The Trouble Team Industry: Should the Federal Government Intervene?

CORINNE MILNAMOW—In highly isolated areas of some states are wilderness camps—camps that are advertised to many parents as therapeutic getaways for teens with behavioral issues. However, for the thousands of teens who have attended these camps, most do not receive actual therapeutic treatment. Instead, they receive discipline—more appropriately defined as abuse—leading to a lifetime of emotional trauma for this group of individuals.

Wilderness camps are part of what many refer to as the ”troubled teen” industry, “a network of private youth programs, therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, religious academies, wilderness programs, and drug rehabilitation centers . . . .” The troubled teen industry has existed for over fifty years, and it is estimated that it receives around $23 billion each year to treat youth with behavioral and psychological problems.

Teens can enter these facilities in several different ways. Often a teen’s parents will voluntarily place them in a facility, but teens in the foster care system or juvenile justice programs can also enter these facilities through funding by state and local governments. Additionally, teens can be placed in these facilities by mental health specialists, refugee resettlement agencies, and school districts.

Shockingly, these facilities have been vastly unregulated for years. Many of these programs do not accept government funding and are not bound by federal regulations, which gives individual states the authority to regulate the troubled teen industry. Unfortunately, many states exempt these facilities from licensing requirements, and these facilities are not subject to regulation by education and child welfare agencies because of their religious affiliation.

In recent years, numerous lawsuits have been filed against facilities throughout the country. In 2020, a class action lawsuit was filed against “two unaffiliated Wyoming programs, Trinity Teen Solutions and Triangle Cross Ranch, [which] allege[d] mental and physical abuse, forced labor and potentially human trafficking that resulted in post-traumatic stress disorder.” Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against Agape Boarding School in Missouri—nine in April 2022 alone—but Agape Boarding School is still operating today. A trial is set to begin in November 2022 over abuse allegations

As a result of the alarming number of individuals who bravely chose to speak out on the abuse they received at the hands of these programs, some states have started to regulate the troubled teen industry. In March 2021, Utah had more troubled teen programs than any other state. As a result, Utah’s governor “signed into law a measure requiring greater transparency and accountability from these facilities . . . .” Similarly, Montana enacted legislation in 2019 that closed down several troubled teen programs. Oregon law “regulates ‘secure transport’ companies hired to forcibly take kids to wilderness or residential programs.” Further, California law requires “residential treatment programs to operate on a nonprofit basis to ensure that financial incentives do not affect the quality of care.”

Unfortunately, many states still do not have laws that regulate these programs, and even in the states that do, there are questions on whether these laws have been effective. In Montana, several complaints recorded after newly enacted legislation took effect led to the investigation of a troubled teen facility. The investigations discovered that “staff members waited more than an hour to call 911 after two boys ran away and then punished the boys by separating them from other students for two days and making them sleep in tents in shorts and T-shirts in below-freezing temperatures.” While the program voluntarily closed its doors in September 2022, it was never formally penalized after the investigation.

While leaving regulation to the states has produced mixed results, the federal government has also historically been ineffective in enacting legislation to regulate the troubled teen industry. In fact, the most impactful steps have come not from the government and instead from the significant public attention recently generated after celebrity Paris Hiltonannounced that as a teenager, she was the victim of years of abuse at a facility in Utah. With the input of Hilton and other victims like her, Congress proposed the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, “which aims to further research the alleged abuse at these facilities as well as create a Youth in Congregate Care Bill of Rights.”

Many activists believe abuse in troubled teen facilities will continue without federal legislation, and Hilton and others are pushing for Congress to enact the Accountability for Congregate Care Act. Currently, because of the small number of state laws that are inconsistently regulated, “program owners accused of abuse and mistreatment [would be able] to hop across state lines and reopen, rebrand, and continue to profit from children.”