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The Troubled Teen Industry and Sexual Abuse

Nov 08, 2022
Last updated Jun 06, 2024
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The troubled teen industry (TTI) has become a multi-billion dollar business in the United States. For decades, parents and caregivers have sent their ‘troubled youth’ to troubled teen facilities for treatment. Many are unaware that such TTI facilities are notorious for subjecting children to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as neglect and exploitation.

The term ‘troubled teens’ refers to those teenagers who are believed to be at risk of committing crimes or not completing their education. Their parents and guardians often send them to a troubled teen facility in the hope that it might rehabilitate their teenagers. While the troubled teen industry offers caretakers the hope of resolving issues related to drug abuse, depression, and aggression in their children, it subjects many of these teens to abuse and neglect, causing them trauma that may take years to heal.

Recent lawsuits against troubled teen programs, along with celebrity Paris Hilton’s accounts of her abuse at a psychiatric youth center, have shone a light on the widespread abuse at TTI facilities. If you or a loved one has suffered from troubled teen industry abuse, contact our experienced and compassionate attorneys today for help.

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 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 programs take adolescents out into the wilderness for a set amount of time, which may last weeks or even months. These programs are marketed to parents as a way to “reset” their child’s behavior by removing them from their daily life and immersing them in nature. However, many of these wilderness programs have a dark side.

There have been several reports of severe and inhumane conditions in wilderness programs. Children are often forced to remain outside in the cold with inadequate clothing, and subjected to extreme manual labor, physical punishment, and restraint. Some have even suffered from heat strokes, while others have had their bones broken as a result of exposure to these extreme conditions.

Despite these horrors, the idea of wilderness ‘therapy’ is sold as a positive and transformative experience for children and a way to toughen up ‘soft’ kids by breaking their dependence on modern conveniences, like technology. However, the truth is much more sinister. While the tactics and behaviors present in each wilderness program vary, many include abusive practices like sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, and withholding of food or water as forms of punishment. Physical violence and emotional abuse are also not uncommon.

Residential Treatment Centers

Residential treatment centers are long-term, in-patient facilities that offer clinical and medical care for treating issues like addiction and eating disorders. Unfortunately, many of these programs are unaccredited and do not follow evidence-based treatments. All too often, the staff is inadequately trained to handle the severe mental, emotional, and behavioral issues of some of their patients. Although teens in these facilities are given educational instruction, many fall behind at school.

It is common for teens in these programs to be diagnosed with mental health conditions they may not have, and forced to take psychiatric medication. These false diagnoses have long-term effects on a child’s academic and personal life. It is also common for students who return to their home school districts to have to repeat grades because of inadequate education during their time in residential treatment centers.

Many children in the legal system, such as those on probation, are funneled into these schools. In some states, parents even have the right to place a child on probation for not complying with rules at home. As with other types of troubled teen programs, reports of physical and sexual abuse are common.

Gay Conversion Programs

Gay conversion programs, also known as conversion therapy, are illegal in 21 states for claiming to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexuality to heterosexuality. These programs are often rooted in religious sentiments and are designed to “fix” what is viewed as a mental illness. These programs have caused immense harm to the members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Methods used in gay conversion programs include extreme forms of mental, physical, and emotional abuse. Some programs use electric shock therapy, chemical aversion therapy, and even forced masturbation while viewing pornographic images. These abusive tactics can cause long-lasting trauma to the survivors.

According to GLAAD and researchers at San Francisco State University, individuals who undergo conversion therapy are 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, and 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs.

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 are subjected to abuse in the form of limited access to food and water, exposure to intense environmental conditions, along with further physical, mental, and even sexual abuse. Boot camps are advertised as a way to teach teens discipline, responsibility, and respect for authority. However, the reality is that boot camps are often abusive and can lead to more harm than good.

Several boot camps rely on harsh tactics, such as yelling, physical exercise, and deprivation of basic needs, to “break down” teens and rebuild them into obedient individuals. This approach often causes physical and emotional trauma, as well as long-lasting psychological damage. Additionally, research shows that they have a very low success rate in rehabilitating troubled teens. Studies have found that juveniles who attend boot camps have up to an 8 percent increase in the chances of becoming a re-offender.

Boarding Schools

There are a number of boarding schools where troubled teenagers are sent for behavioral correction. These schools promise to provide therapy and counseling to help teens overcome their issues. However, the reality of these institutions is often a lot darker than advertised.

One of the most notorious boarding schools in the troubled teen industry is Provo Canyon Boarding School in Utah. The school was established in 1971 and has faced multiple allegations of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse over the years. The school was featured in Paris Hilton’s documentary, where she revealed the traumatizing abuse she suffered during her time there.

Cross Creek, another boarding school run by WWASP, was closed in 2012 due to multiple lawsuits and reports that children were subjected to serious abuse, including being forced to eat their vomit, locked in dog cages, and denied food, medical care, and education. Another boarding school, Tranquility Bay, located in Jamaica and open from 1997 to 2009, was considered the harshest WWASP school and received accusations of torturous practices, abuse, physical restraint, and bounding of individuals.

Abduction Services

One of the most disturbing aspects of the troubled teen industry is the use of abduction services that forcibly remove young people from their homes in the middle of the night and send them to another place where they are physically threatened and intimidated into compliance.

The trauma caused by the abduction process cannot be overstated. The use of such services leaves a lasting impact on a person’s mental health and often leads to post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and other conditions. Many survivors of abduction services struggle with insomnia, flashbacks, and panic attacks long after the experience has ended. Families may be convinced that this is the only way to get their children the help they need, not realizing the potential harm inflicted in the process.

