The realities of the Troubled Teen Industry

Content Notice: …I don’t even know where to start. Content Notice everything. Kidnapping, sexual assault, psychological abuse, torture, neglect, the list goes on. The term concentration camp comes to mind. I had to pause halfway through this material to vomit. So on and so forth. Proceed cautiously. Tell your kids (if you have them) you love them.

I came upon the notion of the Troubled Teen Industry after being pointed to the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs, a rather innocent sounding acronym given what occurs at these gulags for “troubled youth.” In one of my Facebook groups, a gay man was sent to one program as an angry teen for “behaviour modification.” If the Geneva Convention applied to these youth, WWASP would be violating it. Many programs continue under WWASP’s model, even if WWASP itself has (thankfully) been shuttered–these abuses are continuing today and no longer have the benefit of fitting under a single corporation. One WWASP survivor said death row was kinder to him–he was executed for murdering his parents in an act of revenge for sending him to these camps.

The stories can be chilling. The premise of the WWASP model is not to create function by equipping kids to deal with their difficulties, but by destroying any sense of individuality and sapping them of any will to fight authority. They obey not because they’ve understood why good rules are in place, but because they fear what happens when the rules are broken.

If you learn the rules quickly and have enough wit to conform, you can pass by without much happening to you directly. You’ll still lose an enormous chunk of your childhood–a few months seems to be a “short” stint–and during this time you will receive no meaningful education which “counts.” You’ll hear kids elsewhere in the facility screaming in agony through the vents and down the halls, but as long as you “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” and compartmentalize your personality to the brink of extinction (have fun unpacking it again with all the attendant trauma when you get out), little but chores and tedious audio book exams face you besides the unaccredited sham schooling you receive.

That’s if you’re lucky. Imagine being one of the kids caught in the impossible catch-22 of the WWASP model for three years because you had a mental illness before you started, and having no GED to speak for it. To say nothing of the numerous physical and mental injuries intrinsic in a “behavioural modification” model reliant on alternating bouts of torture and neglect staffed by people with no accreditation in any kind of physical or mental health.

Second warning: This shit is difficult to stomach.

A survivor subjected to two such programs shares her account of the WWASP model. The first, Casa by the Sea; the second, High Impact. Both programs were out of Mexico. Both programs restricted your speech 24/7 to the point where you could not speak at all–if you were given permission you were required to speak in Spanish, and punished if you didn’t (which is a problem if the victim doesn’t speak it).

She was first admitted to Casa by the Sea, and describes difficulties with the absurd rules imposed upon her:

Starting from my first day at the facility, I was kept in a small room the staff called R&R (short for “Restriction Room”) for 2 weeks, at least that was my comprehension of the time I spent facing the yellow tiles in the corner of the room, sitting indian style with my hands behind my back. The cold tile was almost as numbing as the pins and needles you’d get when your circulation gets cut off, but that only started after the 6 hours was up and they let you stretch your legs. This was the go-to stress position, if you’re lucky, you’d only have to sit like that for 4-6 hours, (But oddly enough, this was much less “stressful” than laying on your stomach with your palms up and chin flat on the floor, I’d like to find out, scientifically why that hurt so much.)… but I wasn’t lucky, I got at least 10 hours a day. Throughout this stint in RR I was restrained on numerous occasions for what seemed like any reason at all. Even slightly shifting my weight or moving my fingers and the upper levels would have to report that I was “not following directions” to the staff who left them in charge while they gossiped and drank coffee in the “mama’s house”. This of course would be reason enough for them to assign me another round of “restraint”, a violent, gut wrenching bout of joint manipulating submissions, I couldn’t resist them and I didn’t even try all I could do was cry and plead for them to stop, but nothing I could say would make them stop, (I don’t think they even understood English). They would only let up when I was too beaten down to even utter a moan and left lifelessly panting on the floor.

Being restrained felt like being jumped, first the staff would take you to the ground and apply a generous amount of pressure into your spine by pressing their knee into the small of your back, then they would force your arms into a contorted position being pushed far up the middle of your back. Once they had you in a controlled position often with 2 or more staff members sitting on your legs then they would apply the finishing touch to make sure your chin was laying flat on the ground by pulling your hair and banging/ grinding your chin into the floor. Despite the violent nature of these acts, and their punitive reasons for inflicting them, they always claimed that these “restraints” were for our own safety.

