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Wilderness Therapy Abuse

May 02, 2024
Last updated Jun 06, 2024
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The Troubled Teen Industry (TTI) comprises businesses, organizations, and facilities that offer specialized care and programs for troubled teenagers. Wilderness Therapy programs are TTI programs that are conducted in outdoor wilderness environments to treat teens in need of help. Unfortunately, many of these wilderness therapy programs have been accused of abusive practices, such as emotional and physical abuse, neglect, and improper medical care. Abused residents are often vulnerable young adults who are desperate for help and guidance, but instead are met with mistreatment. 

If you or your loved one is a survivor of wilderness therapy abuse, you may have the right to seek justice and compensation for your losses. The TTI sexual abuse lawyers at Edwards Henderson are here to help you understand your legal actions and how you may hold abusive wilderness therapy programs accountable for your suffering. 

Key Takeaways

  • Wilderness therapy programs have come under fire with many survivors coming forward to speak about the abusive practices at these programs.
  • Survivors of wilderness therapy sex abuse and other types of institutionalized child abuse have the right to pursue compensation through a civil sex abuse lawsuit.
  • A qualified teen sex abuse attorney can help wilderness therapy sex abuse survivors recover justice and compensation.

What is Wilderness Therapy? 

Wilderness therapy is an outdoor-based form of treatment designed to address issues such as behavioral issues, substance abuse, and other mental health problems. It is an alternative form of therapy that does not take place in an office setting or inside a building, but in the wilderness. It typically involves having residents stay outdoors in nature for an extended period and with limited access to basic comforts, while receiving counseling and other therapeutic services from clinicians. 

Despite its name, wilderness therapy is not an evidence-based treatment and can involve abusive practices that may leave people with lasting physical, mental, and psychological issues. There have been countless reports of negligence and mistreatment in these programs. Several wilderness therapy programs are run by untrained or inexperienced staff and use techniques such as forced marches, sleep deprivation, humiliation, physical punishment such as restraint, and food deprivation to “treat” individuals who are seeking help. 

Wilderness Therapy Programs: False Promises & Abuse

Wilderness therapy programs are typically marketed to parents and guardians as a form of therapy for adolescents and teens who are struggling with a wide range of behavioral, mental health, and substance abuse issues. These programs offer a “residential treatment” option in which teens and adolescents are sent to live in the wilderness with little or no access to technology, communication with their family and friends, and other comforts of home. The idea is to use a “hands-on” approach to psychotherapy so teens and adolescents can learn responsibility, self-discipline, and teamwork.

While these programs are purported to provide at-risk youth with a safe space to obtain new life skills through wilderness survival techniques, outdoor recreation, and other activities, the reality is much different. Many wilderness therapy programs have been exposed for using overly harsh tactics, physical punishment, as well as various forms of psychological and emotional abuse. There have been many reported cases of sexual abuse as well, often going unnoticed and undetected for extended periods.

Here are some of the widely reported horror stories from wilderness therapy programs: 

Second Nature Wilderness Abuse 

Second Nature Wilderness Therapy Program has been in operation for over 20 years and is known as the industry’s most trusted and sophisticated wilderness therapy program. Still, there have been reports of abuse at the program, with some teens claiming that the program feels like abuse

In a USA Today article, a former camper and sexual assault survivor at Second Nature Wilderness in Utah described how distressed she felt when she was physically restrained by a male staff member who would sleep next to her to ensure she could not escape.

In 2016, the police investigated allegations that a counselor at Second Nature Blue Ridge, a wilderness program in Georgia, had forced a 14-year-old into a sexual act. However, subsequent details of the investigation remain unclear.

Trails Carolina Abuse

Trails Carolina is a wilderness therapy program located in North Carolina that offers treatment to struggling teens. Sadly, there have been several allegations of abuse at the program. In 2021, an investigation by WBTV revealed that teens at Trails Carolina were subjected to verbal and physical abuse, including being forced to do strenuous physical activity in extreme temperatures. In 2022, a father brought a lawsuit against Trails Carolina, claiming that the wilderness therapy program’s negligent business model fosters an environment of abuse upon its residents, including the sexual abuse of his 14-year-old daughter. 

Evoke Therapy Abuse

Evoke Therapy has been the subject of numerous allegations of abuse. Survivors have reported that Evoke Entrada, a program offered by Evoke Therapy, is an abusive program that uses brainwashing techniques, medical neglect, unqualified staff, unsanitary conditions and practices, communication restrictions, and emotional abuse of its residents.

North Star Wilderness Program Abuse

In 1996, a wilderness program counselor at North Star was found guilty of his role in the death of a 16-year-old camper, Aaron Bacon. Aaron died of acute peritonitis from a perforated ulcer that developed after several days of hiking through the Escalante River Canyon’s rugged terrain in southern Utah. The counselor, Craig Fisher, was found guilty of abuse or neglect of a disabled child. Bacon was just 108 pounds at the time of his death. 

