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The Troubled Teen Industry and Sexual Abuse

Nov 08, 2022
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The term ‘troubled teens’ refers to those teenagers who are believed to be at risk of not completing their education or committing crimes. Their parents often send them to a troubled teen facility in the hope that it might rehabilitate them. The troubled teens industry offers parents and guardians the hope of solving issues such as drug abuse, depression, and aggression in their children. Unfortunately, these facilities have been known to be rife with child abuse. Many children have been subject to rape and other forms of sexual abuse in the course of their treatment.

Recent lawsuits against troubled teen programs, along with celebrity Paris Hilton’s accounts of her abuse at the psychiatric youth center Provo Canyon School, have shone a light on the widespread sexual abuse at troubled teen facilities. It is likely that the issue of sexual abuse at such centers is far more common than most people realize.

Key Takeaways

  • The troubled teen industry includes behavioral modification programs for addressing behavioral and psychological issues in teenagers
  • Instead of care, a large number of programs and staff have been involved in sexual and other forms of teen abuse, leading to questions about the safety of such programs
  • Survivors of institutional child abuse have a right to bring a lawsuit against the institution or program for monetary compensation

What is the Troubled Teen Industry?

The troubled teen industry refers to various institutions and facilities that claim to treat mental and behavioral issues in adolescents. Troubled teen facilities are usually private programs and include residential treatment centers, boarding schools, drug rehabilitation centers, wilderness programs, and religious programs. These ‘behavior modification programs’ advertise themselves as suitable alternatives for parents and guardians who seek to resolve teen issues related to behavior and addiction, and in some cases, even sexual orientation or sexual / gender identity.

In recent years, the troubled teen industry has been plagued with allegations of abuse and sexual assault, sparking outrage from the general public. These facilities are located all over the U.S., with a total estimate of 5000 – 10,000 facilities, many of which are situated in Utah. Most of these residential care facilities are for-profits that generate billions of dollars each year. Unfortunately, despite numerous allegations of sexual abuse, there is still a lack of federal oversight or regulation over these programs.

Youth who enter behavior modification programs are supposed to be rehabilitated so as to ensure their smooth return to society after their stay at the facility. However, many of them leave these institutions in a worse mental and emotional place than what they come into it with.

Common Types of Troubled Teen Programs

There are many different types of private schools, camps, and treatment centers catered to helping teenagers with addictions, mental health conditions, or who have a history of breaking the law. In each of these programs for troubled teens, staff often have more power than they would if a child was not under their care 24/7. With often few updates and little communication, parents are left trusting and hoping that their children are in good hands. This level of control often makes it easier for sexual abuse to occur.

  • Wilderness programs: Wilderness behavior modification programs, as the name suggests, consist of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and river rafting. These activities are supposed to help teenagers respond to extreme forms of stress. Sadly, there have been multiple reported cases across states where teens were injured or killed by heatstroke, dehydration, or drowning during their stay.
  • Residential treatment centers: Residential treatment centers are long-term, in-patient facilities that offer clinical and medical care for issues like addiction and eating disorders. Troubled teens at these facilities are given educational instruction so they do not fall behind at school. All too often the staff at these facilities is inadequately trained to handle the severe mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of some of their patients.
  • Gay conversion programs: Gay conversion therapy is not only ineffective but likely to be mentally and emotionally traumatizing to children and young adults. It is also illegal in 21 states.
  • Boot camps: Boot camps are behavior modification programs that employ military-style tactics to address behavioral or psychological issues. Instead of care, youth participants in these boot camps commonly experience abuse in the form of limited access to food and water, intense environmental conditions, as well as physical and sexual abuse.
  • Boarding schools: Therapeutic boarding schools are long-term facilities that involve intensive therapy and counseling both in one-on-one and group settings. Teens take some general education classes so that they can keep up academically; however, the education aspect is often secondary to therapy.
  • Abduction services: For most people, convincing their troubled teenage child to go to a behavior modification program is very hard. Some parents and guardians may go to the extreme by hiring an ‘abduction service’ to physically remove their teenage child and transport them to such programs by force. These services range from polite-but-firm ones to essentially staged kidnapping, in which case the child is woken up in the middle of the night and taken away in handcuffs by strangers.

