Author Topic: Calo Teens "CALO" of Embark Behavioral Health  (Read 3552 times)

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Offline yossarianoftheozarks

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Calo Teens "CALO" of Embark Behavioral Health
« on: May 11, 2019, 01:12:44 PM »
The internet doesn't have much information about Calo Teens, which is part of Embark, an umbrella corporation presiding over a number of residential treatment centers and wilderness programs across the United States (including Calo Preteens for children as young as nine). Long before it became a huge, well-respected corporation, it began with a teen program in Lake Ozark, Missouri called Change Academy Lake of the Ozarks, or CALO, a residential treatment center focused on treating (mostly) adopted teens with symptoms of attachment disorders. They have since rebranded to Calo Teens, but I’ll refer to it as “CALO” in this post. It has been several years since I left, and so I cannot speak directly to the state of the program now and intentionally write in the past tense. However, in providing a glimpse into the program as I knew it, I ask you to question whether a program like that could ever evolve into something entirely untainted. I refer to the teens (and preteens) who went through CALO as “students” just as they were referred to at the program. However, the level of enclosure and lack of real academic resources makes “inmate” more appropriate.

CALO was a facility considerably more restrictive than minimum security and some medium security prisons. Every aspect of our lives was controlled; where we went, who we talked to, what we talked about, what media we were exposed to, who was allowed to write us letters from outside (letters which were reviewed by therapists), our bodily functions, what we ate (and when the food budget was drastically cut), when we ate it, when we went to spiritual time (no matter what we believed or didn’t believe), and so much more. It was a textbook example of a total institution. The amount of psychological and emotional manipulation embedded into every dynamic we encountered is inarticulable. The kind of restrictions placed on us were severe and prolonged. The website used to claim that the average stay was 14-20 months (now the website claims 12-13 months) while the blog claimed 17, but this was just the average. On any given day, most students had no end in sight. Two years was not uncommon at all. A few students were there for as many as four. In many other parts of the US, even the most dysfunctional people are not placed in restrictive residential environments (and those are less restrictive than CALO) for more than 90 days. Length of stay was supposedly determined by a student’s progress. However, the normalization of the student’s stay often prolonged it, and the emotional and psychological toll being there had on students affected their therapeutic progress. Some parents used CALO as a way to “park” their child without proper regard to the detrimental effects such an environment would have. Therapists and staff seemed to demonstrate a mindset that one had to be fully “healed” to leave - and often that included a level of self acceptance, overcoming of trauma, and “healing” that many people outside of residential treatment never achieve. CALO was a horrendous abuse of a set of residential conditions that should be reserved only for individuals in extreme conditions, temporarily. It was certainly not the least restrictive environment for the vast majority of its students. Below, I include a very incomplete list of problematic aspects of CALO, but at the root of its atrocities is the sheer amount of time CALO students were incarcerated in such a place.
  • While I cannot go into admissions cases in great detail without betraying individuals’ personally identifying information, there were many students who never should have been sent to a place like CALO in the first place. In some cases, intake paperwork was falsified or exaggerated. One student (who was under 13) was accused of being promiscuous with her older teenage adoptive brother, who was in reality abusing her. Many students were never evaluated by mental health professionals until after they arrived. There were a handful of students who were good kids who got good grades and never got sent to the principal’s office, but who had issues (yes, sometimes severe issues) with their families. While no CALO student deserved the mismanagement/abuses of the place, it is more clearly absurd that these students were there, sometimes for up to two years despite good behavior and engagement in therapy. It goes without saying, but a large number were brought to CALO by in-house escort (kidnapping) services that literally tore them from their beds and brought them to CALO.
  • Staff requirements were very few. To be a staff member at CALO, one had to have a high school diploma or equivalent (though this was sometimes waived) and be at least 21 years of age (though this requirement was waived several times, including when the CEO's son was hired at age 19). They started at $9.00 per hour, and raises were few and far between. The amount of power and influence the staff had on our lives was enormous. Since we had two therapy sessions per week, the majority of the other 166 hours of the week were spent with staff. Staff notes and recommendations had major effects on the direction and perception of our “treatment” and “progress.” The dynamic between staff and students was comparable to the Stanford Prison Experiment. They were young, often well-meaning men and women. For many, CALO was the first place in which they were placed in a position of authority - and not just a position of authority, but a position that expected that they had wisdom and deserved respect. I think it really got to their heads.
  • Physical restraints were painful and sometimes broke bones. One student consistently had at least one broken wrist for over a year. Later, the restraint system was changed, but students still experienced injuries and pain. Staff often used escorts and holds as punishment and took their anger out on the students in them, sometimes causing students to struggle to breathe. Escorts and holds were especially abused and misused on chaotic nights, which often played out like battle scenes. Some nights were so chaotic that students had to take charge to restore peace and prevent staff from exasperating the problems.
  • There was a considerable amount of sexual abuse by staff. When reported, staff and therapists worked to discredit the victims who reported the incidents by using their diagnoses to convince the rest of the community and the victims themselves that they were liars and attention seekers. The staff involved were often not fired. In one case where a staff member molested several girls (including the “credible” ones, which caused a problem for the higher ups), he was merely moved to the boys’ side. There have also been several occasions (a small number of which were reported such as this one, which is fairly recent) of sex - from consensual (still prohibited) to rape - between staff and students. This was almost always hidden from the rest of the student community. When something occurred, it was very rare that anyone outside of the student and their therapist, and other administrators would know.
  • We had so, so, so many strip searches, or "VBCs." While this practice is normal in institutions like CALO, they were used very often and quite inconsistently. Of course, there were consequences for students who refused (safety closeness, "regroup," sometimes physical restraints), but staff and therapists on occasion implied that a student's receptiveness to and comfort with VBCs was a measure of their therapeutic progress (willingness to trust others).
  • Multiple girls were the object of male staff members’ fetishes and obsessions with control over women. This included the abuse of safety/general closeness (male staff forcing female students to remain within 6 feet of them at all times under the guise of them needing extra support or being unsafe). In some cases, the closeness was instituted to prevent the female students from escaping the male staff obsessed with them. Some male staff threatened female students by claiming they would tell their therapists that they weren’t making therapeutic progress (and thus would have to stay at CALO longer) if the girls refused to “work on” a trusting relationship with them.In practice, staff members, who were not trained mental health professionals, had an inappropriate amount of control over therapeutic diagnoses.
  • Due to the limited contact between therapists and students, staff became instrumental in determining whether girls had eating disorders. In many cases, girls were diagnosed with eating disorders (or simply treated as if they had one) based solely off staff perceptions that they were “too thin” (which was often medically inaccurate) or an irregular menstrual cycle. Girls placed on "meal closeness" were regularly inappropriately touched and teased by staff members (mostly male staff members) and forced to eat extra large amounts of food, sometimes amidst bullying chants orchestrated by staff. Staff saw fit to control girls' relationships with food down to the most micro-level interactions (and probably genuinely believed they were helping the girls progress therapeutically). In some cases, these girls gained and excessive amount of weight that was medically unhealthy, but it was only then that staff and therapists determined the girls were healthy and progressing therapeutically. Since girls on meal closeness were not allowed to know their weight, certain night staff traded sexual favors for weigh-ins. Certain girls who were larger in stature were conversely encouraged to starve themselves.
  • Despite the fact that its website now says it helps LGBT teens learn to accept themselves, it has a history of discriminating against LGBT students (and staff, but I’ll focus on students). Students who were gay were told by staff, therapists, and leadership that they would go to Hell. Symbols of the LGBT movement like the song “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga and objects/clothes with rainbow patterns were banned/confiscated. Students who were accused of “liking” each other were placed on a strict “no interactions” and sometimes physically restrained just for looking each other’s way. Homophobic staff lied to therapists to tell them that girls who were out as lesbians were “grooming” or in some cases molesting their peers. Certain therapists spent family sessions explaining to parents that being trans was “not a thing.” Students who stood up for their LGBT friends were occasionally punished by being placed on safety closeness (punishment, humiliation, therapeutic progress setback) for “harm to others” or “harm to the community.” I’ll reiterate that all of this took place in an enclosed environment where these students had no access to outside influences, validation, or support.
  • All student written products had to be accessible to staff or, in the case that a “journal agreement” was made, their therapists. Students did not have outlets of unsurveilled self expression.
  • Academics could hardly be equated to academic work. Though certain approved books were allowed, students were sometimes accused of not making therapeutic progress if they read them (meaning they would have to stay longer). Many students who left CALO had severe problems getting credit for their “academic” work in CALO, which complicated their ability to succeed academically. The quality (or lack thereof) of the education at CALO also made it difficult for former students to rejoin normal academic institutions.
  • Several students were forced to build parent-child relationships with parents who had abused them. In one case, a student who was sexually abused by her father for seven years was told she had to forgive him in order to leave. This student is one of many CALO students who have commit suicide.
Some past or present staff/leadership reading this may be horrified by what they perceive as false accusations. “Rewriting history,” the former CEO calls it, his attempt to call us liars without making us angry. That’s how CALO responds - sometimes more threateningly than others - to those who raise challenges.
Reading the bullet points I’ve written, the place I portrayed feels so removed from the normalcy of CALO life I experienced. Yet everything I wrote is factually accurate and, I repeat, incomplete (there is so much more that simply cannot be conveyed without revealing more personally identifying information). That’s what makes these programs complicated. Objectively, the place was horrific. Yet I left it confident that it was one of the good ones. On various networks, I often see Embark leadership sharing articles about childhood trauma and pictures of themselves at prestigious national conferences. Some staff - especially floor staff - aren’t comfortable with what goes on and they quit or get fired for challenging the status quo. But most employees take pride that each day, they help young people live better lives.

