'MURDERS YOUR SOUL' Kidnapped at night, starved & brainwashed into sick ‘confessions’… inside ‘cult-like’ £140K school for wayward teens

New Netflix documentary The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnappings lifts the lid on school's shocking secrets

The Sun/Marc 5, 2024

By Alison Maloney

The shiny brochure shows kids on horseback, swimming in a lake and relaxing in a breathtaking setting of "237 acres, with plenty of outdoor recreational space and nature trails”.

But reality for the teenagers sent to the Academy at Ivy Ridge, in New York state, could not have been further from the idyllic image of the marketing material.

Kidnapped by strangers with handcuffs - often in the middle of the night while their parents stood by - they were locked indoors, banned from talking, looking out of the window or making eye contact.

Here, they suffered months of abuse, including solitary confinement, food and sleep deprivation and violent restraint.

The kids, classed as “troubled teens”, were “brainwashed” into false confessions of drug use and subjected to shocking verbal abuse, including one 13-year-old repeatedly told her dad’s death in a car crash was her fault and she should have died instead.

The school, which opened in 2001, was part of a multi-billion dollar industry that exploited parents’ fears over wayward teenagers, charging up to £140,000 to help “bring the family back together” with a tough love programme.  

Shockingly, thousands of US kids are still being put into similar centres, which are largely unregulated and run by unqualified staff, and allegations of abuse are still rife.

Former pupil Katherine Kubler, who spent 15 months at Ivy Ridge from the age of 16, is now fronting a Netflix documentary, The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnappings.

Together with a group of fellow survivors, she returns to the now-abandoned building and discovers hundreds of files that detail every minute of the pupils’ daily lives.

She also delves into the life of the man who made millions from the cult-like ‘Program’, through a facilities franchise he modelled on McDonald’s.

Katherine, 35, says her ordeal at the institution, which she left in 2005, has left her with panic attacks, social anxiety and complex Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).   

“It's rough,” she says. “There are nights I'll just be in the foetal position crying.

"They tried to murder children's souls.”

Abducted by strangers

Katherine’s tragic story begins a week before her second birthday, when her mum died of breast cancer.

Five years later, dad Ken remarried but Katherine struggled to get on with new wife Jane, who she referred to as her “evil stepmother”.

Their relationship deteriorated in her teens and she says: “I started acting up, drinking and smoking, sneaking out, like a typical teenager."

Originally sent to a Christian boarding school in Long Island, she was expelled for drinking an alcoholic lemonade and was told her dad was coming to collect her.

Instead, two men with handcuffs turned up at the principal’s office.

“My parents had hired two strangers to forcibly escort me to Academy at Ivy Ridge in upstate New York,” she says.

Her devastated dad, who pulled her out of Ivy Ridge after 15 months, says he was duped by the “cult-like” organisation, which also ran monthly seminars for parents and would send local advocates to talk them round if they spotted a “wobble”.

“I wish I had figured it out really quick but it was terrible mistake and I'm so sorry,” he tells Katherine. “I'm with you on the Programs, they manipulate parents. I'm so sorry.”

Arriving at 3am, in the pitch black, she was met by staff who stopped her from getting bags from the car, telling her “you can't go outside anymore” before marching her to a dorm where they strip-searched her and made her jump up and down naked. Girls were also given drug tests and pregnancy tests.

I hope you'll remember me this Christmas. Tell me what I'm still doing wrong.  Why am I not good enough to come home yet?

Other children at this school had been dragged screaming from their bedrooms in the dead of night, by the sinister “Transfer Services”, while pleas to their parents fell on deaf ears.

Sociologist Janja Lalich says the night-time abduction alone is enough to cause children “lifelong trauma.”

Pupils were assigned “Hope Buddies” to teach them the extensive rules - which includes a ban on looking out of the window, eye contact, touching and even smiling - with facial expressions monitored at all times.

Even in her four-bed dorm Katherine was forbidden to speak to roommates at any time, to close the door or turn the light off.

If they went to the toilet, the stall door was kept open and they were watched by a staff member.

Contact with parents was limited to a letter a week, monitored by staff, and any negative comments about the Program was harshly punished.