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

Physical Abuse in Troubled Teen Programs

The troubled teen industry has a history of using physically abusive methods to “fix” troubled youth. Many of these programs force children to perform manual labor, engage them in strenuous military-style exercises, and use physical restraints or “holds” on children so they cannot escape or move around. Needless to say, these practices may cause severe bodily harm, with some survivors reporting broken bones and permanent physical and emotional injury. Some have even lost their lives.

Types of physical abuse reported in TTI programs include:

  • Manual labor in unsafe or harsh conditions, often without proper training or safety equipment
  • Forced exercise programs, including military-style boot camps that may lead to overexertion, dehydration, and other physical injuries
  • Use of physical restraints or holds, potentially causing harm or even death
  • Punitive measures such as food or sleep deprivation, forced isolation or confinement in small spaces, or other extreme tactics
  • Intimidation or physical threats by the staff
  • Deprivation of necessary medical treatment or medication
  • Corporal punishment, such as spanking, hitting, or paddling

Troubled Teen Industry Deaths

It is unfortunate that the children sent to the TTI programs to receive help for behavioral or emotional issues often end up suffering from severe physical or emotional abuse. In some cases, teenagers have died while under the care of these programs.

According to an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, at least 10 children have died in programs for troubled youth since 1990. However, some advocacy groups argue that the number of deaths is actually much higher than reported, with some listing over 200 deaths since 1971. The causes of death vary, but physical abuse and restraint by staff members, altercations with other residents, and suicide are among the leading causes.

What is Breaking Code Silence?

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.

Breaking Code Silence Stories

Over the past few years, several survivors of the troubled teen industry have come forward to share their experiences and advocate for change.

Paris Hilton Breaking Code Silence

Paris Hilton is a vocal advocate against the troubled teen industry abuse. She opened up about her experiences at Provo Canyon School as a teenager, where she was subjected to abuse and solitary confinement. She also discussed having recurring nightmares about being abducted and transported to the facility. Hilton is a major supporter of Breaking Code Silence. Through her advocacy, she has shed light on the horrific reality faced by many young people in TTI facilities, and has inspired others to speak out against the abuse and mistreatment that has been normalized in these programs for far too long.

Paris Jackson Breaking Code Silence

Recently, Paris Jackson posted on Instagram about her experience at a residential treatment center for troubled teens. The post was in support of Paris Hilton and the Breaking Code Silence Movement. She talked about the sexual abuse and trauma she suffered while at a TTI facility and shared how she had been diagnosed with PTSD after attending a behavior modification school for two years.

Kat Von D Breaking Code Silence

Another prominent figure to break the code of silence on TTI abuse is Kat Von D. The tattoo artist and entrepreneur revealed in a February 2021 Instagram post that she was “kidnapped and locked up” at Provo Canyon School. Kat spent six months at the school where she experienced both physical and mental abuse. The trauma she endured left her with PTSD, which has had a lasting impact on her life.

Bhad Bhabie Breaking Code Silence

Danielle Bregoli, commonly known as Bhad Bhabie, was sent to Turn-About Ranch when she was 13 years old by Dr. Phil after being on his show. In a video posted to Instagram, Bhad Bhabie and a fellow survivor of Turn-About Ranch discussed instances of sexual abuse by a male staff member. She stated that Turn-About Ranch perpetuated a culture of child abuse and neglect. Her allegations include instances of sexual assault; punishment for reporting the assault; denial of a bed, food, and warmth; forced sleep deprivation and manual labor; and overuse of cruel punishment methods.

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.

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. What is Attack Therapy?

Attack therapy is a controversial and aggressive form of therapy used in troubled teen programs. It includes verbal and physical abuse, such as hitting, screaming, and degrading comments. This ‘therapy’ is based on the belief that a person must experience pain and discomfort to overcome their problems and build resilience. However, many child psychologists have countered that this type of therapy is traumatizing and harmful to teens, and may make problems worse instead of better.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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 TTI survivors:

  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: Created by the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, the National Sexual Assault Hotline provides confidential support 24/7 to sexual assault survivors.
  • Enough Abuse Campaign: The campaign offers resources for adult survivors of child sexual abuse and institutional child abuse.
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse: This organization provides support to adult survivors of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect.
  • Childhelp: Childhelp offers resources for children and adults who have experienced abuse or neglect, including those who have been institutionalized. Survivors can also call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline to speak to a professional crisis counselor.
  • MaleSurvivor: MaleSurvivor provides support and resources to male survivors of all forms of sexual abuse, including those who have been institutionalized. They offer online support groups, in-person retreats, and educational resources.

We Believe You: Talk to a Troubled Teen Industry Abuse Lawyer

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 Henderson’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, including Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Our TTI sex abuse attorneys can help investigate the program’s potential liability, file a civil sexual abuse lawsuit on your behalf, and work tirelessly to ensure you recover compensation for your pain and suffering.

Contact us today to set up a free and confidential legal consultation.

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Article Sources

  1. #breakingcodesilence
  2. ICAPA Network: A Troubled Industry
  3. WWASP Survivors: Legislative Policies
  4. Unsilenced: The Voice of Youth Rights
  5. S.1351 – Stop Institutional 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
  10. Resources for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
  11. GLAAD
  12. MaleSurvivor
  13. Adult Survivors of Child Abuse
  14. Childhelp
  15. Federal Legislative Change
  16. Teen Boot Camps
  17. I See You, Survivor: A Call to Dismantle the Troubled Teen Industry

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