‘My parents were taken advantage of by evil people’ – How the troubled teen industry manipulates parents

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This is part two in a series on the troubled teen industry. In part one, we learned more about Hedrick’s story.

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – The troubled teen industry is estimated to be worth upwards of a billion dollars, and these facilities have been known to spare no expense in using manipulative marketing tactics to lure parents into the programs. Some children have even been known to choose to go to these facilities because of how well the school is advertised.

Hayley Hedrick, a resident of Buckhannon, W.Va., is a former student of a now-closed therapeutic boarding school called the Academy at Ivy Ridge. She said some of her friends who also went to troubled teen industry programs felt like they had been tricked through false advertisement.

Hedrick attended the Academy at Ivy Ridge when she was 16 years old.

“You know, they said, ‘Oh, boarding school, this is going to be glamorous like on TV, and it was not,” Hedrick recalled. “It could not have been any farther from that.”

In Hedrick’s experience, these programs tend to dress up their facilities for the cameras or if there’s a scheduled visit to continue a fake façade.

“A lot of other programs, they claim to have things like horseback riding, equine therapy, and picnics, and they show photos of kids riding horses and kids going on picnics and day trips when in reality, that’s not the case,” Hedrick explained. “They may have taken a group of two kids who proved to be loyal, who were maybe graduating in the next month, took them to a stable for an hour, and then snapped a few photos and said, ‘This is equine therapy.’”

Once parents reach out to the programs, Hedrick said they will typically use scare tactics to push parents who are already worried about their children to get them enrolled.

“When the parent speaks to somebody, it’s typically the first time they’re speaking to a professional, so they unload a bit and invent a bit, and the person on the other line is really taking advantage of them and saying, ‘If you don’t send your kid away, they’re going to end up in jail. They’re going to end up dead,’” explained Hedrick. “And they’ll be like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it,’ to kind of calm the parent down to send them away, and that’s a story we hear all the time amongst the survivor community.”

Hedrick also explained that her program had a referral program as well, where parents would get a discount on tuition if they convinced others to send their kids to the program.

The United States Government Accountability Office conducted an investigation on deceptive marketing by troubled teen facilities in 2008. The full report is available online.

What are some of the red flags?

A major red flag that a facility might be abusive is if they make parents sign a contract that restricts or removes their rights. Some facilities will also restrict contact between the parent and child. Monitored phone calls and mail make it difficult for a child to report abuse. Some facilities don’t let parents drop in to see the child whenever they want and require scheduled visits, too.

“If you were able to reach a level where you could have a phone conversation with your parents, the phone calls were monitored with the family representative sitting right next to the student with their hand over the phone, and they would be ready to hang up at any moment and then tell the parent, ‘They’re manipulating you. They’re going back to their old ways,’” explained Hedrick.

Eventually, the culture was, if you complain, that’s old behavior, and you’re not ready to go home. You are not rehabilitated. So then, kids eventually just stopped. They stopped trying. They stopped complaining [and] stopped reaching out.

Hayley Hedrick, former student at the Academy at Ivy Ridge, on monitored phone calls

Dr. Lauren Swager, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Specialist at WVU Medicine, explained that if your insurance doesn’t cover the child’s care, it could be a sign that the advice might be for-profit and not evidence-based, and make sure the care is individualized.

“Anybody that is out there saying, ‘Hey, this is the only way to fix a problem,’ without flexibility or understanding that all kinds of different approaches [can help], I would question,” Dr. Swager explained.

According to Dr. Swager, if a facility makes promises that seem too good to be true, it probably is. Parents should be skeptical of facilities that promise rapid results because the process of getting better is important—within the process, people learn new skills and ways to communicate.

“Especially with behavior disorders, the idea of troubled situations didn’t happen overnight. Rarely are these things that developed that started yesterday,” Dr. Swager advised. “Relationships and problems like that build up over time and treatment is going to take time.”

Parents looking for red flags should also examine what licensing or accreditation the program has.

What do you do if your teen is ‘troubled’?

