The last resort -- As desperate
parents try boot camp, critics claim that alternative is laced with
By Lorna Collier
Published May 27, 2001 (Chicago Tribune, Health & Family section)
Laura Martinez had tried everything from punishment to counseling in an
attempt to straighten out her misbehaving 14-year-old son, Ariel, who
was skipping school, disobeying and talking back to her. Nothing
Then Martinez saw a daytime TV talk show featuring a boot camp for
teens. On the show, rebellious teens were transformed, seemingly
overnight, by tough-talking, fatigue-clad drill instructors who shouted
in the kids' faces, made them march like soldiers and taught them to
respect their elders.
Last December, Martinez, a Chicago saleswoman and married mother of
three, sent Ariel to the About Face Boot Camp in rural North Carolina,
at a cost of about $1,000 for two weeks' care.
The camp, run by former Marine Raymond Moses, has been featured on the
Jenny Jones talk show.
"I was scared at first," said Ariel, who had to have his hair cut and
was made to clean bathrooms, sweep floors, jog and march in military
drills. "They would yell at you if you got them mad, if you didn't do
what you're supposed to do."
If you did what you were told, though, the instructors would be nice
and tell jokes, said Ariel, who learned "not to take things for
granted," especially TV, a luxury he especially missed while at the
When Ariel came home, said Laura Martinez, "he was good for about two
weeks." Then his old behaviors came back, leaving Martinez feeling that
two weeks at boot camp was not enough time to change her son's ways.
"It was a waste of money," she said, sighing, adding that she wishes
instead that there were a boot camp or similar program closer to
Chicago, where she could place Ariel for a longer period.
Demand by parents for private boot camps for teens has soared in recent
years, driven by daytime TV reality shows hosted by Maury Povich, Jenny
Jones and others. Frustrated parents are encouraged to look upon such
camps as a solution to problems with their teens--despite the fact that
research has shown boot camps to be ineffective at best when it comes
to changing teen behavior, critics say.
"I disagree with the concept of boot camps," said Stacey Shapiro,
director of juvenile justice for the National Mental Health Association
in Virginia. "These `shock incarceration' programs have failed in the
past for the majority of youth placed in them. The strict discipline
and intense physical training, otherwise seen as punishment by youth,
is not an effective deterrent and does not reduce recidivism."
In addition, Shapiro warned, state boot camps have had a disturbing
history of abuses, injuries and even deaths, causing many states to
phase out or restructure such programs.
Larry Brendtro, a professor emeritus of special education at Augustana
College in South Dakota, has written several books about youth at risk
and heads Reclaiming Youth, a training institute for professionals who
work with delinquent children. Brendtro said that though some children
"have received at least short-term benefits from the discipline and
high expectations of boot camp," many other youths have had much less
"The public popularity of a drill instructor in a Smokey the Bear hat
compelling a smart-aleck teen to do push-ups obscures the system by
which these programs run," Brendtro said. "A boot camp only functions
as a bullying adult instills fear and then riles up the cadets to
harass resistant peers. If these behaviors were used in any other
normal community setting, they would be seen as assault and abuse."
Brendtro, too, said that research has shown "no enduring
crime-prevention benefits of boot camps."
Yet parents continue to clamor for these programs.
No quick fix
"A majority of our families come in first and foremost requesting
information on boot camps," said Tessa Trass, who runs the
not-for-profit Troubled Children Inc., based in Redmond, Ore., a
service that helps parents find counseling or programs for their
children. Troubled Children serves about 500 families per week, said
Trass, and its Web site (www.troubledchildren.com) receives about
30,000 unique visitors each month.
Trass said many parents, enthralled by sensational boot camp "quick
fixes" on TV, think this is the only option for their child. Yet Trass
said boot camps are not always the best choice.
"A boot camp is just like basic training in the Army," Trass said. "You
tear the person down and rebuild them. For some children, that's very
successful--you need that discipline, that structure. But with children
with self-confidence issues, who are already tearing themselves down
internally, that's not going to be successful.
"A lot of parents, because they are so frustrated, so angry and hurt,
say this will be the `reality check' a child needs, but that's not
necessarily true. It could be that's not going to be best for your
child. Maybe there are some family issues going on that need to be
looked at," Trass said.
A program evolves
Raymond Moses, 33, founded About Face Boot Camp three years ago, after
working in the corrections system, where he placed children in
state-run boot camps. After receiving many requests from parents for a
private camp they could place their children in, he started his
Christian-oriented program as a weekend camp for local children. It
quickly evolved and today the camp sees children from all across the
United States and countries such as Canada, England and Russia, Moses
Boys and girls ages 10 through 16 come to About Face during the summer
months, for four-week sessions, as well as for shorter, one- to
two-week camps, offered during school breaks. The cost is $500 per
week. Moses also provides "home boot camps," at a price of $300 per
day, in which he will come into a child's home, take away perks such as
TV sets and video games, then make the child rise at the crack of dawn
to begin exercising and chores.
Last year About Face was shut down briefly by North Carolina
authorities when a camp resident complained of being handcuffed for
three days, charges Moses disputed. Today the camp is back in business,
and Moses is considering expanding it to include a school program so it
can become a year-round military academy.
Though Moses claims an 80 percent to 85 percent success rate with
children who have gone through his program, he agrees that boot camps
are not going to work for every child.
"We're a good tool to help motivate kids to make changes, but if the
kid doesn't want to change, the program can't help them," said Moses,
who also believes parents need to be willing to spend time with their
children and change their home environment in order for permanent
improvements to occur.
