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Arrested Development: The Troubled Teen Industry and The United States’ Failure to Protect its Children

Image via Rick Egan / The Salt Lake Tribune

When Haley Hedrick was 16 years old, she was awoken one night to a nightmare scenario. Two strangers were standing in her bedroom, telling her that she needed to come with them and saying “you can do this the easy way, or you can do this the hard way.” Hedrick was handcuffed and thrown into the back of a car. While driving, the rental car she was in was pulled over by a police car. Hedrick screamed from the backseat for help from her kidnappers, but to her horror, the officer let them continue driving. After this incident, Hedrick was faced with the true terror of her situation: ITt was completely legal.

Hedrick was one of the estimated 50,000 teenagers who face a similarly dystopian scenario each year. These young people are victims of the “Troubled Teen Industry.” This industry includes a collection of wilderness programs, military style boot camps, boarding schools, LGBTQ conversion therapy camps, and other organizations preying on parents’ desire to reform their troubled children. According to Hedrick, “[t]hey feed on the idea that parents are going to google. They’re going to search for what to do with their out of control teenager.” After being forcibly removed from their homes and taken miles away from their homes, the teens are repeatedly lied to and physically and emotionally abused in the name of rehabilitation.

These supposedly “out of control” teens who are forced into these programs are often in need of therapy and other psychological interventions, but are instead treated with daily abuse and isolation. Research has shown that these programs increase recidivism by up to 8 percent, while counseling intervention would decrease recidivism by about 13 percent.  More importantly, they can cause emotional damage for life. At the Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York, Hedrick was subjected to abuses that still plague her life today. She deals with memory loss due to head injuries and a permanent foot injury from a having her toe broken when she was restrained. Additionally, she suffers from psychological damage, from constant nightmares, to dark thoughts, to personality changes. The Academy has since shut down after reports of abuse threatened their accreditation status, but many like it still thrive. Regulation and accountability of individual establishments is not enough to combat the inherently abusive nature of the industry. There exists a glaring problem fundamental in the very design of these organizations.

The Troubled Teen Industry bases its legitimacy on receiving consent from parents, rather than from the teenagers themselves. This points to a more widespread issue in the United States: the disregard of the rights of children. The United States is the only member of the United Nations not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of a Child. Human Rights Watch recently released scorecards assessing how state laws across the nation hold up against this Convention’s standards. These ratings were based on policies surrounding child marriage, corporal punishment, child labor, and juvenile justice. 20 states were given an F rating and no states received an A or B rating. Jo Becker, the children’s rights advocacy for Human’s Rights Watch said of these scorecard ratings: “For people who believe the US is treating its children well, this assessment is a rude awakening. When it comes to child marriage, hazardous child labor, extreme prison sentences, and violent treatment of children, the vast majority of US states have abysmal laws. State policymakers should act quickly to better protect their children.” Currently, the United States is violating the Convention on the Rights of a Child by allowing child marriage and corporal punishment, imprisoning minors for life without parole, weakly protecting against child labor, and more. The United States needs to ratify and adhere to this convention, putting an end to child abuse in many forms, including the Troubled Teen Industry.

Article 12 of Part 1 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child commands that “States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” If the United States enforced this convention, they would be forced to reckon with the way the nation currently ignores the consent of children. The Troubled Teen Industry’s business model would be dismantled if the programs actually required the consent of their participants.

Some legislators have called for increased regulation of this industry, especially reforming the secure transport industry, commonly referred to as “gooning”. Currently, legal regulation of this practice only exists in Oregon, where transporters are not allowed to use hoods, blindfolds, or handcuffs on the teenagers in their care. In 2007, Congress began an investigation into the industry before ultimately concluding that, due to inconsistencies in both regulations and reporting, it was not possible to determine the full scope of the problem. After this investigation, Congress failed to take any significant action. 

Recently, Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) began investigating four of The Troubled Teen Industry’s leading companies. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) promised to write bipartisan legislation that will “protect children by reforming our congregate care system with adequate oversight and accountability.” These recent events need to turn into dramatic institutional reform. There needs to be a large amount of public research into these institutions to fully portray the extent of the issue. Abusive practices, like physical restraints and severe physical punishment need to be banned. There also needs to be an oversight system for investigating abuses and shutting down the responsible organizations. 

Most importantly, the conception of what constitutes sufficient consent for these programs needs to be fundamentally reexamined. Teenagers need to be willing participants, the consent of their parents cannot stand in for their own. Regulating this industry alone is not enough to truly protect the youth of our nation. The United States needs to fundamentally reexamine and reform the rights of minors. The Convention on the Rights of a Child has not been introduced into the Senate since 1996. The Senate needs to ratify this convention and pass an accompanying childrens’ bill of rights to protect the rights of the nation’s youth and place more importance on consent from children. These steps need to be taken to ensure that no child in a supposedly free nation should be abducted, isolated from their family and friends, and subjected to unimaginable abuse, as Haley Hedrick and thousands of others were.