The last resort -- As desperate parents try boot camp, critics claim that alternative is laced with problems

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 worked.

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 rustic camp.

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 positive experiences.

"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 said.

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 parenting skills.

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 firewood."

"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 standards."

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 punishment.

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 Collier

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