Wilderness Programs Need Oversight, Report Says

A recent government probe finds thousands of allegations of abuse or neglect at wilderness programs that parents turn to for troubled teens. In at least 10 cases, participants have died. Congress says the programs need stricter regulation, and industry experts agree.

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When parents can't think of no other way to help a troubled teenager, they often turn in desperation to what are known as wilderness programs, or rather residential treatment programs. Yet a recent government probe found thousands of allegations of abuse in these programs, and in at least 10 cases participants in these programs died, apparently because of mistreatment or neglect. Members of Congress say the reports show the need for much stricter regulation, and in this case many in the industry say they want that regulation.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Nearly two years ago, Tallahassee parent Beth McGrowth(ph) had decided her daughter Madeleine desperately needed help. Madeleine had been extremely depressed and struggling for years. Beth McGrowth sought the help of an educational consultant who recommended Madeleine go to a wilderness program.

Ms. BETH McGROWTH (Resident, Tallahassee, Florida): It was the hardest thing I've ever done, and I'm positive it's the hardest thing my daughter has ever been through.

ABRAMSON: After two months tromping through the snow of a Maine winter, Madeleine was able to move to a special boarding school. Today, she's a freshman in college. Beth McGrowth says she and her daughter feel that tough decision saved her life.

Ms. McGROWTH: But she says that it's just - the wilderness program was just wonderful. This made the biggest difference in her life.

ABAMSOM: That's the kind of story members of Congress did not hear at a recent hearing that highlighted abuse that has led to deaths in at least 10 cases. The truth is, there's a huge demand for these programs.

Allison Pinto, who teaches at the University of South Florida and studies these programs, says parents of kids who are acting out, who are clearly headed for trouble or suicide, have nowhere else to turn.

Dr. ALLISON PINTO (University of South Florida): Yes, I definitely think that this is in part due to the lack of available resources and support in families' home communities.

ABRAMSON: Pinto says parents are also skeptical of the mental health services that do exist, and many want to avoid the stigma of sending their kids to a hospital ward.

Dr. PINTO: Even the term, quote, "troubled teens" seem less pathologizing in a certain sense to many families.

ABRAMSON: The result is parents casting about among the list of poorly defined programs that promise a lot and cost even more. Thirty-one states have some sort of licensing requirements but not all programs are covered, and enforcement varies. These programs use terminology that is confusing at best.

Richard Clarberg of the Counsel on Accreditation says there's a reason for that.

Mr. RICHARD CLARBERG (President, Counsel of Accreditation): That confusion is not just by chance, it's by intent. Some of these programs are determined to prey upon those parents who are desperate for help for their child.

ABRAMSON: Many wilderness programs turn to the Counsel on Accreditation to validate what they do, and an industry group called the National Association of Schools and Programs, or NATSAP, is also scrambling to raise standards so good programs don't get smeared along with those under suspicion.

Craig LaMont, vice president NASAP, says his group has been trying to crack down internally.

Mr. CRAIG LaMONT (National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs): Establishing higher standards, trying to get states to license and oversee these programs. And now, as of this last year, actually requiring to be a member, that you have to have some kind of oversight.

ABRAMSON: LaMont says a voluntary organization like his can't really police schools that operate largely out of the public view. So he says he welcomes renewed pressure from Congress, even though it's shining a harsh light on these programs.

Mr. LaMONT: My hope would be that it would drive the schools and the programs or the treatment centers out of business that are not doing good work.

ABRAMSON: Did you hear testimony in the hearing that made you think that there were schools in NATSAP that really don't belong there?

Mr. LaMONT: Yes.

ABRAMSON: And that's what has Congress worried. Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat, has just asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether wilderness programs use misleading marketing to sell these programs to parents.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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