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What You Need to Know About the Troubled Teen Industry

A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry That Preys on Children

The Troubled Teen Industry (TTI) is a multi-billion dollar network of punitive and powerful congregate care programs that claim to reform struggling youth through behavior modification and other non-evidence-based practices. These largely unregulated facilities are often referred to by a myriad of names, such as boot camps, residential treatment centers, therapeutic or religious boarding schools, and wilderness therapy programs.

The Scope of the Problem

Due to a lack of required reporting, the exact number of youth in these programs is unknown. However, estimates suggest that about 120,000-200,000 young people reside in them annually, with more than 50,000 of those youth privately placed by caregivers. The programs can cost caregivers up to $30,000 a month, but the financial impact affects far more individuals than those who can afford the hefty price tag. Annually, approximately $23 billion in public funds supports the practices of programs. In addition, the industry preys on disadvantaged youth by tapping into public funds to house migrant children and youth from foster care, juvenile justice, and school systems.

The Transport Process

Many programs recommend transporting a child to the facility via youth escort services or “legal kidnapping.” Escort services are controversial as they are subject to little to no government regulation. The transport itself can be highly traumatic to young people, as they are often forcefully seized from their beds in the middle of the night by strangers, handcuffed or restrained, and then taken from their homes to the program. During this process, youth are commonly told, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” Survivors report that this experience alone left permanent trauma lasting into adulthood.

The Intake Process

Upon arrival at the program, youth are further traumatized when their belongings are immediately taken from them during the intake process. They also may be subjected to a forced strip-search or cavity search during this time. It is not until after this process is completed that the young person is allowed to be acquainted with their peers. Since many programs utilize an antiquated point- and level-based system, youth initially have no privileges and are forced to earn fundamental human rights. This “tough love” approach attempts to correct behavior instead of treating mental health issues or working through prior trauma.

The Pattern of Abuse

The industry’s historic lack of regulation, transparency, and accountability has led to a clear pattern of abuse. Instead of delivering evidence-based therapeutic services and education to at-risk youth, young people often experience life-altering maltreatment such as psychological harm, sexual and bodily assault, physical and medical neglect, hospitalizations, and even death. In fact, over 350 youth have died at the hands of the TTI.

The Total Institution

The abuse is further compounded by the program’s function as a “total institution” where young people live under the program’s authority. Youth are stripped of all autonomy, restricted from contact with their caregivers and the outside world, and forbidden to freely leave the program for months to years.

What Can Be Done?

The TTI is a complex and deeply entrenched problem. However, there are a number of things that can be done to help protect children from this industry. These include:

  • Raising awareness of the TTI and its dangers
  • Advocating for stricter regulation of the industry
  • Supporting survivors of the TTI
  • Investing in evidence-based programs that actually help children

The TTI is a harmful and exploitative industry that has no place in our society. By taking action, we can help to protect children from this abuse and ensure that they receive the help they need.

Support Unsilenced

Unsilenced is a nonprofit organization that serves past, present, and future victims of institutional child abuse. Learn more about Unsilenced’s work in the Troubled Teen Industry.

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