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Fixing Troubled Kids

A growing number of private schools add treatment to teaching


Published August 27, 2003 at 1:07 p.m.
Updated September 16, 2016 at 3:30 p.m.

Losing a child is every parent's nightmare. For Deanna -- a Chittenden County parent who wishes to remain anonymous -- that nightmare began when her daughter Elaine entered high school. ("Deanna" and "Elaine" are pseudonyms.) Deanna didn't know it at the time, but an older boy sexually assaulted Elaine when she was 14. Instead of seeking help from her family and friends, Elaine withdrew. Her grades slipped. Deanna found quart bottles of vodka in her backpack. Sometimes Elaine would jump out the window to escape the house. That's on the rare occasion when she was home. Deanna speaks about this time in a low voice over the phone. She says her daughter was "just way out of control."

At that point, Deanna had two options. She could wait for the Department of Education, Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS) or the courts to get involved. This would mean depending on the state to assess Elaine's needs and make decisions on her behalf.

Deanna chose instead to take matters into her own hands. "I've known parents who have had to give up custody of their 16-year-old kid for SRS to kick in," she says. "Early on I made decisions about not letting go."

That dogged determination would prove vital. In order to find help for her daughter, Deanna would have to navigate the thickets of a little-understood but fast-growing industry: the high-priced, under-regulated world of private residential programs for troubled teens.

When Elaine was 15, Deanna and her husband performed an emergency intervention. "We scooped her up, put her in a car," recalls Deanna. They brought her to a treatment center in New York state, the first of several places where Elaine worked through her demons. Though it was difficult to send her daughter away, Deanna believes it was the right thing to do. "You sort of reach this horrible point where you say, 'I'm the parent, but I can't fix this.'"

The debate over who can "fix" troubled kids is a lively one these days. It used to be that kids who couldn't make it in public or traditional private schools ended up in mental hospitals, military schools and prisons, but those are no longer the default options. The number of residential programs for kids with emotional and behavioral difficulties has grown rapidly in the past 15 years. Partly that's because, as a society, we talk more now about painful issues such as neglect, abuse, depression, self-harm and substance abuse. The increase is also fueled by creative educators and therapists who are coming up with better ways to meet the needs of wayward kids. But awareness and innovation aren't the only factors. Many of these teens now come from middle- and upper-middle-class families who demand -- and can afford -- better care.

No one knows for sure what causes so many kids from seemingly stable backgrounds to fall apart. Theories involve everything from the sexualization of popular culture to the declining amount of time parents spend with their kids. Whatever the cause, one thing is certain -- helping troubled teens is big business. A Forbes Magazine article from October 2002, entitled "When Rich Kids Go Bad," estimates that roughly 300 private programs in the U.S. address kids' emotional and behavioral needs -- a tenfold increase since 1993. These private-sector programs constitute a $2-billion-a-year industry, in part because they generally cost a few thousand dollars a month.

Parents find a number of ways to finance these services. Some take out loans, tap into the college fund or refinance the house. Many have insurance plans that will pick up the tab for certain therapeutic services. Parents with legal savvy can sometimes get the school district to pick up the tab; Vermont's Act 264 requires school districts to pay the cost of state-approved private programs if no suitable public alternative is available.

But finding a way to pay is often easier than figuring out which services a child needs. Parents who've been through it will testify that the whole process can be maddeningly complex. Few people outside the industry -- i.e., public school guidance counselors and therapists -- can differentiate between the categories of programs, much less between the schools themselves.

That kind of basic knowledge is vital for anyone hoping to place a child in a private program. It's especially important because for-profit companies dominate the market; distinguishing between advertising and good advice can be tricky. It's hard enough to handle the anger, blame and shame of parenting a teenager in crisis, but finding help for a child can be just as difficult and scary as watching her spiral out of control.

When Deanna's daughter Elaine finished rehab in New York, her parents brought her back to Vermont and enrolled her in a small, supportive boarding school close to home. Elaine finished her sophomore year there but became increasingly defiant during her junior year and was expelled. She left school, and her parents' house, and moved in with a 22-year-old man her mother calls "a drug-dealing dude." She was 16. Deanna would see her daughter on Church Street but didn't know where she lived. Deanna thinks of that time as "the low point."

By then she and Elaine's father were searching frantically for a place that would treat their daughter as well as educate her. They didn't find anything suitable in Vermont. For whatever reason, the state hosts very few private-sector options for troubled kids. Officials suggest there isn't a need for more private programs, though it's impossible to calculate the number of students who leave the state every year to seek therapeutic or semi-therapeutic options. Most programs of this nature operating in Vermont are run by the state or depend on the state for referrals.

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Placements, a 4-year-old trade group, lists 113 members, only three of which are in Vermont. Two are treatment centers for adults 17 and over. The other is the King George School in Sutton. A boarding school that serves kids with issues like Elaine's, it would nevertheless have been an inappropriate placement for her. King George doesn't deal with kids in crisis, and Elaine was in one.

Deanna scoured the Internet and researched private programs all over the country. Her husband even flew to Georgia to check out a place where, Deanna says, "they were digging red-dirt ditches, like in Holes." Finding help for her daughter become a second career for Deanna. "I became 'Case Manager Mommy,'" she says.