Sexual Abuse in Troubled Teen Programs

Due to a lack of federal regulation or oversight, children in behavior modification programs often experience physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. According to the International Child Abuse Prevention and Advocacy (ICAPA) Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting youth from institutional child abuse, there have been allegations against the troubled teen industry for employing various sexually abusive tactics including:

  • Sexually invasive cavity searches
  • Forced pelvic exams and virginity checks
  • Sexual assault against students perpetrated by the staff
  • Grooming
  • The viewing or taping of children in the middle of undressing
  • Showing teenagers pornographic imageries
  • Forced sexualized behavior, including sexual assault
  • Sexual shaming
  • Conversion therapy

Complex PTSD Symptoms in Troubled Teens

Troubled teen industry survivors are extremely susceptible to developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing abuse at a troubled teen behavior modification program. In addition to PTSD, teens and young adults also suffer from Complex-PTSD (C-PTSD) as a result of repeated exposure to trauma for months or even years and extended periods of child abuse, torture, or neglect.

Both PTSD and C-PTSD come with side effects, including:

  • Difficulty regulating emotions, problems maintaining relationships
  • Experiencing negative thoughts about self
  • Having nightmares or traumatic flashbacks
  • Periods of disassociation.

Without treatment, these symptoms can lead to long-term difficulties for survivors of institutional child abuse in many areas of life.

‘Breaking Code Silence’ Movement

Breaking Code Silence is a movement dedicated to empowering survivors of the troubled teen industry sexual abuse to speak up about their abuse suffered at behavior modification programs. The movement’s name is derived from a type of punishment typical in many programs where teenagers are forced to undergo periods of social isolation, referred to as Code Silence. This social isolation can last from days to months or even years, leading to severe feelings of abandonment, hopelessness, frustration, and separation anxiety. By “breaking Code Silence,” survivors seek to regain their voices and protect future youth from continued institutional abuse.

The World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP) Survivors started the #breakingcodesilence campaign in 2014 to encourage survivors to share their stories about the abuse in behavior modification programs across the country. The WWASP Survivors group advocates for systemic and legislative changes in the troubled teens industry as well as for the need to have mental health care and addiction recovery resources for troubled teens.

Breaking Code Silence became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit in March 2021. It continues to act as a network for survivors of troubled teen industry sexual abuse by offering support, promoting youth rights, and advocating for safe solutions to the problems plaguing the troubled teen industry.

Protection for Troubled Teen Industry Sexual Abuse Survivors, a survivor-led non-profit, works with Breaking Code Silence to propose legislative changes to stop institutional child abuse. The Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, formerly known as the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, is a proposed federal bill that seeks to reform the troubled teen industry and address issues, including abuse and neglect within the industry. If passed, the bill would create a Youth in Congregate Care Bill of Rights and legally define institutional child abuse and neglect, promote collaboration among government agencies, and increase regulation and oversight for the protection of troubled youth.

How Can Survivors of the Troubled Teen Industry Fight Back?

Troubled teen industry sexual abuse survivors deserve justice for what they have been through. With the help of a qualified sex abuse attorney, you can file a lawsuit seeking compensation from the treatment center or program where you were abused and have endured trauma and other losses. You can seek compensation for damages such as pain and suffering, mental anguish, therapy or psychiatric treatment bills, medical bills, and more.

Troubled Teen Industry: FAQs

1. What is TTI Abuse?

TTI abuse refers to abuse occurring in troubled teen industry treatment programs. This can be attributed to the lack of oversight and regulation of these programs and facilities. In many cases, these private entities lack both accountability and transparency regarding the operations of their facilities and the treatment of their residents. It is likely that the loved ones of troubled teens are manipulated into trusting these programs and have a distorted view of what goes on behind closed doors at some of these ‘homes.’

2. What is Congregate Care?

Congregate care is a form of residential care which allows youth to live in a group home. This living situation is supposed to provide troubled teens with the opportunity to experience life skills and social development outside of a restrictive environment. However, the industry is currently plagued with sexual abuse claims due to the lack of oversight from local authorities. According to the U.S. Office of Inspector General, there were 9,744 reports of abuse or neglect in congregate care homes in the year 2019 alone.

