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More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

Troubled Teen Programs: How Survivors Can Get Help

Troubled teen programs market themselves as a solution for struggling adolescents. While some may provide positive experiences, many others have exposed teens to harm and abuse. If you or your child is a survivor of sexual assault or abuse at a troubled teen program, Helping Survivors can provide resources for recovery and connect you with a lawyer who specializes in these cases.
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Survivor Advocate

Parents who choose to send their children to troubled teen programs often do so out of desperation. These programs often promise to help struggling teenagers get back on track, but many leave lasting scars on their participants.

Sexual assault and abuse in troubled teen programs is a disturbing reality that often goes unreported. Learn more about the prevalence of sexual assault and abuse in these programs, your rights as a survivor, and resources available for healing and seeking justice.

What Is the Troubled Teen Industry?

Troubled teen programs—also known as wilderness therapy, therapeutic boarding schools, or behavior modification facilities—are residential treatment programs for adolescents struggling with emotional or behavioral issues.

Mental disorders, substance abuse, emotional regulation issues, behavioral problems, and learning disabilities are among the common reasons parents seek out these programs. In some cases, parents may send their children to these programs for more dubious reasons, such as punishment for failing to meet expectations. The goal is generally to change the child’s behavior to be more compliant and “normal.”

The troubled teen industry profits an estimated $1.2 billion a year from desperate parents and vulnerable teenagers. Troubled teen programs typically use strict discipline, physical exertion, and isolation from the outside world as forms of “therapy.” Food and sleep deprivation, strenuous labor, and humiliation are not uncommon practices in the industry.

It’s a largely unregulated industry, which means troubled teen programs often get away with employing staff members who are unqualified and inadequately trained to work with troubled youth. Thus, participants’ safety is often compromised.

History of the Troubled Teen Programs

Programs resembling the modern troubled teen industry date back to the early 20th century. The Devereux Foundation was one of the first organizations in the United States to offer residential care for troubled youth, starting with the Devereux School for Exceptional Children in 1912. Other residential youth treatment centers began emerging during this time, including the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School in 1915 and Boys Town in 1917. These early programs typically catered to orphaned, emotionally challenged, and special needs adolescents.

The industry started evolving in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s with the introduction of wilderness therapy programs, such as Outward Bound, Camp Woodland Springs, and BYU Wilderness Expeditions. The implementation of these programs sparked a trend toward using harsh wilderness environments as a form of therapy for troubled youth.

Wilderness camps and other types of troubled teen programs grew further in popularity by the 1980s and 90s, with a particularly high concentration of programs in regions with national and state parks. Public awareness and media coverage of these programs remained limited until 1995 when an Outside Magazine article detailed the preventable deaths of six minors at wilderness therapy programs in Utah. The article prompted wilderness therapy industry leaders to establish the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Research Center, a third-party monitor intended to set standards for accreditation and efficacy

Despite increased public interest, the troubled teen industry continues to lack comprehensive oversight and regulation. Today, teens in programs throughout the nation continue to report cases of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse while participating in these programs.

Different Types of Troubled Teen Organizations

Troubled teen programs vary in type, location, and duration. Some of the most common types include:

  • Wilderness therapy programs: These programs often involve outdoor activities such as hiking and camping in remote locations with minimal supplies. The goal is to use the harsh environment as a therapeutic tool for troubled teens.
  • Therapeutic boarding schools: These residential programs combine therapy, education, and structure in a boarding school setting. Teens typically live on campus for extended periods and attend school while receiving therapeutic support.
  • Residential treatment centers: Similar to therapeutic boarding schools, these programs provide therapy and structure in a residential setting. However, they may offer more intensive therapy and medical services for teens with severe mental health or behavioral issues.
  • Boot camps: These military-style programs use strict discipline and physical exertion to “toughen up” troubled teens.
  • Ranch- or farm-based programs: These programs use equine therapy and manual labor in a ranch or farm setting to help troubled teens work through their issues.
  • Gay conversion camps: These programs claim to “cure” homosexuality and are often associated with religious organizations. Such programs have been widely discredited, and several states have banned them.
  • Abduction or “transportation” services: Some parents hire these companies to forcibly remove their children and transport them to a troubled teen program. This practice is highly controversial.

