Desperate Measures

New York Times/September 10, 2001
By Sara Rimer

Columbia, S.C. -- The parents, who are divorced, were cataloging their fears and frustrations over their 14-year-old son. He had a learning disability and a hyperactivity disorder. He was failing in school. He was depressed, given to fits of rage, and seemed to have no idea how to make friends. "His peer group doesn't want anything to do with him," said his father, a 53-year-old dentist. "His social skills are horrible. "He has no remorse," the father went on. "He stole $100 from me over Easter."

The boy lives with his mother, who is 42 and has recently remarried. "I have a concern that he could kill himself, or someone else," she said. The parents had been consulting experts about their son for nearly a decade, and now they were in the office of yet another professional, Ann Carol Price, an educational consultant. They were thinking of sending him to one of the specialized boarding schools or wilderness therapy programs they had heard about, which promise to rescue out-of-control teenagers through rigid structure, intensive counseling, peer support and strenuous outdoor activities.

These schools and programs - and consultants like Ms. Price, who help parents find the right ones - are part of a multibillion- dollar industry that has surged in the last 10 years to satisfy what many say is a booming market in parental desperation.

Parents who are unable or unwilling to handle troubled teenagers on their own now have more avenues of outside help than ever. Their options include therapeutic boarding schools, "emotional growth" schools and residential treatment schools. There are rural farms and desert boot camps, many imposing strict military or religious discipline. Some programs promise help for specific problems, like anorexia, depression, drug abuse or anger over a divorce. Some are as well established as a prep school, others as small and informal as a teacher's home.

Their quality varies widely. Many have excellent reputations, while experts say a few are outright frauds. Many are simply ineffectual. A small minority have come under law enforcement scrutiny, including a program in Samoa that was closed after reports of sexual and physical abuse, and a desert boot camp in Arizona where a 14-year-old boy died in July.

What these programs have in common is cost: usually thousands of dollars a month. A decade ago there were perhaps two dozen specialized schools and programs for troubled youths. The Independent Educational Consultants Association, in Fairfax, Va., lists 250 today that it considers reputable - it estimates that there are hundreds of others out there - and new ones are opening at the rate of three a month. While an increasing number of programs are appearing in the Northeast and the South, most are concentrated in the West.

The number of consultants has risen, too. The consultants' association now lists more than 365, more than double the total of a decade ago, said Mark Sklarow, its executive director, who added that there were probably hundreds more who are not listed with the association.

"It used to be that if your kid was acting out, you told him, `Pack your bags, you're going to live with your Aunt Betty in California,' " said Dan Kindlon, a Harvard child psychology professor and a co-author of "Raising Cain" (Ballantine Books, 1999), a book about modern boys. "We look now to institutions to do this stuff."

These parents say their children are struggling not only with the universal ills of adolescence, but also with far more dangerous and intractable problems. These include drug addiction, violence and sexual promiscuity as well as depression, bulimia, anorexia, bipolar disorders and self-mutilation. Some problems, like obsessive computer use and illegal hacking, did not exist a generation ago. The parents of one teenager sent him to an emotional growth school in Idaho after he had become adept at breaking into corporate computer systems.

A Risky New World

The growth of the industry reflects changes in the larger culture that make raising children harder than ever, experts say. Families are splintered, and the influences of media and technology on children are pervasive. In a society marked by affluence and overwork, where therapy is routine, desperate parents will naturally be more inclined to seek outside help for both minor and severe problems, the experts say.

James Garbarino, a director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University, said the risks for teenagers were also greater than ever. "Parents 40 years ago didn't have to have the expertise to monitor the Internet," said Professor Garbarino, who is also the author of "Parents Under Siege" (The Free Press, 2001), about the difficulties of raising what he says is an increasing number of troubled teenagers.

"You didn't have to monitor TV watching. You could be a sloppier parent years ago. Today a parent has to have a vigilance, an awareness, and to some degree more luck." But while experts praise many of the new programs and schools, some also say that their emergence partly reflects the failures of a generation of permissive, distracted parents. And many of the parents interviewed for this article would agree.

"I don't think there's one of us who has a kid in a program who doesn't feel like we've failed," said Susan Stevens of West Bloomfield, Mich., who sent her son to a therapeutic school. "We're the boomers. We read all the books. We were supposed to raise the perfect kids."

Yet for all their guilt, parents like Ms. Stevens also say that they had no alternatives. Parents who turn to this industry have already made the rounds of doctors, therapists, clergy members and guidance counselors. They have exhausted the available resources at the public schools and the traditional private schools.

These parents, in many cases, end up intimidated by their own children. "I refer to some of these kids as emotional terrorists: no matter how you look at it, the home is a war zone," said Rudy Bentz, headmaster of Academy at Swift River, a therapeutic boarding school in western Massachusetts.

An Industry Without Oversight

Parents unsure of how to help their teenagers may only be further confused by the diversity of specialized schools. The industry has grown with little oversight. There is no central licensing organization, although the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, which was established three years ago in Savannah, Ga., is working to develop a set of standards and ethical guidelines for the industry. The schools the association lists as members prohibit corporal punishment.

The association also recommends that parents not try to find programs on their own - through magazine advertisements and the Internet, for example - since it may be difficult to discern a reputable program from a fly-by-night operation.

"Parents are frantic," said Ms. Price, who is a member of the consultants' association. "They're worried sick about their children. They have a tendency to grab anything that sounds good. There are a lot of programs out there. Some are wonderful, some are dreadful. There are plenty of people out there - the ones I work with - who have spent a lifetime taking care of kids. Others have figured out there is big money to be made off troubled kids."

And the help is not cheap. A six-week wilderness program in Idaho can cost $16,000 or more. The schools cost about $50,000 to $80,000 a year. While some parents can easily afford the costs, a striking number of other parents mortgage their homes or borrow from relatives to pay tuition.