3. What is Complex PTSD?

Complex PTSD is a type of PTSD that develops in individuals who have experienced prolonged and repeated trauma, likely involving chronic sexual abuse. It is characterized by severe anxiety and depression as well as other symptoms, such as dissociative disorder. Complex PTSD is common among survivors of institutionalized sexual abuse.

4. Why is Abuse So Common in Residential Treatment Facilities?

The troubled teens industry is plagued with abuse claims due to the high number of employees who are not properly trained to work with children, as well as ineffective management and regulatory oversight. As a result, the staff at these facilities are likely to take advantage of their position and be physically, psychologically, or sexually abusive toward their residents. Teenagers in these facilities are vulnerable to such abuse because they may not feel empowered to stand up to these sexual predators, particularly if they are authority figures.

5. What is Wilderness Therapy Kidnapping?

Wilderness therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to induce extreme stress in a person in order to teach them how to cope with stress in the real world. Parents who decide to send their troubled teen to a wilderness camp have to give up their parental rights so that the program can authorize medical attention or physically restrain their child. Typically, a transportation service shows up in the early morning hours and forcibly takes the child away to the program, like a staged kidnapping.

6. What is a Behavior Modification Program?

Behavior modification programs, also known as troubled teen programs, attempt to change problematic behaviors in teens. These programs are designed for teenagers who have been kicked out of school and have not responded well to traditional treatment methods. There are many types of behavior modification programs, such as therapeutic boarding schools, wilderness camps, boot camps, and residential treatment centers.

7. What is “Code Silence?”

“Code Silence” is a form of punishment used in some behavior modification programs where the child is isolated from others and told not to speak to anybody. This way, not only is the child socially isolated but they are also forced to cut off communication with their loved ones.

8. How Many Deaths Have Occurred in Teen Treatment Programs?

A report by the US Government Accountability Office shows that residential treatment programs for troubled youth have been subjected to thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which have even led to death. The report notes that the total number of fatalities remains indeterminable due to limited data collection. However, in 2005 alone, 1619 staff members from 33 states were reported to have been involved in troubled teen abuse.

9. How May I File a Lawsuit Against a Troubled Teen Program?

If you believe that you or someone you know was sexually abused while enrolled in a troubled teen program, you may contact an experienced sexual abuse attorney to assess your case and determine the best course of action for seeking restitution and accountability.

A qualified troubled teen industry sex abuse lawyer can file a civil lawsuit on your behalf to seek damages against the company running the program, as well as any other responsible parties such as its directors, owners, administrators, staff members, and other persons who caused you harm. You may seek monetary compensation for losses sustained as well as punitive damages in certain cases. A court may order the responsible party to implement new safety procedures and protocols to prevent future instances of troubled teen industry abuse.

10. How May I Report an Abusive Troubled Teen Program?

If you are an adult who believes that your child or other children are being sexually abused in a troubled teen program, please call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST. The NCMEC can help you find local law enforcement if needed. You may also file a report with your state child welfare agency or contact your local police department. For more information on reporting troubled teen programs on a state-by-state basis, visit

Resources for Survivors of Institutional Sexual Abuse

The following groups are dedicated to helping fight sexual abuse and empower survivors:

Contact Troubled Teen Industry Sexual Abuse Lawyers For Help

If you or a loved one is a survivor of sexual abuse in the troubled teen industry, we encourage you to reach out to Edwards Pottinger’s institutional sex abuse lawyers. Our lawyers are nationally recognized for helping survivors fight back against some of the most notable sex offenders in recent history. We can help investigate the program’s potential liability, file a sexual abuse civil lawsuit on your behalf, and work tirelessly to ensure you recover compensation for your loss.

If you or someone you know would like to pursue justice and compensation for troubled teen industry sexual abuse, contact us today to set up a free legal consultation.

Article Sources

  1. #breakingcodesilence
  2. ICAPA Network: A Troubled Industry
  3. WWASP Survivors: Legislative Policies
  4. Unsilenced: The Voice of Youth Rights
  5. The Stop Institutional Care Child Abuse Act
  6. Efforts To Improve Response to Reports of Abuse and Neglect of Children Living in Congregate Care Facilities in Six States
  7. Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth
  8. Where to Report Abuse
  9. National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential 24/7 Support
  10. Survivors Of Institutional Abuse
  11. Resources for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse

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