Wilderness Therapy “Treatment” Methods

Many parents and caretakers send teenagers to wilderness therapy programs against their will in the middle of the night. In some cases, restraints, handcuffs, and even electric shockers are used to control the teens. When the teen reaches the destination, they are usually strip-searched, given a uniform, and introduced to their new peers.

TTI programs such as wilderness therapy are typically based on the “Tough Love” approach and include “occupational therapy” interventions. Teens spend their days hiking and learning how to survive in the wild. At night, their shoes are taken from them to prevent them from running away. Some programs even include attack therapy sessions where these children are provoked to simulate a real-life conflict. Punishments for not following instructions can include depriving them of food or water, or forcing them to sleep outside without a sleeping bag. 

The teens are completely isolated from the outside world, and any letters to their families are monitored. This means that the only communication they have with their family is often through the program directors. This lack of connection is extremely harmful and can lead to depression, anxiety, and other issues.

What Are the Indicators of a Harmful Wilderness Therapy Program? 

Wilderness therapy programs promise an escape from everyday life and a return to nature, but they can often be far more abusive than beneficial. To identify a potentially harmful wilderness therapy program, it is important to look out for certain signs and red flags. Here are some of the most common indicators that a wilderness therapy program may be abusive:

  • Limited or no parental involvement: It is common for wilderness therapy programs to severely limit the amount of contact with parents or guardians. It is also common for parents to remain unaware of their child’s location or activities within the program.
  • Low staff-to-patient ratio: Wilderness therapy programs with a low staff-to-patient ratio could be indicative of inadequate supervision and care. Many programs also lack an adequate number of staff members who are licensed mental health professionals.
  • Lack of clear guidelines: Abusive wilderness therapy programs may have unclear policies and procedures for treatment and patient safety. A lack of clear guidelines can lead to dangerous situations where there is no accountability for staff members or patients.
  • Overly harsh punishments: Wilderness therapy programs should focus on positive reinforcement, not stringent punishment. Programs that utilize excessive physical punishments or demeaning verbal reprimands are abusive.
  • Forced labor: These programs should not require patients to do any form of manual labor as a form of treatment or discipline. Any labor-intensive activities should be voluntary.
  • Restricted movement: Programs should provide some freedom of movement, such as the ability to go on hikes and explore nature. If patients are restricted from leaving their campsite or participating in activities, this could be a sign of abuse.
  • Isolation: Wilderness therapy programs should provide ample opportunities for socialization with other patients and staff members. If a program restricts access to other people, this could also be indicative of wilderness camp abuse.

Wilderness Therapy & Sexual Abuse

The seclusion and isolation inherent in wilderness therapy treatment programs leave teens particularly vulnerable to predators and abusers. With limited to no contact with friends or family, a teenager can be easy prey for those in power. It is estimated that roughly 60% of sexual abuse survivors are abused before they turn 18. For teens in wilderness therapy programs, there is a risk of sexual abuse in many of these programs due to a culture that encourages harsh and abusive ‘treatments,’ as well as ineffective management and negligent staff. 

Wilderness therapy programs can make it very difficult for teens to report abuse. They are often physically and emotionally isolated, sometimes miles away from civilization and cut off from loved ones, thereby making it hard to escape the abuse or seek help. Even if a teen does report the abuse, it can be challenging for family members to come to their rescue when the program is located far from home. Furthermore, some teen wilderness therapy programs are known to cover up allegations of abuse, leaving survivors feeling powerless and unheard.

For these reasons, sexual abuse in wilderness therapy is a serious and pervasive problem. Teens placed in these programs are incredibly vulnerable due to their age and mental health issues, and are, therefore, susceptible to predatory behavior. If you are a TTI abuse survivor, do not hesitate to seek the support and justice you deserve. A TTI sexual abuse lawyer can help you pursue compensation and closure by taking legal action. 

How Does Wilderness Therapy Abuse Affect Survivors?

Wilderness therapy has long been praised as a therapeutic solution for adolescents and teenagers with behavioral or substance abuse issues. However, in recent years, the unregulated nature of these programs has come under fire, raising questions about their efficacy and the lack of federal oversight and regulation. 

There have been numerous reports of abuse and mistreatment at wilderness therapy centers, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, inadequate nutrition, and lack of medical care. In some cases, children have died either at such centers or while trying to escape them. This type of long-term institutionalization is damaging for children, impacting their cognitive skills and making it harder to return to normalcy. Many children have also died either due to the harsh nature of the programs or while attempting to escape. Between 2000 to 2015, there were as many as 86 troubled teen industry deaths. 

