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« on: September 06, 2002, 04:59:00 AM »
Teen-reform
programs are a
thriving industry
But because of a lack of oversight,
it's a buyer-beware situation, some say
By Susan Kreifels
Star-Bulletin


The programs started 25 years ago in Utah as wilderness survival training, a way to get closer to nature and God. But times changed. America's youth started shooting up schools. Parents became afraid for their kids, and of their kids.

Entrepreneurs saw cash in crisis, in parents desperate to control their children.

The survival training turned to pricey "behavior modification." Today there are an estimated 1,500 teen-reform programs for youths with behavior or substance abuse problems, according to activists monitoring such operations. Some help kids, they say, while others are more like boot camps employing tough love that can turn to alleged physical, mental and sexual abuse.

"Parents turn to these programs because they are desperate for results," said Barbe Stamps, a teen-rights activist in Hawaii Kai who became concerned when her daughter's friend was sent to such a program. "They view these programs as a last resort."

The operations have spread to Mexico, Jamaica, Samoa and the Czech Republic. Czech officials closed a facility there after reports that teens were mistreated, according to the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune.

On Samoa, about 300 young Americans attend three programs, Stamps said. The Samoan government is investigating allegations of abuse.

Stamps helped the State Department develop guidance for parents, advising them to visit the sites and know the rules of host countries. Overseas programs are especially worrisome to her because she fears that lax regulations may be manipulated by unscrupulous business people. Stamps also said medical care and education can be substandard, and teens are often forbidden to communicate with the outside world.

Programs generally go for 14 months and charge $30,000 and up. Slick brochures and sophisticated marketing convince parents they're paying for good programs. Youths can be abducted at night with parents' blessings, and put on planes for remote spots.

"What it comes down to is that the youth-reform industry is a buyer-beware market," Stamps said. "The real issue is whether parents are paying for "attitude rehab" or abuse.

"Clearly it is a fair question given the lack of oversight to protect children from a multimillion-dollar industry that specializes in controlling their basic civil rights and human rights. They (youths) have a right to be heard."

Tom Burton, an attorney based in Pleasanton, Calif., has been going after such programs for the last decade. He's filed three lawsuits, one against a program in Samoa, on behalf of parents and children. Five more suits are coming.

Programs came under scrutiny after three teens died in wilderness programs in 1990, Burton said.

"There's little therapy and practically no education," Burton said. "They can come back more damaged than when they went in."
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