Sexual Abuse in Troubled Teen Programs

One of the most alarming issues with troubled teen programs is the prevalence of sexual abuse. Countless staff members affiliated with these programs have been accused of sexually assaulting or abusing the youth in their care.

The power dynamics and isolation of these programs foster an environment where sexual predators can easily prey on vulnerable teens without fear of repercussions. Many survivors may be too ashamed or scared to come forward with their experiences, leaving the true extent of sexual abuse in these programs unknown.


Sexual abuse in troubled teen programs can take many forms, including the following:

  • Grooming: Staff members may use grooming tactics, such as favoritism or special privileges, to gain the trust of their victims so they can more easily abuse them.
  • Sexual harassment: Teens may be subjected to sexual comments or advances from staff members.
  • Rape and sexual assault: In some cases, staff members may force themselves upon the teens in their care, either through unwanted sexual touching or forced penetration.

In the Headlines: Sexual Abuse in Troubled Teen Programs

Few survivors of sexual abuse in troubled teen programs have publically spoken out about their experiences. However, some cases—particularly those involving celebrities—have made headlines.

One of the most notable cases to make recent headlines is that of socialite Paris Hilton. In 2022, Hilton spoke out about the sexual assault she experienced as a youth during her time at Provo Canyon School in Utah. Hilton alleged that male staff members woke her in the night and forced her to submit to “cervical exams.”

Turn-About Ranch, another Utah troubled teen facility once backed by TV show host Dr. Phil McGraw, has also been the target of numerous sexual abuse allegations. At least two teens featured on the Dr. Phil show—rapper Bhad Barbie and a Colorado woman—alleged they were sexually assaulted at the ranch.

Other programs, such as Utah’s Cedar Ridge Academy, have faced similar allegations, though many are not as widely reported. In 2020, an analysis by the Salt Lake Tribune showed that Cedar Ridge had 4.5 times more sex crimes reported to the police than the average youth treatment center in Utah.

Emotional Impacts of Troubled Teen Programs

Troubled teen programs often fail to provide a safe environment for the youth in their care. Instead, they expose vulnerable teens already dealing with various emotional and behavioral issues to even more trauma.

Whether or not they’ve experienced sexual assault, survivors may experience a range of challenges while transitioning to life after treatment in troubled teen programs. These may include:

  • Having trouble assimilating back into society
  • Feeling the need to ask for permission to do anything
  • Being unable to relax due to having been conditioned to be constantly working
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Relapsing into old problems
  • Developing eating disorders
  • Straining family relationships
  • Losing friendships

In addition, many survivors experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, panic attacks, and avoidance of triggers related to their time in the program. These emotional impacts can have long-lasting effects on survivors’ mental health and well-being.

How Survivors Can Get Support

There is hope for survivors of sexual abuse and assault in troubled teen programs. With the right resources, you or your loved one can begin to heal and move forward. Some options for support include:

  • Seeking therapy from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in trauma
  • Joining survivor support groups or online communities to connect with survivors with similar experiences
  • Reaching out to organizations, such as Breaking Code Silence, which provide advocacy and support for survivors of troubled teen programs

You may also consider legal action against the parties responsible for the abuse. In most U.S. states, victims may pursue personal injury actions over sexual abuse cases involving troubled teen programs. This type of legal action can provide a sense of justice and accountability, as well as compensation for the financial, emotional, and physical damages you’ve suffered due to the abuse.

Victims can pursue actions against the perpetrators and any parties that enabled the abuse. If you can show that the program’s operator was negligent, resulting in your abuse, you may have an actionable claim against it. However, time is of the essence as many states have a statute of limitations setting a deadline for filing a claim. In addition, the sooner you seek help, the stronger your case will be.

The best way to determine if you have a legal claim is to consult a lawyer experienced in handling cases of abuse in troubled teen programs. Helping Survivors can connect you with a skilled and compassionate lawyer who will have your best interest at heart. They can guide you regarding your options and provide the support you need to seek justice and move on with your life.

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