One day, in the midst of scrolling through TikTok, I came across a video of a girl solemnly relaying her experiences and trauma from being kidnapped in the middle of the night and sent to a wilderness camp. She showed pictures of her time and described the hours of hiking and physical stress she had to endure, saying that she has yet to forgive her parents for signing her rights away. I was confused and shocked. My immediate thoughts were “Is this really legal? How have I not heard of this before?” I proceeded to do more research on what exactly these legal kidnappings entail, and soon discovered a whole world I didn't know existed.
These wilderness camps are a part of the "troubled teen industry," a group of for-profit companies that promise to fix drug addiction, mental illness, and attitude problems through “tough love.” They aim to turn troubled teens into productive members of society by forcing them to endure extreme physical and mental conditions, often in the desert. Parental rights are transferred to these companies through an affidavit or a power of attorney agreement, which gives the workers permission to restrain the child or to authorize medical attention. Soon after the parents agree, transportation services show up in the middle of the night, wake up the teen, and kidnap them, sometimes using handcuffs, hogties, or cable wires with varying degrees of aggression.
Once at the camp, the kids are forced to hike with large packs on their backs and survive in nature. In a testimony portion of the article "5 Realities of The Rehab Camp My Parent Paid To Kidnap Me," Dylon Peven recounts the time his parents sent him to a wilderness rehabilitation camp at the age of 17 for selling weed. He describes the Idaho camp he went to as “just a bunch of empty desert for us to hike around in.” They were taught no survival skills and were given very little food. There were no showers and they had to wear the same clothes every day, which led to them getting extremely filthy. After finding out that he could end up in this program for years, he decided to make his escape. The camp took away teens' shoes at night to discourage them from running away, so he sneakily pretended to put his flip-flops in the bag by dropping them on the side , and stowed them with his two hidden bottles of water. In making his escape, he walked over 20 miles, stole a bike from a farm, then finally hitchhiked until he was far enough away. This is just one example of the many camps that run on a similar basis, and the lengths the kids go to escape.
The troubled teen industry generates as much as $1.2 billion a year and is responsible for 10,000 to 14,000 kids at any given time. Along with the physical strain that these kids have to endure through hiking and surviving off of the land, evidence and testimonies of abuse going on within the camps have surfaced. There have been complaints of being pinned to the ground for hours, held in seclusion for days, and being choked to unconsciousness. From 2000 to 2015, as many as 86 kids have died in these programs.
One of those deaths was 15-year-old William “Eddie” Lee, who was killed at a privately run school in Oregon in September of 2000. Lee was pinned to the ground by camp counselors for refusing to stick with the group, resulting in his death from an injury to an artery in his neck. No criminal charges were filed against the camp or the counselors. Another example is the death of 16-year-old Aaron Bacon in 1994, who complained of severe stomach pain but was ignored by counselors. After being forced to go on long hikes and deprived of food, Bacon endured a slow and painful death due to a perforated ulcer.
These deaths, among others, sparked outrage and calls for more regulation in wilderness therapy and other troubled teen camps in the early 2000s. And while there has been some progress with the shutting down of many camps, the camps that remain are still very unregulated due to lack of federal laws and variation of requirements from state to state.
Many of the camps today have sworn that they are not like these extreme outliers and that their programs are safe and regulated, but even so, research hasn’t shown that there are any clear benefits from these types of therapies. There is little evidence to show long-term advantages to these programs over at-home therapy. John Weisz, a professor of psychology at Harvard University who specializes in mental health interventions for children and adolescents, says that "from the state of the evidence that I’ve seen, we really don’t know whether wilderness therapy has beneficial effects or not."
The truth is that while some of these less extreme camps might provide some benefit to struggling teens, they have no scientific backing and are severely under-regulated by the federal government. If a teen is struggling with mental health or substance abuse, shipping them off into the wilderness in the hopes of them returning as a new and well-behaved person is not realistic, and leads to many instances of trauma and worsening of behavior. This treatment of kids and teens with mental illnesses—having them kidnapped and forced to work in extreme conditions—is an ineffective and harmful practice that needs to end.