbitant fees (about $4000 per month for a recovery program in the United States and as much as $12,500 for a month long boot camp expedition) help the parent rationalize that they are buying the "best possible" recovery for the child they love and want to help. Sometimes, doctors or other professionals refer parents to these schools; there is at least one documented case of referral fees being paid by WWASPS for each child who enrolled. In other cases, children have been mandated to attend by the court system.
Once the teen arrives at the school, communication with home is limited, especially in the beginning stages. Since students are often punished if they criticize the programs or describe horrifying treatment or conditions, they frequently tell their parents everything is fine. If they complain, parents are advised that this type of teen is a "manipulator or liar" whose complaints are best ignored. Except that often the child is telling the truth.
Szalavitz describes Kyrsten who, at fifteen was "drinking a twelve-pack of beer daily and living on the streets of San Francisco. Kyrsten would use almost any drug, once even injecting heroin….she was picked up as runaway and taken to the psychiatric ward…A psychiatrist told her parents that Kyrsten ‘would probably be dead within a year’ if she did not get long-term residential treatment." That doctor put them in touch with Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, a WWASP: affiliated, boot camp style, unlicensed school that is still in operation today. (http://www.tranquilitybay.org )
Although Kyrsten’s parents did have her sent to Tranquility Bay, they were a little concerned about the contract they had to sign which read:
"When it becomes necessary, in the sole discretion of the Program, to restrain a Student, the Sponsors authorize the Program to use pepper spray (or electrical disabler, mace, mechanical restraints, handcuffs) as means to or alternative to avoid, whenever possible, the potential for injuries, complications, and/or altercations that can arise from the Program staff having to physically restrain or wrestle with the student in order to subdue the student."
When they asked about this clause, her parents were told, "They never do that stuff, it’s just in the contract."
However, according to an article in the U.K. magazine by Decca Aitkenhead, The Guardian’s Observer, students at Tranquility Bay are restrained and isolated if they fail to share their most intimate secrets. Scott Burkett, who left Tranquility Bay in 2001, explains how the program intimidates kids into admitting things they didn’t do. He told Aitkenhead "You can only move forward in the program if you share intimate details of your life. If you don’t share, you’re not working the program and they’ll take away your points. In a meeting your rep will suddenly pick on you and say, ‘Right I want to hear something private right now. Come on. Or do you want to go to OP? [Students in OP must lie face down on their stomachs for hours.]’ And I’m going through this inventory in my head real fast, thinking what will hurt least to say? Because you tell her secrets and then she uses it against you later. Like, say a guy mentions problems with his girlfriend, a month later she’ll have him up and she’s saying, ‘You don’t think she’s waiting , do you? She’s laughing at you behind your back. How many of your friends do you think she’s sleeping with right now?’ So I start telling her something and she just says, "I’m not listening to that, that’s not deep," and she calls for the guard to take me to OP. And I’ve got until he gets in the room to give her something better or he’s taking me." (For photos of students in OP, go to www.wwaspsinfo.net/gallery/tranquilitybay/page1.html ).
Students are rewarded for telling on each other. Since masturbation is strictly forbidden at Tranquility Bay, Burkett related how some kids earned points by turning in incriminating dirty tissues, belonging to a new 13-year old Tranquility Bay resident. The tissues were displayed at dinner and he was mocked by his peers for the rest of the evening. A perusal of the Jamaican newspapers over the last few years reveals that one Tranquility Bay client took her own life by jumping out a window while two boys ran way from the facility last summer and were missing for three days.