The idealism associated with wilderness therapy programs often blinds those involved from recognizing how much harm it can cause to the residents. Some survivors have described feelings of PTSD, depression, disordered eating, and other mental health problems that have resulted from the abuse and mistreatment. Several survivors of wilderness therapy programs have come out needing further help, showing that shipping off troubled teens to residential programs may do more harm than good. 

How Is #BreakingCodeSilence Helping Survivors of Wilderness Therapy Abuse?

Breaking Code Silence is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit representing people who were placed and abused in a TTI program. It strives to create awareness about the harsh realities of TTI programs, while promoting evidence-based therapy. #BreakingCodeSilence is a movement that started on TikTok to bring attention to TTI abuse. Using this hashtag, many TTI abuse survivors, including wilderness therapy abuse survivors, have shared their stories of abuse and trauma to bring awareness to this issue and demand action from those responsible. Survivors are using the hashtag #breakingcodesilence to share their experiences of being subjected to abusive practices, such as physical and psychological punishment, while at wilderness therapy programs.

#BreakingCodeSilence has steadily gained momentum and has been popularized by celebrities like Paris Hilton, Paris Jackson, and Kat Von D who have shared their own experiences in TTI programs. In her recent documentary This is Paris, Hilton recounted her 11 months at Provo Canyon School in Utah and stated suffering from PTSD and trust issues due to TTI abuse, such as physical restraint and force-feeding of ‘mystery’ medications, and being put in solitary confinement without clothes when she refused to take the pills. 

#BreakingCodeSilence has given a voice to those who have experienced wilderness therapy abuse, inspiring other survivors to come forward and share their stories. By breaking the code of silence, survivors are advocating for an end to such abusive practices and demanding justice for those whose lives have been adversely affected by wilderness therapy programs. The movement has helped bring greater awareness to this issue, leading to more dialogue and debate around it. It has also encouraged legislators to take action to regulate such programs. It is hoped that with increased awareness and regulation, survivors can find justice and move forward with their lives.

Healing From Wilderness Therapy Abuse 

It can take a lot of hard work and courage to heal from the trauma of wilderness therapy abuse. If you are a wilderness therapy abuse survivor, remember that you are not alone in your struggles and there are resources available to help you process your experiences. 

As a survivor, the most important step is to focus on developing self-care practices to support mental health and physical well-being. These practices could include engaging in activities such as yoga, meditation, journaling, or talking with a trauma counselor. 

Sometimes, it may be difficult for survivors whose trust was severely breached due to abusive TTI programs to speak to counselors or therapists. While it is important to understand that not all therapists are the same, survivors may choose to connect with members of local support groups to share personal experiences and feelings with others who have been similarly affected by abuse. With the right help, wilderness therapy abuse survivors can reclaim their lives and heal from the trauma.

It may be helpful for wilderness therapy abuse survivors to pursue justice against the abusers as well as negligent institutions like a wilderness therapy programs that allowed the abuse to take place, or were complicit in covering up the abuse to protect their reputation. A sexual abuse lawyer can help you understand your legal options and fight for maximum compensation for the trauma suffered. 

Wilderness Therapy Abuse Resources

Recovery takes time and effort. With the right resources, wilderness therapy abuse survivors can find the healing and empowerment they need to move forward with their lives. Here are some of the top resources for wilderness therapy abuse survivors:

  • Breaking Code Silence: This organization is dedicated to helping survivors of behavior modification program abuse. It provides a safe space for survivors to share their stories and gain access to resources such as trauma counseling. Breaking Code Silence also organizes public awareness campaigns to bring attention to the issue. 
  • Unsilenced: Unsilenced offers online support groups, advocacy campaigns, and education about TTI abuse. Unsilenced is committed to providing healing and empowerment to those affected by wilderness therapy abuse. 
  • National Youth Rights Association (NYRA): This organization works to protect the rights of young people who have experienced wilderness therapy and other forms of institutionalized child abuse. The NYRA offers educational programs and advocacy initiatives for TTI abuse survivors. 
  • Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint: This group advocates for the end of seclusion and restraint practices in wilderness therapy programs. They provide resources such as online support communities for survivors. 
  • Survivors of Institutional Abuse: This organization provides a support network for those who have experienced institutional abuse, including wilderness therapy abuse. They offer counseling, education, and advocacy services to help survivors heal from the trauma they have experienced. 

If you are a parent of a teen or adolescent who has undergone ‘treatment’ at a wilderness therapy program, you should keep an eye out for signs of child sex abuse so you can help your child come to terms with the abuse and begin their healing process. 

Wilderness Therapy Abuse: FAQs

1. Is wilderness therapy abusive?

Wilderness therapy programs can be abusive and, in many cases, dangerous. Survivors of wilderness therapy report being subjected to verbal abuse, humiliation, and physical restraint, as well as solitary confinement and sleep and food deprivation. Many of these practices are considered unethical and potentially illegal by mental health professionals. Wilderness therapy programs often lack oversight and lack meaningful standards of care for those involved. 

