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.
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.
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Most troubling about this portrayal is the fact that private residential programs for youth of the kind that both Chelsea and Jacob were sent to have engaged in significant human rights abuses in the name of treatment on a systemic level. In particular, Copper Canyon Academy, the facility to which Chelsea was sent in the first episode of your show, has a history of abusive practices. Survivors have reported being subjected to things such as forced manual labor, sometimes in extreme temperatures, as punishment for minor offenses, and verbal abuse and humiliation as part of the group treatment component of the program. These methods are not uncommon in private residential facilities for youth. For instance, many of the programs run by Copper Canyon Academy’s parent company Aspen Educational Group have been the subject of similar abuse allegations, and in some cases their practices have led to serious injury or death. Even where this type or level of injury does not occur, youth who (are made to) go through these programs frequently do so to the detriment of their educational progress, their family relationships and their mental health.
In addition to the abuse that occurs at such facilities, they are not effective in addressing the needs of youth in need of care. Research has repeatedly proven that community-based care is far more effective than residential treatment, in addition to being less costly and more in line with human rights principles such as self-determination and societal inclusion than institutional care. Whereas the latter form of treatment relies on coercion and only teaches people how to live in an artificial setting, the former gives people the skills they need to succeed in the community in which, and around the people with whom, they live. It does so in part by working to address a youth’s entire situation and the difficulties they face in it, rather than solely focusing on that individual as the source of the problems. The difference between these approaches and their potential outcomes can be seen at the end of the second episode of Teen Trouble, where Jacob returns to his home after a stay in a residential program only to relapse and continue to struggle with substance abuse soon after. However, the solution presented was to merely send Jacob to another facility instead of trying to address the problems he was facing at home while he was in that setting. Rather than uncritically portraying an outmoded, inherently harmful, and demonstrably ineffective form of treatment as the only solution in addressing mental health and substance abuse issues in youth, CAFETY would like to see more humane and effective options pursued, both for the benefit of the youth featured and for that of the public.
Because of the abusive practices of Aspen Educational Group‘s residential programs, and because of the more general nature of and problems with institution-based treatment in general, CAFETY calls on you to no longer use and implicitly endorse private residential programs as interventions in dealing with youth on Teen Trouble.