Often conditions at these "therapeutic treatment centers" are unsanitary and unhealthy. In the case of boot camps, conditions have been so physically unhealthy and demanding that at least six teens have died while participating. Aaron Bacon, was sent to North Star Expeditions in Utah in March of 1994 where he was made to trek canyons and live on what he could catch. Tight boots blistered his feet, he lost weight dramatically as he lived on the diet of lentils, rice and desert creatures the program provided. Then, he developed an ulcer, became too weak, incontinent, and unable to control his bowels. Aarons’ requests for help met with disdain and mockery. He was refused medical care until his condition became alarming. The staff EMT who treated him never examined him and made him promise to keep hiking.. Because Aaron kept a diary, his suffering is recorded on frequently blood-stained pages. At the final stages, he had lost his eyesight. Finally, he died. When his mother and father came to collect his body, it was bruised, swollen, emaciated and covered with sores; his mother was able to identify him because of a small scar from his childhood. Lance Jagger and Bill Henry, the operators of North Star, had been implicated earlier in the death of a young girl named Kristin Chase at another boot camp called Summit Quest. The two had been charged with negligent homicide and child abuse, but were not prosecuted after they agreed to testify against their boss, Steve Cartisano who had pretty much invented the tough love boot camp. Thus, Jagger and Henry were free to work in the same industry again, tragically with the same results. (For more on the death of Aaron Beacon see, http://outside.away.com/magazine/1095/10f_deth.html )
Although the Bacon family won a large civil settlement, the criminal trials were less than just. The North Star staff was charged with negligent homicide; most of them took pleas and served little or no time. Bill Henry’s wife was not charged, so he violated the terms of his release by moving to another state, so she could work at the very similar Sage Walk School in Bend, Oregon which is still in operation today. Their son, who was also on probation in the Bacon murder, violated his probation six months later and was hired by Sage Walk as well. The pattern of boot camp criminals getting off without much punishment and being free to start again is an issue Szalavitz addresses in Help at Any Cost.
The fact that these atrocities continue to occur as "tough love" programs continue to operate is unfathomable, but true. On April 21, 2005, Travis Parker, a 13 year old Georgia boy, died after being restrained the day before by staff members of the Applachian Wilderness Camp for over an hour. The staff would not give him his asthma inhaler. They did not believe Travis was having difficulty breathing, so they ignored him until his body became limp and he lost his pulse.
In December 2004, Rebecca Ramirez returned to Victory Christian Academy, a school for troubled girls in Jay, Florida, to confront Michael Palmer, the owner of the school, who Ramirez says raped her. Prior to opening VCA, Palmer had run a similar school in San Diego, which the state closed down after Palmer refused to seek licensing and abuse was alleged. (Palmer also owned Genesis by the Sea which was closed down by the Mexican government in 2004 after abuse charges. The property was surrounded by an electric fence and neighbors reported hearing cries at night.) A report on WEAR TV stated that VCA students are not allowed to talk or look at other students for the first three months, that all communication with the home is cut off initially and that students are put in a room the size of a pantry for days at a time if they are not cooperative. One former student told the International Survivors Action Committee that when punished, she was forced to wear "the silly dress" but no panties. Last year, Palmer registered two additional corporations to the same address. It should be noted that in Florida religious schools are not subject to the regulations the state requires for public schools.
Is there any evidence that tough love programs even work? According to Szalavitz, "there is no evidence that residential care is better than care given at home---in fact some studies find that kids in residential treatment do worse than those treated in the community. One study compared kids with depression, anxiety and attention/deficit hyperactivity randomly assigned to either residential or at-home treatment…63 percent of those treated at home had fewer symptoms…the majority of those in residential care got worse. Only 11 percent of those in live-treatment improved." A statement by the National Institutes of Health reads, "Programs that seek to prevent violence and other health-risking behaviors through fear and tough treatment do not work…and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse rather than simply not working…." In fact, last year The Miami Herald reported that Christopher Sutton of Coral Gables, had hired a hit man to kill his parents because of his anger at being sent to Paradise Cove, a now-closed "youth treatment center" in Western Samoa where he was beaten, hog tied and fed with the feet of his captors.
