BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – In 2010, Buckhannon resident Hayley Hedrick was getting ready to be a mother. She said it was reflecting on her own childhood and deciding how she will raise her children that she realized that the therapeutic boarding school she went to at 16 was highly abusive and traumatic.
“Every single night, I have nightmares of that place. I’m hypervigilant with certain things,” Hedrick explained, “I do have some memory loss in some instances because of where I was restrained and my head hit. I have a permanent broken toe on my foot where they broke my toe in a restraint gone wrong. I think a lot of times I tried to be the people pleaser. It definitely affected my personality. It alienated me from my family, my parents. I mean really, it affects me every single day. Every single day. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t think of something from that place or I have a part of my personality comes from what occurred at that place.”
Hedrick is not alone, and survivors of what is being called the “troubled teen industry” are coming forward more than ever due to coverage in a popular documentary on Paris Hilton called This is Paris.
Shell companies, lack of regulation, closing and reopening of facilities, and exchanging of staff make it difficult to track how big the industry truly is, but experts guess that upwards of 50,000 kids get sent to these facilities every year under the guise of wilderness therapy camps, boarding schools, boot camps, residential treatment centers, transitional living programs, and mentoring programs —oftentimes, kids are sent to more than one — with the promise that teens will come back completely healed and obedient.
Hedrick attended the Academy at Ivy Ridge in Ogdensburg, New York. The school was affiliated with an infamous group called the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, also known as WWASP. The school closed in 2009 after abuse allegations and accreditation issues caused a decline in enrollment. Hedrick said her mom found out about the program after googling “my out of control teen.”
“A lot of these programs, that’s what they feed on. They feed on the idea that parents are going to google. They’re going to search for what to do with their out of control teenager and they put emphasis on ‘it’s my out of control teen,’ and so it’s kind of false advertising because a lot of these programs actually owned multiple entities that came off like they were separate but were actually umbrellaed under the same,” explained Hedrick, “and so it would look like you google and the first four search results would recommend these programs, and parents would think, ‘Oh, but this is just four separate entities offering the same advice,’ when really it was the same company preying on these parents. She fell into one of those companies and got referral processed, and I got sent away.”
One evening, Hedrick said she was woken up in the middle of the night to what she thought was an abduction. A man and a woman she had never seen before entered her bedroom and told her she had to come with them — saying, “You can do this the easy way, or you can do this the hard way.” She recalled a lot of screaming, crying, and confusion.
“I, of course, was 16 at the time, being abducted by two strangers of the middle of the night. I didn’t know what was going on, so it was very scary and overall, I didn’t realize how traumatic that experience would be later on in life. But this is a common practice,” Hedrick said.
The strangers handcuffed her and threw her in the back seat of a rental car. Hedrick said she knew something was odd when the police pulled the car over, but ultimately let them go.
“I think the transporter had gotten lost at some point or was just going really slow and it didn’t look right. So, the police officer pulled us over, and we were held up for quite a while because he saw a 16-year-old girl handcuffed in the backseat screaming that she was kidnapped,” Hedrick recalled, “you think they’re going to be your saving grace because this looks so preposterous.”
When Hedrick got to the Academy at Ivy Ridge, she recalls going through the intake, which included being strip-searched by two of her peers.
“That was my first indication that this was not a medical facility, right? This is not a hospital. To have girls who appeared to be younger than myself performing an intake seemed really bizarre to me,” Hedrick described, “and it was so humiliating to have to go through that. To be stripped completely naked and to be completely exposed in front of people who were not medical professionals, who were not clinicians—who were children, who aren’t trained.”
Hedrick explained she was given a uniform and a “hope buddy,” which was a peer who would explain the rules. For the first three days, new students at the Academy at Ivy Ridge were not allowed to talk to anyone but their “hope buddy.” After three days, the new student was expected to follow all the rules precisely.
“I just remember crying nonstop and saying I want to go home but still trying to make sense of where I am. What is this?” Hedrick recalled, “Where am I? Is this a school? What am I doing here?”
Hedrick explained that the Academy at Ivy Ridge ran on a point system. A person could earn 12 points per day, but they could lose points if they receive demerits. Demerits were on a tier system depending on the severity.
“[Demerits] could also stack on, so say I forgot my water bottle in the classroom before, and they said, Hayley, that’s disrespect of property, that’s five points. And me as a 16-year-old goes, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s a disrespect to staff. That’s now 25 points, so I’ve now blown two days’ worth of points just from that,” Hedrick added, “And now in my 16-year-old brain, I cry out knowing this, knowing that I’ve worked so hard, and I say, ‘I’m so tired of this. I’m not doing this anymore. I can’t take it.’ That is now a refusal, and I have lost everything I have, and I will be put in a room by myself until I can write an essay to explain what I should have done differently, and their essays were–I think a minimum of 3 pages.”
According to Hedrick, the basic rules included no talking to anybody, no sharing, no slouching, and no looking out the window (which was considered planning to run away). Students were required to signal by pointing if they wanted to sit down or stand up, walk in perfect formation, and finish all meals. Hedrick said that they also widened definitions of self-harm and drugs and alcohol to keep kids in the program.
“If you were going to commit something like that, you were going to lose everything, but you can’t do very much self-harm or drugs and alcohol in that locked down of a facility,” Hedrick explained, “So, if you were to binge eat your dinner—you ate way too quickly and now you are sick. They consider that self-harm, and you could be about to graduate and ready to go home, and you have to start all over again because you just self-harmed.”
‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be here until I turn 18’
According to survivor testimony, a common trait among troubled teen industry programs is vagueness about the amount of time the child will be in the program. Hedrick said the school she went to also did not give her a time frame.
