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"Broken Promises" is a podcast by Marlee Porter. (Photo courtesy of Marlee Porter)

Opinion

‘Broken Promises:’ Uncovering the truth behind the troubled teen industry

It is my mission to help raise awareness to the troubled-teen industry and provide survivors with a platform on my podcast, "Broken Promises."
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/marleej24/" target="_self">Marlee Porter</a>

Marlee Porter

October 17, 2022
I am excited to announce the launch of my podcast, “Broken Promises,” which uncovers the truth behind the troubled teen industry. “Broken Promises” provides a space for survivors of institutional abuse to share their stories completely unfiltered.

The troubled teen industry is a topic not nearly talked about enough, which is why I wanted to raise awareness to this issue. Countless teens are losing their childhoods to abuse and their adult lives to an endless battle with PTSD and so much more. This is an industry that feeds off of vulnerable teens and unknowing parents.

So, what is the troubled teen industry exactly? The troubled teen industry is a multi-billion dollar industry benefiting from kids who are struggling. These places are far from what they seem. 

According to the National Youth Rights Association, “These facilities have several different names — boot camps, behavior modification facilities, wilderness therapy, gay conversion — but they are all marketed to parents who feel like they need to change their child’s behavior.”

The majority of the teens in these programs are not there by choice, but are forced against their will. Some are even kidnapped in the middle of the night by ‘goons’ hired by their parents — as if being abducted would help calm the nerves of anyone already in a constant state of fight or flight. This is beyond terrifying because there are people my age dealing with this. As you read this, countless parents are pacing nervously or crying in silence knowing that their kids will be taken in the middle of the night. Imagine that. 

The scary thing is that once children are in these facilities, they are shut out from the world, their friends and parents. No one has real insight into these programs, and much of the information provided to the outside world is completely fabricated. So while a parent is reading a nice letter from their child, the program may have actually censored it to preserve their legitimacy.

The rights of the adolescents in these programs are stripped from them. Many don’t have a say in when they can use the restroom or speak. Even more are forced to do laborious work day to night. At many of these programs, ‘points’ are tracked, teens can level up or fall to the bottom of the hierarchy. Their fall is more often than not due to uncontrollable things; some facilities have gone as far as punishing someone for not having their hair in a tight enough braid.

These punishments aren’t the typical ‘go to your room and your mom yells at you from across the house.’ These punishments include but are not limited to the following: having to write essays on why they are unloveable, having to stand in a corner, having to be in complete isolation, not being able to talk, carrying heavy items for extended periods of time and the list goes on. In no world would a reasonable parent force their child to do any of those things to the extent that these programs do. 

These programs are based on brainwashing. No matter how much I wish it was, this is not an exaggeration. The majority of these programs practice attack therapy, which is a type of therapy that was first developed in Synanon, a drug rehab group, turned cult. The idea of attack therapy is to break people down before building them up. This is an incredibly harmful way to treat anyone, especially developing teens. This method was not only enforced by supervisors, but by peers as well, because if they did not live by this model, they too would fall to the bottom of the pyramid. Adolescents in these programs are pinned against each other as students blame others for their own traumas and much worse. In attack therapy, often called a group, no one was the victim, everyone was the suspect; this mindset is one of many that is carried long into adult life for so many survivors. 

Beyond the inevitable degradation of mental health, comes the collapse of physical health for many teens. Many are deprived of food, water or the ability to use the restroom. These are basic needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs features these at the bottom of the pyramid — the foundation, physiological needs, ones that need to be met. Yet, these places claiming to have the answer to substance addiction, mental illness and much more can’t even meet these basic needs. This leaves survivors with lasting chronic conditions, trauma-induced illness, and others health complications due to physical abuse.

The medical malpractice and neglect are yet another fault of these programs. Many teens are force-fed meds on a daily basis. While some individual circumstances may be for the better, many of these kids are misdiagnosed and thus given the wrong meds. Might I add, some of these programs are giving teens these medications without the presence of a licensed psychiatrist. This illegality has made room for terrible medical decisions. And so, the rise of ‘booty juice’ is essentially a sedation. This has been used when teens are noncompliant, and their noncompliance makes total sense in regards to the circumstances. Adolescents are being sedated like how animals are. Let that sink in. 

On top of the excessive and inappropriate use of medications, the prevalence of medical negligence is a concern of the troubled teen industry. Oftentimes teens’ physical needs aren’t being met. I previously mentioned malpractices like the denied access to food. But beyond this, is the flat-out negligence when a child is dealing with either a visible or invisible illness. In the real world, negligence is abuse. When this sort of thing happens at home CPS is called, this is no joke. In these programs, negligence is sometimes purposeful, many of the teens are being harmed by staff members, therefore, bringing them to receive medical help would not look good for the program. Staff use restraints and extremely harsh methods to get people to comply. Some of these restraints are so harsh the police force isn’t even warranted to use them due to their potential lethality, to put it into perspective. Teens get thrown across rooms and pinned to the floor, often while having emotional breakdowns due to the fact that these schools are temples of torture. How is this allowed?

The emotional and physical abuse practiced by these facilities is terrifying, and unfortunately many teens are survivors of sexual abuse once they leave these toxic environments as well. Staff misconduct as a form of punishment or not is not acceptable at any rate, and should not be tolerated.

At the end of the day, this industry is a money machine — benefiting from hurting kids and scared parents. Society’s most vulnerable are not getting the help they need to succeed in the future, but are being dragged down to lows that no one deserves to see. This issue needs to be known more widely. It deserves to be at the top of the list with climate change and much more. This deserves attention. The lack of awareness is why I started “Broken Promises” and why I will continue to advocate for survivors of institutional abuse.

This is just the beginning of the takedown of the troubled teen industry. It hurts my heart so much to write this, because this shouldn’t even be going on. I am fortunate enough to say that I am not a survivor, but an ally. I want to make it known to all survivors that I hear you, and I am in full support for your healing process, whatever that looks like. 

It would mean the world if you could check out my podcast here.

*All information provided is based on individual accounts, some of which are from people I have spoken to, and others through articles and documentaries. That being said, not all programs are the same, and not all implement all of these techniques. What I do know is that no troubled teen programs are safe programs*

The following links are media coverage on the troubled teen industry:

Documentaries:

Articles:

Podcast: Code Adam Project