I’ll never convince those CALO employees that they are perpetrators of, complicit in, or negligent of the evil I present. I’m also aware that CALO has changed over the years, and there are many “generations” of students, each with unique experiences. But I argue that an organization that has seen the kinds of abuse I have described is problematic at the core. Even discounting each bullet point I wrote, the facility’s restrictiveness and average length of stay alone makes the program problematic.

I ask those who doubt me to think about what I would gain by spreading falsehoods about a little-known residential treatment center in the midwest. I am posting this anonymously and no one currently in my life knows I went to treatment, so attacking CALO does nothing to affect my reputation. I’m not seeking retribution, nor am I promoting legal action. This post will likely get buried and probably won’t prevent students from being sent to CALO. There is plenty of information about the horrors of these programs and parents continue to call upon their services. I’m also confident in CALO’s ability to convincingly discredit me.

Please, ask yourself why someone would invest so much time and energy into writing a post about a relatively obscure teens’ therapeutic facility just so it could get buried in this small corner of the internet.

The kinds of abuse kids suffer at programs like CALO are as intimately physical and manipulatively emotional as it gets. And the betrayal lies within every structure in society - the government that has passed laws against these “treatment methods” that still continue, the education system that failed us before (educational consultants who recommended the places) as well as during and after (depriving us of education that could enable us to move on), medicine (obvious), and family (also obvious). They will continue. They do continue. CALO lives on in Calo Teens and Calo Preteens and in every one of the programs scattered across the United States under Embark. To this day, Calo Teens is considered one of the good ones. But if you’ve read this far, one more person will have heard a different story.

(Originally posted on /r/troubledteens on Reddit)