Even during Christmas and summer holidays, the teenagers were not allowed to go home.

A heartbreaking letter to her parents, which Katherine wrote during her 15-months at the Academy, reads: “I hate being in a Program for the holidays. I hope you'll remember me this Christmas. Tell me what I'm still doing wrong.  Why am I not good enough to come home yet?”

She says: “I remember thinking I'm here another night because my dad doesn't want me. He could come get me at any point.”

'Brainwashing' seminars

In order to move through the “Program”, and secure their release, the teens won points for good behaviour and moved up through six levels, each one meaning more ‘privileges.’

But while 1,000 points would get to the next stage, each tiny transgression saw points deducted - for example talking in the dorm would wipe out all points.

“Level three was a big deal because you were finally allowed to have a 15 minute phone call, once a month, with your parents,” says Katherine. “But staff listened in and if you said anything bad about the Program, they would disconnect the call.

“You can't leave the Program until you get to level six but it's impossible to get points.They make it so you're just stuck here forever. “

They told me ‘the world would have been a better place if you had died in that car accident and not your father'


As well as the points system, pupils had to get through day-long “seminars” which Katherine says used “brainwashing techniques” modelled on the Synanon cult of the 1960s.

They were deprived of food and sleep and made to perform repetitive physical tasks like “crawling around on the floor like a baby” for hours on end, meaning she “blacked out a lot”.

One activity was hitting the floor with heavy towels wrapped in duct tape for over an hour.

“They would play meditative music and guide us into a trance-like state,” she says, adding they used details of the girls’ lives to “break you.”

“They told me ‘Yell at your mum. Pretend the floor’s your mum and tell her how mad you are she abandoned you.’ She died of cancer. It wasn't her fault.”

Another inmate, Diana, was traumatised after losing her dad in a crash.  

She was in the Program for three and a half years and said the staff competed to “break Diana.”

“The worst thing they did to me was telling me that I needed to be accountable for my dad dying,” she says. “My father died in a car accident when I was a toddler. We rolled numerous times and landed upside down. It was horrific.

“The car accident should be the worst thing that ever happened to me, and seeing him die, but being in Ivy Ridge was way worse because they made me relive it.

“They told me ‘the world would have been a better place if you had died in that car accident and not your father'.”

The staff made her write an essay saying the accident was her fault and “I killed my dad”.

“They had a name tag for me that just said ‘mistake’ because it was a mistake I lived and my dad died. No one could call me by my name. They had to call me ‘the mistake’.”

Sick confessions

Each group had a “family rep” who would liaise with the families on the progress of their child.

In one chilling document, found at the abandoned building, the family reps were advised how to deal with allegations of abuse by the children - saying claims were “not credible” and calling the children “manipulators”.

Katherine’s friend Alexa was in the Program for 22 months, from the age of 15, and her rep told her parents her drug test “lit up like a Christmas tree” - despite papers found in the documentary proving they were negative.

“I'd never done drugs, but I had no way to refute it,” she says.

After being repeatedly told she would never “progress in your program” until she took “accountability” she decided she would have to lie to get home.

“I had never done drugs in my entire life but in order for me to graduate the Program I had to confess to using heroin, crack, cocaine, LSD, PCP …   it kept growing and growing.”

Alexa also claims she was groomed by one of the female staff who sexually abused her.

“I can still feel her breathing on my neck and smell what she smells like.

“I remember pretending to be asleep and praying she wouldn’t touch me. There were multiple times that happened. She ruined my life in so many ways.”

Diana - who refused to comply with the Program - says she was forcibly drugged after refusing to take mediation that left her “zombified.”

She claims a member of staff who weighed “100 lbs more” than her sat on her chest then held her nose while putting her hand over her mouth.

“I was grabbing for anything, I couldn’t  breathe … then I started blacking out. I was going in and out of consciousness.

“I fought for a pretty long time. But if I had continued I'm assuming I would not have been here today.”

Violent restraint

In the boys’ section of the school, which was separated from the girls’, violent restraint was commonplace.

Katherine and her group found documents detailing over 200 restraints in one and a half months, with prominent staff members signing them off.