At some point within the seemingly endless days of pain and isolation, I met a man named Jade Robinson. This man was easily twice my size, all muscle mass and had a violent streak to match. He didn’t seem to like me very much and added to that fact, he had just been told by an upper level student that I was “being defiant”. He took it upon himself to administer his own version of restraint which included him, sitting on top of me and twisting my extremities until I couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t even move. At some point during my struggle to regain the ability to breathe I supposedly scratched him with a fingernail, (nails of which I have religiously bitten my whole life) which promoted him to declare me a threat to myself and others, thus constituting more restraining, and more time in this tiny, gutted bathroom. When he had had enough fun testing the flexibility of my arm sockets he would move on to my legs twisting my ankles and then bending my legs up and sitting on them, making my knees feel like they were about to snap in two. At some point during one of the various restraining sessions my leg was gashed open by some jagged tile on the floor, I bled profusely for about an hour or 2 before a nurse came to disinfect and wrap my wound… which was funny because she was actually mad at ME because she had to be called in on her day off. I’m pretty sure I could have used stitches, but apparently those kinds of luxuries were not given to prisoners of Casa By the Sea.

Eventually I was allowed to join the rest of the girls and was administered into what we called a “family”. I was assigned a “buddy” who would explain the rules and be my personal tattle tale. At first it would seem as though I might have had a hard time adjusting to the “rules” of the program, because it was difficult for me to remember to raise my hand before I spoke, stood or looked out of line, and I frequently got consequences for forgetting my water bottle somewhere, being off task for more than 20 seconds or forgetting I had put my pen in my hair before I walked in the bathroom. These might seem in the real world like arbitrary mistakes, but in CBS, these were violations in which you received “consequences” for and once you got 10 consequences, you got a “trend” and that sent you straight to “worksheets” for a whole 8 hours of listening to cassette tapes and staring at a wall. You were not allowed to do school work, and were not allowed to speak, laugh sign or communicate in any way to anyone.

She goes on to describe how she was continuously racking up consequences over her inability to remember the volume of minutiae she was held accountable to. Eventually her punishments escalated to a transfer to a completely different facility and program called High Impact.

Consider this your third warning.

Here are some of the punishments doled at out High Impact:

In High Impact “restraint” was not used to actually restrain a child from any kind of destructive action, instead it was used as a punishment, a punishment that the staff were trigger happy to dole out. I can’t even count how many times I was restrained but I remember that it was more than normal for there to be at least 2 or 3 different girls restrained on a daily basis. The first indication that you are about to be restrained is that the staff will scream at the top of their lungs “Suelo” which is a Spanish word for ground, (caerse al suelo : to fall down, to hit the ground) and every kid in the compound would automatically drop to the ground from where they stood and cover their faces with their arms. Imagine your sense of fear as you realized what was to come next would be truly the most physically painful and emotionally torturous experience in your young life, and there was nothing you could do to stop it from happening. Call for help all you want but no one would hear you and nothing you could do would stop the pain before the staff chose to release you. The first step is for the staff to swiftly tackle the child (usually from a standing position) to the ground. Once the child is on the ground the staff either in groups of 2 or 3 would twist the limbs of the child into excruciatingly painful submissions. They would apply a great deal of pressure by on one knee that is dug into the child’s back while they simultaneously hold the arms behind the back pressing them the furthest they can stretch up the back to the point where the arms pop out of the sockets and the hands touch the back of the ears. (Try putting your hands behind your back and reach for your ears) Then they slam the head down flat on the chin (by pulling the hair) into the rocky dirt (as well actually grinding the chin into the dirt resulting in lacerations and loss of skin). The child didn’t have to resist for this restraint to be very violent, in fact often if a child wasn’t moving or reacting anymore, they would switch positions of restraint in order to ensure that the child is in continuous pain and would not stop until the child had stopped begging for mercy, crying and or if the staff simply became tired. I remember one time I exclaimed to the staff that I couldn’t breathe and they replied: “If you can’t breathe then why are you still screaming?”