Wilderness therapy is severely under-regulated by the federal government, with little or no scientific backing to the treatment methods used in these programs. While laws do exist that criminalize certain types of physical abuse, they do not provide sufficient protection from other forms of abuse that may take place at behavior modification programs, such as psychological and emotional abuse. 

3. What is wilderness therapy kidnapping?

Wilderness therapy kidnapping is the act of forcibly taking someone to a wilderness therapy program without their knowledge or consent. In some cases, this can involve physical force, coercion, or other forms of manipulation in order to get the person to attend a program that they would otherwise not agree to attend. Many wilderness abuse survivors have reported being kidnapped in the middle of the night and sent to a wilderness camp. 

4. What are the negatives of going to wilderness therapy?

Wilderness therapy can have serious drawbacks, from emotional trauma to physical harm. Survivors have reported being deprived of food and water, forced to sleep outdoors in harsh conditions, verbally and emotionally abused, and denied basic medical care and hygiene such as showers and laundry. There is also a significant risk of sexual abuse, with multiple instances of predatory staff members preying on vulnerable participants. Additionally, the long-term consequences of wilderness therapy can include anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

5. Why are there so many wilderness therapy programs in Utah? 

According to a recent report, 34% of all teens who crossed state lines to enter a youth treatment facility ended up in Utah from 2015 to 2020. This influx of teens brought hundreds of millions of dollars into Utah’s economy every year. Many factors contribute to why Utah is so popular for wilderness therapy programs. 

Utah has a religious and family-oriented reputation, which is attractive to families looking for treatment for their troubled teens. Additionally, the age for medical consent to mental health treatment in Utah is 18, compared to 12 in California and 13 in Washington. This gives parents more freedom to make decisions regarding their child’s treatment.

Furthermore, the land is relatively inexpensive in Utah, making it easier for programs to operate in the state. In addition, the workforce in Utah is eager to take on jobs in the treatment industry. Finally, regulations are weaker in Utah than in other states, meaning programs can get away with more than they could elsewhere.

6. How many teenagers are sent to residential treatment centers? 

Every year, an estimated 120,000-200,000 young people in the United States reside in some type of group home, residential treatment center, boot camp, or correctional facility. Of these, more than 50,000 are placed privately by their parents without the involvement of a court order. 

7. I am an adult TTI survivor. How do I report teen sexual abuse?

If you are an adult survivor of teen sexual abuse, you can take action by first reporting it to the proper authorities. This is especially relevant if the program is still operating. Depending on the situation, you may contact law enforcement or a state child protective services agency, or file a report with the state in which the program operates. You should provide as much detailed information as possible, including the name of the organization, location, time period, and any other pertinent details. 

Note that adult survivors of child sex abuse may be eligible for financial compensation for the abuse endured. A sexual abuse attorney can help you learn more about reporting and pursuing justice for teen sex abuse. 

Talk To A Compassionate Teen Sex Abuse Lawyer

If you are a survivor of wilderness therapy abuse, you may be eligible to seek financial compensation through a civil teen sex abuse lawsuit. While it can be difficult to confront the trauma and take legal action, it could be a step toward recovery. An experienced teen sex abuse lawyer can provide compassionate guidance and legal representation to help you seek compensation for the harm that you have suffered. 

A teen sex abuse lawyer can provide help in understanding the legal process and gathering evidence and information to potentially hold those responsible accountable for this heinous crime. An experienced sex abuse attorney will investigate the details of the abuse as well as the organizations or individuals responsible to ensure that your case has the best chance for success. 

At Edwards Henderson, our sex abuse attorneys understand how sensitive and complex these types of cases can be and are here to provide compassion, understanding, and legal advocacy throughout the process. Our sex abuse law firm has a proven track record of success in holding abusers and those who enabled them accountable for the damage they caused. Contact us today for a free legal consultation to learn more about how we can help you.

Article Sources

  1. Residential Programs: Selected Cases of Death, Abuse, and Deceptive Marketing
  2. Wilderness therapy was supposed to help these ‘troubled teens.’ It traumatized them instead.
  3. I went into the woods a teenage drug addict and came out sober. Was it worth it?
  4. ‘It’s beyond cruel’: Inside an N.C. wilderness therapy program for teens
  5. Therapy Becomes Theater in ‘Wilderness’
  6. Breaking Code Silence
  7. Paris Jackson, Paris Hilton raise awareness about the "troubled teen industry"
  8. Unsilenced
  9. National Youth Rights Association
  10. Alliance Against Seclusion & Restraint
  11. ‘Blindfolds, hoods and handcuffs’: How some teenagers come to Utah youth treatment programs

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