Her books take readers into her sixteen months in Straight Inc., a teen treatment program the ACLU called “a concentration camp for throwaway teens,” and then back to her druggie high school, packed with dangerous jockos and cheerleaders.
Why Do Abusive Teen Programs Still Exist? Three Solid Reasons
Guest Post by Cyndy Etler
As a teen, I spent 16 months locked in notorious “tough love for teens” program Straight Inc. In that windowless warehouse I, and countless other kids, were brutalized until we recited the party line: “I am a bad kid. Everything is my fault.” When we deeply believed those words, we were released back into the world. But many of us had been too badly crippled. Many of us took our own lives.
Straight was investigated, sued and closed down in the 1990s, but to this day, punitive residential treatment centers continue to thrive. How is this possible, given the hordes of documented abuses, the media coverage, the thousands of survivor stories made public? I’ve got three solid reasons: desperation, money, and connections. Together, they pack a powerful punch.
Let’s start with the first, desperation. Parents can feel lost and helpless in the face of their teen’s behavior. When a young person is lashing out, running away, or dabbling with substances, parents tend to panic. Lacking the training to assess the causes, or to help the kid choose change, those parents seek outside help. But the help that’s available is limited in scope.
This week I did a search for publications and big blogs for parents of teens. You know what I found? Nothing. They don’t exist. The glossies deal with babies and elementary kids. The big blogs, if you’re lucky, throw a nod at middle school. But if you’re looking for help for teens, you’re S.O.L.
…Unless you can afford to send your kid away. Because that’s the help on offer. Residential treatment programs. Therapeutic boarding schools. Bootcamps. Places that promise to fix your teen, in exchange for…wait for it…a ton of money.
I posted my findings on Facebook, and a mom said this: “When your child is young, it’s super easy to go to a mom support group. You seek advice on sleep and teething and don’t feel judged. But where can moms of teens go to talk about rebellion, sexuality, substance abuse, bullying, and not feel judged?”
Another mom told me, “There are day-by-day apps for parents. Messages like, ‘If your kid’s cranky with a low-grade fever, don’t worry, he’s teething.’ But my friend has 13-year-old son. She’s lost. She’s looking for her ‘it takes a village’ tribe, but they’re in hiding. No more day by day help for puberty, I guess.”
School social workers tell me there are zero counselors in my area specializing in teens. Parents reach out to me for teen life coaching from the other side of the country, describing adolescent psychiatrists with a 6-month-long waiting list. Long short, these programs still exist because there’s a need for help, and precious few people filling it.
Which leads us to the next element: money. When you’re desperate for help, you’re willing to pay. When you’re willing to pay, you’ll find organizations making shiny promises while picking your pocket. In the case of the troubled teen industry, these organizations have been perfecting their promise for decades.
Try this. Google “help for teens.” What are the first four hits? Ads for residential programs for “troubled” girls and “rebellious” boys. If you read any of the testimonials in the links above, you know those words are code for “We’ll beat your kid into submission.” Underneath those links you’ll find a help line where teens can connect with teens (alleluiah!), a publication affiliated with Harvard (ok, good…), then a blatant ad for a drug rehab, and a rehab ad pretending to be a “we want to help you” resource. Plus WebM.D. featuring six “sponsored ads.”
So a large percentage of the available help for teens is big-money/questionable-methods, and a tiny percent is reputable and benevolent. Even worse, the “questionable intent” programs cloak themselves with manipulative advertising, with pictures of smiling kids in beatific settings.
With a little digging, you’ll find reviews of former clients describing their experience as brutal, not beatific. You’ll also find glowing reviews from people who, on the downlow, make their living off of the programs they are praising. But again: desperation can cloud one’s judgement.
How do they get away with this? Well, connections help….Straight started collecting checks from my mother a week after Princess Diana and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s well-publicized visit to the building. Friends in high places allowed Straight to keep its operating license, even after lawsuits and investigations cited physical, sexual, and psychological torture. The place used rubber stamps of psychiatrists’ signatures for regulatory and insurance claims forms. Yes, you read that right. Rubber stamps. But who’s going to look to closely at a business that’s literally endorsed by royalty?
For a more recent example, let’s look at the Kids for Cash scene, where the founder of private, for-profit youth prisons paid two judges to beef up kids’ sentences and send them to his joints. Here’s how the New York Post described the crimes of some of the 2,000 kids affected: “Hillary Transue, 14, created a fake, humorous Myspace page about her school’s vice principal. Justin Bodnar, 12, cursed at another student’s mother. Ed Kenzakoski, 17, did nothing at all.”
But when it comes to treating “troubled” teens, it’s really not about the teens, nor is it about helping them through their troubles. It’s about cleaning up a loud problem quickly, whatever the cost. Until we stop punishing teens, and telling them how they need to be, and instead start listening to teens, and helping them figure out how they want to be, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing: feeding struggling youth into the machine, and churning out broken young adults.
In her debut memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler detailed the harrowing reality of 16 months inside an infamous teen rehab facility. In this powerful follow up, We Can’t Be Friends (ON-SALE: October 3, 2017), Etler discovers that while Surviving Straight, Inc., was hell, readjusting to the real world is even harder.
High school sucks for a lot of people. High school extra sucks when you believe, deep in your soul, that every kid in the school is out to get you. I wasn’t popular before I got locked up in
Straight Inc., the notorious “tough love” program for troubled teens. So it’s not like I was walking around thinking everyone liked me.
But when you’re psychologically beaten for sixteen months, you start to absorb the lessons. The lessons in Straight were: You are evil. Your peers are evil. Everything is evil except Straight, Inc.
Before long, you’re a true believer.
And when you’re finally released, sent back into the world, you crave safety. Crave being back in the warehouse. And if you can’t be there, you’d rather be dead.
This is the story of my return to my high school. This is the true story of how I didn’t die.