Kids have a say
Another voluntary boot camp, in which children can be placed without
the order of a judge, is the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Youth
Eagle Academy in Belle Glade, Fla., which is limited to residents of
Palm Beach County. The camp is free; children, ages 13 to 16, must
apply by writing an essay in their own handwriting, then meet with camp
staffers before being accepted.
"If they don't want to come, we don't take them," said Eagle Academy
administrative lieutenant Bill Swain.
The camp opened in 1997 and began accepting girls last fall. About 60
children (16 girls, 44 boys) attend each semester-long session, which
includes school for most of the day, then chores, exercises and other
activities. Parents are required to attend weekly meetings to learn
Almost all other boot camps in the United States are state-run or
require a judge to commit a child to their care. However, there are
other teen programs that share many boot camp traits: physical
exercise, labor and Spartan living in remote locations, where running
away is difficult. Such programs are sometimes called "therapeutic
boarding schools" or "wilderness camps"; some are marketed to U.S.
parents but are in other countries, such as Jamaica or Mexico.
An element of danger
Not all wilderness camps use the boot-camp model. Those that do,
however, tend to be quite militaristic, with "an in-your-face,
confrontational modality," said Mark Hobbins, senior vice president of
Aspen Youth Services in Cerritos, Calif., which operates several youth
outdoor programs that do not fall into the boot-camp category.
"Everybody can appreciate the value of living in a more primitive
environment where you hope your child will begin to appreciate all that
they have available to them," Hobbins said. "But we must be very
cautious. That appeal has to be done in a very therapeutic and
professional manner to produce proper results or you could end up
harming a child."
Unfortunately, some children have been injured or even died at
wilderness camps in recent years.
For example, Michelle Sutton died at age 15 in 1990 at Summit Quest, a
camp in Utah, when she collapsed due to dehydration during a forced
hike. Her mother, Cathy Sutton, has become an activist for camp safety,
calling for federal regulation to correct the mishmash of state laws
governing the industry.
Pat, a teacher in New Mexico who asked that her last name not be used
to protect her daughter's privacy, agreed to place her misbehaving
16-year-old daughter in a program in Idaho last year, at the urging of
her ex-husband. Pat's daughter was taken from her high school in
handcuffs by a professional "escort," then driven an hour away to the
airport--still in handcuffs--where she was flown to Idaho.
The program restricted contacts between Pat and her daughter, allowing
only four visits per year, with no visits on Christmas Eve or Christmas
Day, and only one phone call every two weeks. Phone calls and letters
were monitored; Pat's daughter was told if she complained or asked to
come home, she would lose mail or phone privileges. Pat pulled her
daughter from the camp after about four months, over her ex-husband's
objections. She said the program was characterized by emotional abuse,
including intimidation, threats and sleep deprivation.
Though the program cost about $30,000 for four months, her daughter
received little in the way of education or individual therapy, said
Pat, adding that her daughter spent "most of her time chopping
"It's a profit-oriented racket," she said. "I'd advise parents never to
resort to these facilities."
Yet other parents say that residential teen programs in remote areas
can work. John Freidheim, an Aurora minister, sent his daughter, Cara,
then 15, to a therapeutic boarding school called Carolina Springs, in
rural South Carolina, in mid-1999, after discovering she had become
involved with drugs.
Placing his daughter in the program "was the hardest thing I've ever
done," Freidheim said, yet he credits the program with turning his
daughter around. Cara stayed in the school for about 15 months,
returning in the summer of 2000. Since then, Cara said, she has
developed a closer relationship with her family, stayed away from drugs
and is doing well in school.
"It definitely was a life-changing experience," said Cara, now 17. "I
know I wouldn't be where I am now if it weren't for [Carolina Springs],
but it really is what you make of it." The program doesn't work for
everybody, Cara pointed out.
Looking for reform
Cathy Sutton, who lost her daughter at a wilderness program, doesn't
think all such teen programs should be banned.
"I believe in the concept," she said. What's needed, she added, is
reform, to make sure that the problems are corrected.
"The industry needs more regulation," Trass agreed. "Some states have
already adopted standards, but [without national standards] you're
going to have a lot of programs moving into states with lesser
Shapiro said that other types of programs can better serve children.
"Teenagers respond best to positive reinforcement and encouragement,"
said Shapiro, who doesn't believe in taking a child out of his "natural
setting." She recommends family counseling, in-home intervention,
community activities and programs that emphasis treatment instead of
But, Pat said, not all parents have access to counseling or local
programs and services.
"What's the alternative?" she said. "Where do frustrated parents go?
There aren't many options. That's why businesses have stepped in to
fill the void."
What to consider about boot camps
The following advice is geared toward parents who are considering a
boot camp or similar behavioral program for their teen. The advice is
offered by Larry Brendtro, president of Reclaiming Youth; Tessa Trass,
who runs Troubled Children Inc.; and Cathy Sutton, whose daughter died
at a wilderness camp in 1990.
* Call state officials in the state in which the
facility is located to find out if there have been previous complaints,
if there are pending complaints and if the facility is properly
licensed. Officials to contact include the state attorney general and
social services department.
* Beware of any program that puts limits on parent
contact. "Programs that try to insulate kids from parents are
exceedingly suspect," Brendtro said.
* Ask your contact person at the facility whether the
staff has been screened for drugs and what training they have,
including CPR and first aid as well as educational credentials; what
the facility's policy is concerning restraint methods; whether the
program pays referral fees to parents; whether there is a doctor
available or hospital nearby; what the student-to-staff ratio is.
* Visit the program or camp unannounced and ask to
see every room or area.
* Be wary of programs that encourage the use of "paid
escorts" to bring children to the facility.
Copyright © 2001, Lorna