These “restraints” would often last anywhere from 20 minutes to hours. After the child stopped struggling the staff would simply sit on top of the child in a hogtied position. After the staff determined that the child was adequately subdued, they would leave the child under staff supervision, in a dog cage where the child would be instructed to either sit or lay in a very painful position for the rest of the day and if it was determined that the child was “not following directions” (which meant moving even in the slightest way), the child would be subjected to another round of “restraint”. To this day, I suffer from a spinal injury that I sustained during restraint that has caused me a great deal of physical pain and labor limitations.

There was another incident that came further into my time at High Impact, this was a day when we were doing our laundry and we each had buckets filled with soapy water that we soaked our clothes in before we washed them on these cement sinks that had ridges on them like a wash board. The owner of the program, Miguel, who was not usually around on a day to day basis came down to talk with the students about what they were “learning”. He must have come up to me first because I don’t recall him speaking to anyone else. He started asking me specific questions, I believe it was about something I mentioned in my letters home to my family and I don’t recall exactly what I said to him but suddenly he called out “Suelo” and he began to administer restraint. The other staff members stepped in and Miguel dumped a bucket of soapy water over my head. This time was fairly different than the other times I was restrained because Miguel didn’t grind my chin into the ground, he held my face down into the mud and I could not breathe. I remember thinking this was how I was going to die, and for a short time I panicked but there was a point where I actually felt as if I was having an out of body experience. To this day the way I remember it is not in 1st person, I can actually see this man holding my face into the ground. I don’t know when this stopped or if I had actually gone unconscious, my assumption is that I did but when I came back into awareness I was laying on my back and the staff were still holding me but I don’t remember being restrained at that point. After the incident Miguel kept repeating that I needed to learn the lesson to be grateful for my life he said this a few times to me even after I graduated and he came to work at Casa By the Sea. I am more than positive that I could have died that day and the sad thing is, considering the amount of pain I was in I would have gladly accepted it.

I was punished repeatedly for licking my lips when they were chapped. When I asked the staff to use some chapstick they decided to give me a candy bar sized piece of wood that they instructed me to clench between my teeth to keep me from licking my lips. I was not allowed to take out the piece of wood out of my mouth for anything but eating or sleeping for 2 weeks, and by that time I was used to the sides of my mouth bleeding and getting splinters in my tongue and lips. I was also (and yes during the same time as the wood in my mouth) instructed to carry a 35-40 lb bag of sand on my back, this bag was big enough that the sand collected at the ends of the bag and would hang around my neck causing a great deal of pain and discomfort. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without this bag for nearly 2 months and I was even instructed to sleep with it on top of me.

One time when I got sick, most likely from dehydration, I vomited almost immediately after I ate which was considered by the staff to be “wasting food”. They told me to eat it again. I refused so one of the staff members grabbed a hand full of my vomit, pulled my head back by pulling my hair and tried to force me to open my mouth. I would not so I was restrained. This also happened again when I chose not to eat a piece of the skin that was left on the chicken (it still had feathers on it)

At High Impact the staff liked to get creative with their punishments. One was to instruct us all to draw lines in the sand with our toothbrushes, after finishing a large area the staff would inspected it, deemed our lines not straight enough stepped all over our lines and told us to start over again. Another punishment they would use was to instruct girls to clean the bathrooms with their tooth brushes and of course we still had to use them after. One particularly grueling punishment was to dig holes in the ground 5 ft deep and 5 ft wide using only a spoon and having the hot desert sun beat down on you all day until you were literally delirious with heat stroke. I later found out that these holes were used to set the concrete bases that would hold the new metal structure that they built to cover the back side of the girls area.

I don’t know what to say. Although these schools have both been closed, there are still facilities to this day operating under WWASP models. These kids have fewer rights than prisoners, for fuck sake.

Who to blame? The former WWASP owners. The Mormons who started the first WWASP program. The Republicans, who antagonize efforts to regulate these camps. The parents, for not listening to their kids when they tried to tell them what was happening. The staff, who could be drawn and quartered with little complaint from me.

Sometimes I am ill in comprehending the breadth of human cruelty.