Also, the threat that " your daughter will be dead if you don’t send her to our program" seems to be greatly exaggerated. When Decca Aikenhead visited Tranquility Bay, she conducted supervised interviews with some of the teens, several of whom maintained that without the program they would be dead. When she asked how they would have died, none could explain. Aikenhead writes "It soon became apparent that despite all having been programmed with the script of their near death, no one has paused to wonder how it would have happened." Szalavitz points out that in 2002 "17,944 youths between ten and twenty died…that’s from all causes and out of a population of some 40 million people that age…Even if all of the risky behavior related deaths occurred only among the highest risk kids---the 4 million estimated by the Surgeon General to have serious behavioral and psychological problems---this would still only put their risk of death at four in 1,000 per year." Entering a school or boot camp seems to be far riskier; at least 8 children have died at various boot camps, discipline centers and juvenile facilities since the fall of 2005.
Aitkenhead suggests that the evolution of tough love centers and programs may be the result of the American attitude towards teens when she writes, "Also striking is the assumption parents make of entitlement to their child’s affection, as though this is a legal right. "(One parent placed her daughter at Tranquility Bay because "She just didn’t like us".) Messy divorce and remarriage are the norm among these parents. Their expectations of loyalty from their children, though, suggest a gilt-edged ideal of American family life so brittle any rebellion or defiance is literally terrifying. This culture then creates its own logic—for once adolescence is criminalized, Tranquility Bay [or someplace similar] becomes the obvious solution."
How can schools like Tranquility Bay and its stateside equivalents be stopped from abusing children? In December 2005, Democrat Rep. George Miller of California asked the Congress’s General Accounting Office to begin a fact-finding investigation of tough love centers.(His previous request that former Attorney General John Ashcroft investigate WWASPS was turned down in 2004.) He told John Gorenfeld, a writer for Alternet.org, "Far too little is known about the so-called behavior modification industry, even as it has surged in size since the 1990s, and that is why I have asked the GAO to review it…There is no excuse for allowing children to be placed in unlicensed programs where their physical or emotional health is jeopardized." In Help At Any Cost, Szalavitz states that kids in these facilities can suffer post traumatic stress disorder.
"Miller, senior Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, is pushing for a bill, H.R. 1738, to increase state licensing of the teen control trade and hold Americans who run foreign discipline schools accountable to U.S. laws….Rep. Miller’s spokesman Tom Kiley said that substandard education is just one of the areas of concern that the GAO needs to help resolve about WWASPS and the wider industry. ..[WWASPS affiliate] Academy at Ivy Ridge in New York had to refund more than $1 million after pretending to offer legitimate high school diplomas."
According to Alternet, "Miller’s proposed End Institutional Abuse Against Children Act, would give states $50 million to help license schools, establish new criminal and civil penalties for leaders of abusive programs and let the government regulate overseas camps that are presently beyond the arm of the law. Right now, the State Department warns that it "has no authority to regulate these entities."
Of course, in any investigation, Deep Throat’s advice to "follow the money" is appropriate. The founder of WWASPS, Bob Lichfield and his family and colleagues have given over $1 million dollars to the GOP. Therefore, some resistance to a Democrat-proposed plan to regulate tough love facilities is not surprising. WWASP schools argue that they can regulate themselves with a board of industry members and that faith-based schools should have exemptions from state regulations. In Montana, it looks as though this model will become the standard. Spring Creek Lodge Academy, a "highly structured boarding school" which just severed its connections with WWASPS in June of this year, where Karlye Anne Newman hanged herself in 2004 and where students to this day are forbidden to mention her name, put forth a $50,000 lobbying effort to keep regulation among insiders. Spring Creek’s website states "Spring Creek Academy in not therapeutic in nature."
As of this writing, WWASPS and Bob Lichfield are being sued by a group of parents whose children attended their facilities. Why this case is not receiving the same publicity as other human rights issues is a mystery. It is about the torture and murder of American children and the financial exploitation of their well-meaning but distraught parents by people with no skill in education, psychology or anything but sadism and profit. Isn’t anyone paying attention?
For more information about WWASPs, boot camps, tough love and related topics, see http://www.isaccorp.org/articles.html
return to pct homepage