“They just said, ‘You need to work your program and complete the program,’ so at first, I was really like, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do everything I can, whatever I need to do, I’m going to do it,’” Hedrick recalled, “But I remember at some point, my hope buddy did say, ‘I’ve been here two years, and this person next to us, they’ve been here four years, and this person has been here since she was 11,’ and that instantly made me think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to be here until I turn 18 and I can legally walk out that door.’”
Hedrick explained that the academy encouraged parents to send out expectation letters to specify what they expect from their child.
“My expectation letter from my parents specified that I will be there until I graduate or until I finish the program, so I knew. I’m 16 now, and chances are I’m going to turn 18 here and not leave till then,” she remembered.
Many testimonies against the Academy at Ivy Ridge and other WWASP programs, including Hedrick’s, mention the lack of qualifications amongst the staff. The survivors mention medical neglect if they were injured or sick. One former student from Ivy Ridge, Caroline Lorson, testified in a podcast that she had to rip her own braces off because medical staff would not take her to remove them and the wire was creating a gash in the back of her mouth.
Listen to Caroline Lorson’s story:
Four years before the Academy at Ivy Ridge closed, the New York Attorney General issued an Assurance of Discontinuance, ordering the program to stop giving illegitimate high school diplomas and issuing them a quarter of a million-dollar fine. The accreditation organization that originally accredited the program required the academy to be licensed or certified with the state of New York, and when it was discovered that the school was never licensed or certified, the school lost accreditation but continued issuing diplomas.
Hedrick recalled that the Academy at Ivy Ridge allowed male staff to tackle children on cinderblock floors and walls as a form of restraint. When she was going to college at Fairmont State University, Hedrick learned that proper restraint in the medical field is meant to occur only during emergency situations when students were a danger to themselves or others and that medical staff must be trained to perform the restrain correctly. According to Hedrick, Ivy Ridge would restrain children for any rule-breaking, including something as simple as looking out the window.
Surveillance footage from the Academy at Ivy Ridge was uncovered after it closed when former students visited the abandoned school and anonymously uploaded the footage to YouTube.
“Something like breaking formation, where the girls had to have their knees locked in a perfect line, and one time my knee went out, and they said, ‘Get back in formation,’ and I said, ‘I can’t,’ and I was restrained,” Hedrick remembered, “I was taken down to the floor by a 300 plus pound.”
Hedrick surmised that the restraints were often used as a scare tactic for other students, to use fear to get other students to behave.
“It was almost like a sport. It was fun for them. They enjoyed it,” Hedrick recalled, “It was sadistic.”
Although the Academy at Ivy Ridge is advertised as a therapeutic boarding school, the school has been criticized for offering very little therapy. According to Hedrick, the school made students participate in group therapy sessions called “seminars” where students take turns discussing their trauma, and then peers would give them “feedback.” Hedrick said because students were not allowed to talk to one another, often they would use things that were talked about during the therapy sessions.
“That was completely traumatizing for kids to hear. If someone just talked about the abuse they suffered or endured at home or a sexual assault or something, and then to turn around and have 20-something girls say you’re playing the victim, you deserved it,” explained Hedrick.
Hedrick said these sessions became part of the reason she began refusing to participate in the program, even though she was told that it meant that she wouldn’t be able to go home any time soon.
“I couldn’t bear to look a crying girl in the face and tell her that she deserved to be raped. There was no way I was going to do that, and if that meant that I was going to sit here until I was 18 years old, then so be it,” Hedrick recalled, “It was always a pattern in the program that if someone was getting about ready to feel any kind of retaliation from a staff member, whether it be they were about to be restrained or they were being humiliated, I always kind of stepped in and would always be the one to take it instead.”
Hedrick said the Academy at Ivy Ridge made her sit in isolation a lot in an attempt to break her because she refused the program. They called it intervention.
“It was a room that was about the size of a closet, and the student was put there for—could be hours, could be days without any human contact,” Hedrick described.
Hedrick pointed out that even kids who weren’t directly put in intervention felt a sense of isolation because communication between peers was not allowed, communication with parents was very limited, and the children were completely separated from the outside world. In Hedrick’s experience, such an isolating environment alienated her future relationships.
“Being around a group of peers and not being able to say a word, not being able to so much as grunt or signal or even facial expressions were demerits,” Hedrick remarked, “You know, having that sense that you’re alone is so traumatizing for a child.”
Leaving the program
Hedrick attended the Academy at Ivy Ridge for over a year before she was asked to leave because she refused the program.
“So, when I left, I felt immense guilt from my family that I didn’t try, that I didn’t do the program, that this could have fixed us and I didn’t do it,” she remembered.
Hedrick said she didn’t realize initially how abusive and traumatic the program was, and she started to realize more as an adult when she took classes in college to become a social worker.
“That’s what really started making me open my eyes and realizing it wasn’t just me,” Hedrick said, “I wasn’t just some troubled scum of the Earth child, that I was a kid that was taken advantage of. My parents were taken advantage of by evil people.”
This is part one in a two-part series on Hedrick’s story and the troubled teen industry. In part two, we will discuss how parents can be manipulated into putting their children in these facilities and what parents can do to help a teen who is struggling.
- Breaking Code Silence – More survivor testimony, research and advocacy information
- WWASP Survivors – A group of troubled teen industry survivors who provide resources and background information on certain programs
- HEAL – Historical information on the troubled teen industry
- Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network – Research on the troubled teen industry and its innerworkings
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry – A resource for families to learn more about mental health diagnoses and common treatments