Several weeks ago, Lifetime Network aired a new reality-based TV show called: Teen Trouble. The show follows "teen expert" (not an actual credential), Josh Shipp, in his quest to save youth struggling with emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges. We follow him as he subjects the youth to grossly inappropriate, fear-based interventions in an effort to change their self-harming behavior. When his irresponsible and confrontational tactics (unsurprisingly) fail to empower the child and family to act, rather than refer families to community based services providing evidence-based care, Mr. Shipp instead turns to institutional placement within facilities that rely on fear-based and punitive interventions that are known to harm and abuse youth. Read TIME Magazine article 'How Effective Are Tactics Used on TV Shows to Treat Troubled Teens?' by Maia Szalavitz, author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.
Some of these serious concerns were the topic of Congressional Hearings in 2007 and 2008, where leaders of CAFETY were invited to testify. Our concerns include:
1) These programs rely on profoundly coercive systems that, by design, renders the youth powerless, helpless and fully dependent on the program. To achieve this, programs actively undermine the dignity of the youth by using tactics such as: public humiliation; excessive exercise and forced labor; deprivation of sleep, food, water, bathroom access and privacy; use of seclusion and restraints; and invasive forced confession.
2) These programs inherently coercive nature requires the denial of basic freedom critical to adolescent development such as: access to age appropriate information; freedom of thought or appropriate speech; and informed consent – or, even simply information of the expected risks and benefits of the course of treatment.
3) These programs monitor and censor outbound communications (including between child and parent) and do not afford children access to advocates, child abuse hotlines or attorneys by which they may contest their placement in the event they are being subjected to ill-treatment, abuse or torture - placing them at grave risk of serious harm.
Taken together, this summarizes the process of not only breaking youth of their habits, but also describes the means used to break their spirit and sense of self, later re-shaped into the model resident. Indeed, many survivors agree the term psychological torture, if not physical torture, accurately describes the harm they endured while suffering through this process.
4) These programs claim to "treat" a wide-range of vastly distinct and complex issues, from ADD to substance abuse to truancy, but lack any scientific evidence to support their claims
5) These programs fail to ensure placement is least restrictive as they do not require comprehensive evidence-based community care services be attempted prior to taking the radical step of uprooting the child and segregating them
In one episode, Mr. Shipp recommends the use of an “escort” transporter to forcibly place youth. Those programs that permit the use of escorts are also known to rely on a coercive system and punitive interventions long proven to be harmful. Predictably, Mr. Shipp places one youth into a facility called Copper Canyon Academy, a facility in Arizona, whose former residents have chosen not to remain silent about the harm the experienced. They report violations of their fundamental rights, including:
1) the infliction of severe pain and suffering,
2) prohibition of external communication with advocates and child abuse hotlines
3) obstruction of honest and open communications with their own families regarding the harm they are being forced to endure
Copper Canyon Academy is owned by Aspen Education Group, the largest corporate provider of private residential programs where at least six deaths have occurred and countless youth have been severely harmed. In an attempt to bolster theirs and the industries credibility, Aspen used the positive findings of an unscientific study by research psychologist and former Aspen employee, Ellen Behrens. Ms Behren's “research” was eventually debunked by researchers, as was Behrens failure to adhere to basic professional ethics by failing to disclose her conflicting interests.
From an effectiveness perspective, it is well known that forcing someone to alter their behavior by inducing powerlessness is easy and does in fact “work”! It works to alter behavior so long as the pain or threat of pain remains ever-present. As UC Berkeley professor, Nicki Bush, PhD articulates in this youth advocacy video on the issue, change in no way implies actual growth.
In Episode 4, Mr. Shipp justifies his aggressive and invasive methods by using his unqualified judgment to conclude the youth as being undoubtedly an "alcoholic" and "addict”. This same youth had, at the beginning of the show, verbalized her need and desire for help but the sticking point for Mr. Shipp was her reluctance to stop drinking. So, rather than work with her as an empowering mentor or, um, refer her to an actual professional, Mr. Shipp decides the wisest move is to frantically try to "save" her himself by telling her and showing her what Shipp envisions the consequences for her future. He first places her into a homeless shelter and then into a coffin, riding the urgency his own beliefs all the way to hysterical absurdity.
At no time is Shipp's certitude tempered by his glaring lack of expertise. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rather, Mr. Shipp takes on a presumptive position of authority, silencing the family and youth protests and assures them their failure to adhere to his recommendations will result in the child’s death or some other life-threatening repercussion. Notably, he fails to inform the families that his legitimacy is based solely on self-promotion and the backing of Lifetime Network. Interestingly, Mr. Shipps conduct is not unlike the high-pressure sales tactics and website surveys used by these programs to label youth and frightening parents into fearing the worst, thereby placing their children immediately.
Perhaps Mr. Shipp’s confrontational approach so closely mirrors that of the residential programs in question because he, like many founders of these programs pull the philosophy upon which the programs policies and care are built, not from their education or training, but from their own difficulties as youth who went on to abuse substances as adults and then experience an Alcoholics Anonymous, or some other version, of an awakening. Maybe Shipp believes "it takes one to know one" is an actual expertise? It would appear so.
In effect, these facilities are modern day institutions for socially discarded youth. They profiteer from discrimination against marginalized youth and use their marketing to perpetuate prejudices and misinformation that normalizes youth segregation, even where evidence shows most all youth may be treated effectively within their community and, generally, long-term placement offers no benefit (more than 90 days). Tragically, rather than challenge the “troubled teen” stereotype, Mr. Shipp, Teen Trouble and the Lifetime Network readily adopt it and capitalize on it, at great risk to the well-being of the youth featured on their show. The risk of harm also extends to any child whose family has been, either directly or indirectly, influenced away from the promise of community inclusion and family or community-based residency and led to believe that sending their child thousands of miles away for a few years is the only option.
As an organization made up of formerly stigmatized, stereotyped and labeled residents of placement as youth who were once subjected to trauma-inducing ill-treatment, abuse and torture in the name of treatment, we find Mr. Shipp’s and the Teen Trouble show to be an affront to our experience, what science tells us and the human rights of children.
Please help us hold Lifetime Network and Josh Shipp accountable by demanding an end to Teen Trouble; an end to the harmful, discriminatory and prejudicial ill-treatment the show promotes; and an end to their complicity in placing our nations most vulnerable and marginalized children at serious risk of harm.
Read more about our "Care Not Coercion" Campaign.
Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY)
Twelve Free Films on this Issue
Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate use of Residential Treatment (ASTART)
Fact Sheet: Children in Residential Treatment Centers - Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and Policy
Residential Treatment vs. Wraparound (Community Based Care) - Summary
Residential Treatment: What the Research Tells Us
Human Earth Animal Liberation (HEAL)
Suvivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA)
Lifetime Related Links:
Family Help from Josh Shipp Facebook Page
Josh Shipp's Facebook Page
Josh Shipp's Twitter Page