Ms. Stevens, 47, borrowed the money to send her teenage son to a $17,000 five-week wilderness program and then a $4,200-a- month therapeutic boarding school from the college fund her parents had established for her two children. "It's your kid," said Ms. Stevens, who is divorced from her son's father. "You'll do anything."

Ms. Price, who has been in the business for 18 years and is a licensed professional counselor, charges $2,700 for her services, which include a daylong consultation, a psychological and educational evaluation and follow-up visits.

Another consultant, Lon Woodbury, charges $900 for a series of phone and fax consultations from his home in Bonner's Ferry, Idaho. He also operates a Web site,, that gives information on schools and programs. In addition to the costs of schools and consultants, many parents spend another $1,500 and up to hire trained escorts - sometimes retired football players - to take their children to the programs.

"One day I woke up and there were these two big dudes sitting my room," said Michael Haynes, 19, of Towson, Md., who was taken to a wilderness program in Utah two years ago. "They were like, don't make any sudden moves. Here are your clothes, you're coming with us. "They were really nice dudes. I would rather have chilled with them than with my parents."

'This Is Survival'

While parents are sending their children away to school, they are hardly abdicating responsibility. Schools demand intensive involvement by parents, including participation in workshops and therapy sessions in which they explore in excruciating detail the mistakes they made.

Alice Moss, 49, a hospital fund-raiser in Beaufort, S.C., said that shortly after she enrolled her teenage son in a wilderness therapy program for help with his drug problem and failing grades, the program mailed her and her husband, Dean, who runs a public utility, 12 audiocassettes on rearing children. A lot of the advice, said Mrs. Moss, who also has a daughter, was about setting limits, which had not been her strong suit.

"We gave them too much room to make their own decisions," she said. "I was good at idle threats. I wanted my children to love me. I think I confused that with wanting them to like me."

Of the dozen parents interviewed for this article, almost all said that without the specialized schools, their teenagers might have ended up in prison - or, worse, dead. "This is not boutique parenting," said Mr. Garbarino, whose stepson attended such a school. "This is survival."

A 53-year-old librarian in Los Angeles sent his 15-year-old daughter to a wilderness therapy program after he discovered she was using cocaine and having sex in motel rooms. "Instead of being firm with my daughter, I told her what I thought she shouldn't do, and then left it up to her," he said, explaining that he had raised her in opposition to his own rigidly strict upbringing. "I told her I wasn't going to be upset if she had a drink at a party or tried pot, but I didn't want her to touch hard drugs. To a teenager that's like saying, `Do anything you want.' It was a big mistake."

One woman, a university administrator, sent her teenage daughter to an emotional growth school after discovering that she was a heroin addict. In retrospect, the woman said, she believes that she was not firm enough with her daughter. She would put in a 60-hour work week, and then come home and wash the dishes because it was easier than getting her daughter to do them. "I just copped out," she said. "It's parenting stuff, and I was too tired for it."

She recalled that one of her daughter's proudest moments at the school was digging a stump out of the ground in the snow. "For me it was an epiphany," the mother said. "I had never forced her to stick to anything. I was constantly bailing her out."

Running Out of Options

Don Haynes, 50, a professor of public affairs at the University of Baltimore, sent his son, Michael, two years ago to the Academy at Swift River because he had been smoking a lot of marijuana, not going to school and otherwise acting out of control.

Intense counseling sessions at the school helped him to recognize that he had been too demanding. Professor Haynes had become the president of a youth lacrosse league in Towson, Md., when Michael was about 10. "I pushed the hell out of him," he said. "I felt if Michael wasn't playing lacrosse in one of the more competitive leagues, it was an embarrassment to me. That was one of the stupider things I could have thought. I think I pushed him too far. I think it hurt him."

Parents say that it is painful to turn their children over to strangers, but that they feel they have no choice. "All of a sudden I was rationing out his care to different service agencies," said William Cottrell, 52, an anesthesiologist in North Carolina, who hired escorts to fly his 14-year-old son, Billy, from a wilderness therapy program in Idaho, where he had run away, to the Provo Canyon School, a hospital-like school in Utah.

Dr. Cottrell was relying on the guidance of Ms. Price, the consultant. "It just boiled down to the point where I didn't have too many options," he said. "It was a brave new world. I was trusting Ann Carol Price."

Dr. Cottrell and his wife divorced when their son was 9. The boy moved to Florida to live with his mother and soon began to have behavioral problems. Though he was an exceptionally bright boy, he was eventually kicked out of two public high schools and a military academy, where he burned a dollar bill in front of a captain.

"I was getting mentally exhausted," said Dr. Cottrell, who said his son's problems probably stemmed in part from the family's instability. And while he was an involved father, he said, he was also distracted by his medical practice.

"I taught all my kids how to read when they were 4," he said. "At the same time I was working long, hard hours. I was probably alienated from them." Billy Cottrell, now 21 and in his final year at the University of Chicago, blames the public schools, where he says he was bored in the classroom and beaten up by his peers, for his problems. Acting out was his way of fighting back. "I found that getting in trouble, and rebelling, all of a sudden instead of getting beat up, you're admired by people," he said. "You're also fighting the school system, which you despise."

As proud as he is of his son's success in college, Dr. Cottrell recalls the embarrassment he felt about sending him to the Utah school. "I heard other parents saying, my kid's going to this private school, or that big- shot school, and my kid was going to some place no one ever heard of in Provo."

During the program, however, his son's behavior began to improve. He is to graduate from the University of Chicago next year with degrees in math and physics. He hopes to attend graduate school in physics. Dr. Cottrell said he had no doubt the program was worth it. "Spending $80,000 was a no-brainer," he said.

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