“These are handwritten, signed and dated confessions of abuse by the abusers,” says Katherine.

Reams of CCTV videos from the unit showed chilling footage of violent attacks by staff, including one where 16-year-old Quintin is bundled to the floor by several men, with his arms twisted behind him.

He was then removed to another small windowless room where there was no camera.

“They fed me two pieces of bread and eight ounces of milk in this room, for two weeks straight,” he says.

He was made to sit on a hard chair, with just an inch on the seat, with feet together, knees fist-length apart, while staring at the wall for hours on end.

“I was so tired and my head went down. All of a sudden somebody takes the back of my head and pushes my chair so it slides back…  then he shoved my head between my legs to where it hurt, threw me on the ground.”

He was left bruised and bleeding and refused medical attention, and he adds: “I'm still dealing with this because I spent every night of my life blacking out for five years so I didn't have to think about the problems.”

While these allegations stretch back to the early 2000s, there are many institutions using similar methods today.

In April 2020, 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks died of asphyxiation in an institution in Michigan, after several staff members physically restrained him for throwing a sandwich.

One member of staff was later convicted of child abuse and two more of involuntary manslaughter.

Billion dollar business

Ivy Ridge was one of over 20 facilities in the US, Czech Republic and Costa Rica, run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools - or WWASPS - founded by Mormon Robert Lichfield, all of which have now closed.

Unregulated and manned by untrained staff, they advocated attack therapy, humiliation, shaming and emotional abuse.

A sinister Teen Help line advised parents, worried about normal teenage behaviour, that their children were headed “for death or prison” if they didn’t enter the Program and offered the “transfer services”.

But the “behavioural correction units” didn't come cheap, with Katherine’s dad forking out £60,000 “to give me PTSD”, and the documentary reveals Lichfield raked in millions.

Despite promises the Program would ‘reunite your family’, Katherine had struggled to forgive her father and says her family,  Alexa’s and many more have been “splintered” because of their ordeal.

Most survivors suffer deep mental health issues and Katherine claims at least 40 of her Ivy Ridge contemporaries have died by suicide or overdose.

While WWASPS no longer exists the industry is still thriving, with over 100,000 children in the ‘schools’ and in Utah, where Lichfield originates, receipts total half a billion dollars.

“They're still out there, institutionalising children with little to no oversight or regulation,” says Katherine.

“People need to know that these programmes exist, that they're unregulated and that the harm is monumental.”

The Troubled Teens Industry

The troubled teens industry, in the US, is estimated to be worth several billion dollars and encompasses residential treatment centres, wilderness programmes and ‘therapeutic’ boarding schools. 

Many work on ideas formed by the drug rehabilitation programme, Synanon, founded in 1958 by Charles Dederich, which had become a cult by the late 1970s.

Among the practices used are forms of "the game," a group attack therapy session, and some TTI programs use primal therapy, a discredited form of therapy which involves reenacting traumatic and painful moments such as rape.

The Synanon teachings were the basis of WWASPS, formed by Richard Lichfield in 1998, as well as other organisations claiming to help struggling teens get back on track.

The institutions have variously been accused of using solitary confinement, forced labour, kidnapping, false imprisonment and restraint methods, including the stress position.

In 2020, Paris Hilton spoke out about her “continuous torture” at the Provo Canyon boarding school in Utah, where she spent 11 months as a teenager and says staff “were physically abusive, hitting and strangling us.”  She claims she and other students were sexually abused by staff members who would forcibly “perform medical exams”.

There have been several deaths in TTI programmes, including:

  • Kristen Chase, 16, who died from heatstroke during Wilderness Therapy program in Utah, in 1990
  • 14-year-old Tony Haynes, who was forced to eat dirt and died at a desert boot camp in 2001
  • Ian August, who died of heat exhaustion Skyline Journey Wilderness Program in Utah, in 2002
  • In 2002, a 17-year-old girl named Kiley Jaquays fell to her death while visiting the Bloomington Caves in Utah with her residential treatment centre, Integrity House.
  • 16-year-old Cornelius Fredericks, who died in a Michigan school while being restrained in 2020

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.

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