Within the psychology community, the term “troubled teen” is controversial. Many psychologists are rejecting negative terms like troubled and rebellious as research is suggesting that those labels do more harm than good. Dr. Swager said she likes to use the word “independence” instead.

“That’s really a task of adolescence, is to learn how to be your own person and be independent, and some kids exert independence in ways that aren’t always rebellious and sometimes are more restrictive because of fear or other reasons,” Dr. Swager explained. “So I like the word independence and trying to figure out who they are, and I think actually it’s really important that all kids have opportunities to exert independence within some bounds.”

It’s kind of like a dance, I think, in families about inching out some responsibilities and having consequences, but also [having] trust.

Dr. Lauren Swager on teens exerting independence

The challenge, Dr. Swager said, is for parents and children to renegotiate the level of supervision the teen needs.

“It’s like a renegotiation of the relationship between parents and kids to really balance that, but kids do need strong times to exert their independence so they can be functional and healthy adults in the world,” Dr. Swager added.

The first tip for parents is to stay calm and skeptical so that they are able to better recognize red flags. As discussed in the first part of this series, many facilities count on parents making impulsive decisions out of fear.

According to Dr. Swager, there are many reasons why a child might be acting out, so getting to the bottom of the issue is an important step.

“You can have a really problematic behavior like lying or stealing or substance use, and you can’t claim to fix it or address it unless you assess it and understand it, because some of those things may have vastly different causes,” Dr. Swager explained. “Maybe the child struggling with anxiety. Maybe the child struggling with depression. Maybe it’s trauma. Maybe it’s a behavior that keeps them safe, or they’re struggling with something else entirely.”

Dr. Lauren Swager, a Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Specialist at WVU Medicine

In order to get to the bottom of an issue, Dr. Swager said not to be afraid to ask for help. At the same time, recognize that if someone gives advice on what worked well for their child, it might not work for another child. Individual advice from experts is best.

“I think people carry around parental guilt about always not knowing the right thing, and the first thing I would say is, we’re all imperfect in that regard,” Dr. Swager advised. “And the other thing is, there’s no right way to do it. You have to match your parenting style with the kid’s personality and needs.”

Another tip Dr. Swager gives is to see if there’s a communication error by sitting down with your teen. Sometimes something needs to be healed within the family.

“Sometimes going back to just [saying,] ‘Hey, let’s just talk,’ and sitting down with your kid about what’s going on can be a really good start, but it’s hard,” Dr. Swager acknowledged. “It’s hard especially if there’s a problematic behavior or something really challenging going on to start those conversations, but it’s really important.”

Dr. Swager added that sending a child away is going to inherently cause trauma in some way because change is traumatic, especially when there’s a huge lifestyle change. People need predictability and structure and change drives up stress hormones.

“Parents even see that when they take their kids on vacation. Some kids can’t tolerate the change in environment, especially if your sleep schedule is off,” Dr. Swager remarked. “I mean, we can only tolerate so much change. Too much is really hard on our bodies and our minds and our emotions.”

Breaking Code Silence, a non-profit run by survivors of the troubled teen industry, generated a map of youth residential facilities across the country along with information on how to file any complaints.

Although Hedrick’s school is closed, other troubled teen industry facilities are still prevalent all across the country, and often, the schools have children cross state lines or even out of the country. And, although these centers are expensive, Hedrick said you don’t have to be rich to get roped in.

“I’m shocked at how many people still consider this an option today. I shared my testimony on Facebook, on social media, and I gave it to Breaking Code Silence as well, and I received messages from some people I knew, some people I didn’t know who said they knew somebody — whether it was a neighbor or a family member who had a teen who was acting out and they were looking into other options until they read my story,” Hedrick said. “And that’s so alarming that that’s still something that’s being looked at and considered. I don’t feel like every residential treatment is bad. I want to say that; I don’t feel that’s the case, but I think parents who are considering that for their children should really pay attention to where they’re sending their children, what the warning signs of these programs are.”

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