Survivors, children’s advocates speak out about abuse in youth treatment settings   


May 24, 2022

Alex was just 13 years old when he was transported at 4:23 a.m. to wilderness therapy, having no clue where he was going, or who was bringing him. The child believed he was kidnapped. At the simplest definition of the term, he was.  

Following the “abduction” as Alex calls it, he did not have access to a shower for 27 days. He was stripped of his basic human rights and humiliated: put into isolation for lashing out. He was a hurting child who needed love, instead, he got traumatized.   

Now, at 27 years old, he is back in therapy for this trauma after 11 years of being terrified of engaging with the system that neglected his needs and further abused him during a developmental time in his life when he was simply crying for help.  

“Frankly, I am one of the few who made it out. Many of my peers either died of an overdose or intentionally killed themselves,” Alex told Voices for Human Needs following a Capitol Hill press conference that featured survivors and advocates of children who have faced abuse in youth residential treatment settings.   

The event was a part of a D.C. lobbying weekend put on by Unsilenced, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization that serves victims of institutional child abuse. The group met with members of Congress and President Biden and called for accountability from these government institutions that are intended to serve and protect children. 

Today, there are an estimated 120,000 to 200,000 minors in congregate care facilities across the United States. These youth are pipelined into residential placements each year by state child welfare and juvenile justice systems, mental health providers, refugee resettlement agencies, school districts’ individualized education programs, and by parents. Many of these youth have prior trauma histories before placement, issues only exacerbated by extended separation from their communities once placed in an institutional setting.   

Alex, along with other survivors of the troubled teen industry, are saying “no more.”   

This industry receives an estimated $23 billion dollars of annual public funds to purportedly treat the behavioral and psychological needs of vulnerable youth, yet it operates without meaningful oversight. The cost per child, per day for residential treatment ranges from $250-$800, for an annual cost of up to $292,000 per year, per child. The industry’s lack of transparency and accountability for care has led to widespread physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of youth, resulting in hospitalizations, prolonged trauma and even hundreds of child deaths. Youth are too often denied access to legal counsel, advocacy, and the most basic rights to personal safety and satisfactory living conditions.   

Due to survivor activists’ advocacy, The Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, sponsored by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), would establish a Youth in Congregate Care Bill of Rights, legally define institutional child abuse and neglect, create essential infrastructure for crucial interagency collaboration to protect youth in care, and encourage states to develop processes that reduce the overall usage of institutional settings.   

Alex’s grandparents paid more than $100K to a treatment program, in hope that their grandchild would receive care, and earn the opportunity of a better life. However, Alex believes they were manipulated and had no idea what was going on at wilderness therapy.    

“They even ended up paying an extra $15K because of the manipulation,” Alex said.  

Wilderness therapy, along with other youth residential treatment centers, have engaging websites designed to persuade parents and caretakers to send their kids– it is marketing. The survivors of institutional abuse are saying this marketing is further manipulation, putting vulnerable children in that much more danger.   

Jade, an 18-year-old and recent survivor of Provo Canyon School, said she was physically restrained for what felt like hours by two large men after trying to escape the facility. On Provo’s website, the school promotes itself as being a “compassionate behavioral health center,” but that is far from the reality of what goes on behind the locked doors of the facility. From isolation rooms, to sexual assault of minors, these children are in jeopardy and withheld from any form of advocacy for their needs.   

Bob Marlin, submitted a Google Review about Provo Canyon School. He said, “My niece was sent here. She killed herself less than a month after she came home. The descriptions in her journal and final note showed the damage this ‘school’ caused. If you love your child; DO NOT send them to this torture camp.”   

Institutional abuse is perpetuated when survivors are not believed and victims blamed. Instead, we should be encouraging survivors to come forward without feeling ashamed of their experiences. We need to hold the institutions accountable for enabling predators who harm children, and hold other child-serving professionals accountable (many of whom are mandated by law to report abuse) for not doing their due diligence to get victims the help they deserve 

While not every residential facility is abusive and some serve a great purpose for helping our younger generation find their way, oversight across the board will ensure that all facilities are meeting the needs of their patients.  

Alex is now an investment banker who owns a social media company. However, Alex’s success makes him the exception and not the norm. Typically, institutional abuse survivors have a hard time thriving as they live in a constant battle of fear, lack of trust, and anger issues. They often fall victim to generational trauma. 

Paris Hilton, celebrity and a survivor of Provo Canyon School, has been the face of the movement urging legislation for accountability within these programs. “For too long, our government has allowed these deceptive industries to operate in the shadows without any real transparency or accountability,” she said.   

For rich and poor alike, teen mental health issues have spiked as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic, putting more children in danger than ever before. With inpatient psychiatric services in short supply, adolescents are spending days, even weeks, in hospital emergency departments awaiting the help they desperately need. Low-income teens are more vulnerable as studies have shown a relationship between household income and mental disorders leading to suicide. 

An estimated 50-75 percent of arrested juveniles have at least one mental health disorder; of that percentage, two-thirds have more than one mental health disorder. Juveniles raised in low-income families and Black and Latino youth have a much higher rate of arrest than those from upper or middle-class families. With good quality treatment often unavailable, their “residential placements” wind up being in correctional facilities.    

To get involved in the battle to save our vulnerable young people, go to to see what you can do today to help these children who cannot help themselves.  

The Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, sponsored by Rep. Khanna and Sen. Merkley, is crucial. No teen should be kidnapped in the middle of the night in the name of mental health ever again. These children must be protected.  

Child abuse
residential youth treatment facilities