The couple's efforts plunged them into what Deanna calls "an underworld" of punitive and "fly-by-night" outfits. Allegations of abuse at the Dundee Ranch Academy, a wilderness school in Costa Rica, raised parents' worst fears. Last May, the school's 200 mostly American students revolted after authorities intervened to investigate the complaints, which included claims that staff had denied food and water to students, chained them up and refused them medical attention. The allegations, which the owner denies, are still under investigation by the Costa Rican government.

Tuition at Dundee Ranch was $1900 a month. That may sound expensive, but it's possible it wasn't expensive enough: According to Woodbury Reports, an online newsletter run by educational consultant Lon Woodbury, parents should avoid programs that charge less than $200 a day, or roughly $600 a month. Providing food, shelter, instructors and properly trained medical and therapeutic services for less is next to impossible.

Many families try to avoid questionable programs by hiring an educational consultant. For years these private guidance counselors have helped wealthier families get kids into college prep schools, selective colleges, even summer camps. Today a few dozen nationally handle referrals to what the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) calls "special needs" programs. Consultants act as intermediaries, communicating with both the parents and the schools about the child's progress, setbacks and needs.

While searching for a school for Elaine, Deanna contacted Ben Mason, a Charlotte-based consultant who has offices there and in Boston. Mason has been in the business since 1987. Though he also places kids in traditional boarding schools like Exeter and Gould, he estimates that 80 percent of his clients fall under the special-needs category. "When I first started out," he says, "there were a handful of places to send these kids. Now there are hundreds... The industry and I have grown up together."

Mason works from a refurbished barn behind his house. Shelves stuffed with books, brochures and promotional videos line the walls. As one might expect, he's a very busy man. He spends a lot of time out of town -- visiting schools, meeting families and working at his Boston office. Most of his clients live outside of Vermont, some as far away as Europe, Africa and Australia. On the days when Mason is in Charlotte, he's taking calls from families and schools, many of them two or three time zones away. He asked this reporter to call him at 9:30 p.m., because "things start to slow down by then."

Nothing that touches this therapeutic and educational industry comes cheap, and that includes Mason's services. He won't tell me how much parents pay him, but he implies that some people might find his fees steep. An article in Woodbury Reports estimates that consultants charge anywhere from $1000 to $3500 depending on the level of their involvement with the family. Mason defends his right to top dollar by citing the importance of getting the right help for troubled kids right away. "If a kid commits a crime," he says, "parents will pay a lawyer to help get him out of jail. Why wouldn't they pay someone to keep him out of jail in the first place?"

Of course, lawyers have to pass the bar before they can practice law; no such standard exists for educational consultants. They can take classes and become certified educational planners, but many don't. It's not necessary. Mason, who has a B.A. and a Master's degree in education from Harvard, readily admits that "any charlatan or any genius can set themselves up as an educational consultant."

Even so, parents can use the IECA as a fairly reliable filter. Members must agree to the "Principles of Good Practice," pledging to keep track of new developments in the industry, and not to take kickbacks for referring kids to certain schools. They must also have a Master's degree or comparable training, as well as three years' experience in the field to join. Mason is a member.

Though ultimately Deanna did not end up enlisting the full range of Mason's services, she confirms that he suggested they send Elaine to the Academy at Swift River. Swift River, in western Massachusetts, is a therapeutic boarding school.

To understand what that means, it helps to think of the industry as a continuum, with lockdown residential treatment centers and wilderness on one end and traditional boarding schools on the other. Kids in all these programs attend classes, but the closer you move toward the treatment-center model, the more the schools emphasize therapy. Often kids will move through two or more placements on the continuum, progressing from wilderness, to a therapeutic boarding school, to an "emotional growth" school like King George, one offering college-prep work and lots of structure but very little actual therapy (see sidebar). Kids in crisis -- actively suicidal, violent or using drugs -- begin in more restrictive programs and earn more privileges as they move back into the mainstream.

Though Swift River falls toward the more therapeutic end of the scale, it's not a lockdown. Deanna describes the campus as "a B&B-type place." It's a highly structured environment that offers students on-site individual and group therapy -- as well as rigorous family therapy -- along with academic coursework. The latter is more experiential than the traditional high school curriculum. The kids do spend some time in the wilderness. They also complete a community service expedition to Costa Rica.

Deanna liked the program because it is more compassionate than punitive. She says Elaine agreed to enroll because things had gotten so bad she realized she needed to do something. She stayed for 16 months and graduated with her high school diploma. Deanna does not mince words when talking about the impact the experience had on her daughter. "I do credit the school with saving her life," she says.

Ironically, Deanna couldn't have afforded the private school if it hadn't been for Vermont's state funds and Act 264. "We had to go a long way to figure out special-ed law," she says. "It's fairly byzantine."

She suspects a lot of kids don't receive services because parents don't know how to work the system. "I'm lucky enough to have the skills to go in there armed with my chapter-and-verse legalities," she says. Her determination secured her more than $80,000 worth of state aid. Tuition at Swift River runs $5750 a month, and that doesn't include a $1000 wilderness fee and airfare to Costa Rica for the service-learning.

Though Mason advises parents to avoid state funding and what he calls "the bureaucratic foo-fa" that goes with it, Deanna urges parents not to be afraid to "push the system." She believes her struggle was worth it. Since Elaine's graduation from Swift River, she has completed two years of college and is living at home, taking a year off to work. Swift River gave her family a chance to repair much of the damage it sustained during her tumultuous adolescence. Deanna feels fortunate. "I feel like we're the lucky ones," she says. "We got her back."

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