  1. Jake Harban says

    Who to blame? The former WWASP owners. The Mormons who started the first WWASP program. The Republicans, who antagonize efforts to regulate these camps. The parents, for not listening to their kids when they tried to tell them what was happening. The staff, who could be drawn and quartered with little complaint from me.

    I’d start with the widespread cultural belief that children are property owned by their parents who have no rights as humans (or at least no rights that take priority over their parents’ “right” to absolute control over them).

    Despite our great concern for the theoretical concept of “children” and our outrage over certain particularly egregious acts of child abuse committed by The Other, most of us simply take it as given that children are chattel to be disposed of as their parents wish— everyone from religious nuts to anti-vaxxers defends what they do with a claim of “parental rights” and while many people will quickly argue that “parental rights” have limits, few will even attempt to claim that “parental rights” aren’t a thing. (I use “parental rights” in the sense of a “right” to impose your will on a child by virtue of being their parent; the legal custody often referred to by that term I would call “parental responsibility.”)

    This idea of “parental rights” over children who are considered chattel is the root; from that, we have the system under which child abuse is legal in all but a handful of forms, where children have no recourse against their parents even after reaching adulthood, and as a result, entities like the “troubled teen” industry can operate unchecked. Imposing regulations on the “troubled teen” industry may do a lot of good, but it would only be a bandaid over the gaping wound caused by the belief that children don’t have rights.

    I’ve thankfully never been subjected to any of those “programs” myself, but I have been subjected to something sort of vaguely in the same category. I might post my experiences, but first I need to figure out how I feel about them first. “The program saved my (child’s) life!” is a statement that hits a little too close to home, even if for only semi-related reasons.

  2. Siobhan says


    Between you and Enlightenment Liberal I am definitely becoming skeptical of the notion of parental rights. I had this discussion yesterday at my trans support group–we were all talking about those Baptist and Catholic schools that were subjecting their Queer kids to conversion “therapy.” The parental rights vs. kid’s rights argument came up, and I reframed the entire discussion by pointing out that parental guardianship can be revoked by the State, which makes it not a right. Guardianship is a responsibility, and I argued that many fundamentalist parents were failing those responsibilities. They countered with a slippery slope argument about secular totalitarianism ala Stalin or Mao.

    I’m happy to report that you two have made me reconsider the very idea of parental “rights,” but it’s still a new idea and I’m still sculpting its finer points. But camps like these really hit home the idea that the kid’s rights don’t exist as long as we accept the premise of parental rights to begin with.

    I’m sorry you were subjected to a similar camp. I wish you well in your journey of questioning that experience.

  3. Chris DeVries says

    I should have paid attention to your warnings…that shit almost made me vomit. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to go through something like that, and worse, to have no way of helping yourself beyond submitting to everything, learning what they expect you to do/say and telling them what they want to hear. But parents are paying for the privilege of having their children tortured, children who mostly do actually need some actual, professional help.

    I remember watching, out of curiosity, a British reality program called Brat Camp, about teens from the UK who were enrolled by their parents into a program in Utah that purported to be the last resort for parents with defiant, violent, drug-addicted, extreme-risk-taking teenagers. The producers had clearly done their homework and picked a program that was mostly sane, with qualified staff who actually seemed to empathise with their charges. But there were still plenty of ways in which they violated the participants’ autonomy and self-expression, from requiring natural hair-tones and banning piercings to forced church attendance. They all spent the first few weeks in total, mandated silence too. I get that parents who turn to these “solutions” are having major problems, and I accept that in many cases the intervention appears to work. But how much of that behavioral change is just because the teen is taken out of their normal environment, and isolated from the friends, activities and routines that have gotten them into trouble? Best-case scenario they’ve attended a decent program with trained staff and no abuse, grow up a bit in the process, and use some newfound maturity and a knowledge that their life doesn’t have to be lived the way they were living it to become responsible adults who fulfill their potential. But even the most ethical camps seem an extreme response to a problem that is rarely as extreme as it seems.

  4. says

    Makes you glad your abusive mother wasn’t a religious fundamentalist on top and reserved the right to beat you for herself…

    Oh, and I’m definitely on the “parental rights aren’t a thing” side, though I also know that this is a difficult and dangerous field because we all know how “for the good of the children” is a heavy club used to beat marginalised people over the head with. Right now black mothers are getting punished for perfectly normal things like dropping their kids off at the playground and having something else to do.

    Minorities and socioeconomically disadvantaged families are always under a more watchful eye than nice white middle class families*. So my proposal is that parental rights don’t exist, but maybe something like “family rights” does, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This means that authorities don’t get to interfere in a family unless there’s a serious reason and serious reason needs to be narrowly defined.
    But more importantly would be the shift in public perception. You know, as with corporal punishment: While I think it’s right and important that many countries ban it, it is more important that people understand that and why hitting children is wrong.

    *Believe me, we were the “picture perfect” family. When the whole thing finally came crushing down my aunt said “You were always whom I looked up to. I knew that my family was not perfect and often dysfunctional and we failed often, but you, you were always what I wanted my family to be”

  5. says

    I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again.

    Parents do not have “rights”.

    They have RESPONSIBILITIES. And among these responsibilities is to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their children are fed, sheltered, and clothed, that their children receive at-least-adequate medical care, to teach their children compassion and empathy, and to LOVE AND ACCEPT THEM AS THEY ARE.

    Kids get the short end — told what to wear, what to eat, what to believe, their opinions are dismissed, “you don’t really think that”, “you don’t really feel that way”, they’re not listened to in any meaningful way by adults, anything they’re into or have opinions about, it’s “just a fad/phase”… and then you parents wonder why they don’t listen to the adults in their lives. Yeah, they’re people in training, learning the ropes of humaning and adulting, but we adults have to do our part, too, by listening.

    No, I don’t have kids of my own, but I’ll fight like hell for the kids around me because they deserve better than we got growing up.

  6. Snoof says

    Chris DeVries @3

    I remember Brat Camp! It made me so angry. The problem I had was that it essentially normalised the idea that the correct way to deal with “problem” children was to cut them off from their emotional support, physically exhaust them and let the Stockholm effect (or something very like it) kick in. Plus in many cases the “problem” children are actually just happen to have a sexuality, gender identity or religious practice which their parents/guardians disapprove of.

    Also, even if that particular camp wasn’t an abusive hellhole, the program was essentially giving legitimacy to all the ones that are, since there doesn’t appear to be any oversight of these organisations, judging by the number of children who are injured or killed due to practices like the ones described in Shiv’s post. It’s much like the ‘patent medicine’ scams of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: false claims of cures for nonexistent problems, done by people with no actual medical training or ethics, for a quick buck, with no regulation.

  7. Siobhan says

    @6 Snoof

    Plus in many cases the “problem” children are actually just happen to have a sexuality, gender identity or religious practice which their parents/guardians disapprove of.

    Which was indeed the way I heard about the WWASP program. I know a survivor, a gay man, and he said he had some anger problems which he attributed to being bullied. He didn’t hurt anyone and had his grounding techniques to calm down, which he learned from school counselling. Despite the fact that he had a coping mechanism and hadn’t hurt anyone, this was the stated reason his parents were sending him to “boot camp,” which turned out to be a WWASP branch in Ohio. I’m sure it’s just coincidence that he came out as gay a few weeks prior to being forcibly kidnapped. /s

    @3 Chris

    I get that parents who turn to these “solutions” are having major problems, and I accept that in many cases the intervention appears to work

    Kind of depends on how you define “work.” Again, if one’s idea of a working program is to crank out psychologically injured children who are afraid of what authorities will do to them (a fear which isn’t unreasonable, given what we all just read), then sure, the programs “work.” But almost all of these survivor stories have a 10 year gap between their “I survived this camp” and their “I’m happy now” post-script. The few survivors willing to share their post-camp pre-happiness stories often things to the effect of “I became an alcoholic,” or “I ran away and did drugs,” or “I became a prostitute just to spite my parents.” They’re obviously trying to deal with the long-term effects of torture, and I wouldn’t call that a working solution.

    The troubled youth industry is regulated in Canada, and the programs explicitly state their model functions of positive reinforcement for good behaviour. I haven’t heard any horror stories in the decade or so since this was mandated in law, but it also supports most developmental psychologist’s theories that it is quite possible to get children to reconsider their own priorities without obliterating their self esteem.