Complain, and you'll just be accused of faking it.

"It's all the stuff that people use to break people when they have to break people without leaving marks," Szalavitz says.

The programs are huge moneymakers, she says, because the overhead is so low. Some don't even require a high school degree for so-called "therapists." Because much of the program involves camping, there are no facilities to pay for. The food served isn't great.

Cindy Dach
Childhood photos of Erica
Photos courtesy of Cynthia Clark Harvey
Childhood photos of Erica


THE LOST KIDS: Part 2 of an Ongoing Series

Part 1 told the story of Alex Varlotta, a boy who has struggled with mental illness. When he was 12, his mother called the police as a last-ditch attempt to get him help and keep her family safe. It worked — but at a price. Because their insurance wouldn’t pay for care, the Varlottas had to give up custody of their son to Child Protective Services. Now the state pays about a quarter-million dollars a year for Alex’s care. Today, the Varlottas play a tiny role in the caregiving process.

Part 2 explores another family’s struggle — and the tragic outcome. In both the Varlotta and this case, it’s painfully apparent that adequate services for mentally ill teenagers are tough to come by in our community.

There is no research to show any of what goes on at these camps works, according to Szalavitz. No peer-reviewed journal articles, no controlled studies. Just anecdotal testimony from parents and kids — some of which has been paid for, she says.

That's why Cynthia Clark Harvey and other families of kids who've died are so important to the cause, Szalavitz adds.

When she started her Internet research shortly after Erica died, Clark Harvey found Bob and Sally Bacon. They were also living in Phoenix. In 1994, their son, Aaron, had suffered an excruciating death in a wilderness-therapy camp in Utah.

Cynthia Clark Harvey, Bob Bacon, and others testified before George Miller's committee in 2007. The GAO reported its findings as well.

Calling abuses in such programs an "open secret," Miller opened his first hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee by saying, "We have heard stories where program staff members forced children to remain in seclusion for days at a time; to remain in so-called 'stress' positions for hours at a time; or to undergo extreme physical exertion without sufficient food and water.

"Today, we will hear even more horrifying stories. Of children denied access to bathrooms and forced to defecate on themselves. Of children forced to eat dirt or their own vomit. Of children paired with older children — so-called "buddies" — whose job it is, essentially, to abuse them.

"There is only one word for these behaviors: inhuman."

Apparently, when it's not monitored correctly, the "tough love" approach can pretty easily go awry. Particularly when it's applied to a volatile group, like teenagers with mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

The GAO investigated many deaths in "therapy" programs, including:

• A 16-year-old girl from Virginia who died of a massive head trauma at a camp in Utah. She fell while hiking on Christmas Day. The staff had reportedly not scouted the dangerous area and didn't have medical equipment. It took paramedics an hour to arrive.

• A 14-year-old boy from Texas who died of hyperthermia (overheating) at a Utah camp. He had difficulty hiking and sat down, then fainted and lay motionless. A staff member hid behind a tree for 10 minutes to see if the boy was faking before discovering he had no pulse. The boy died soon afterward.

• A 15-year-old boy from California who died at a Missouri boot camp/boarding school, probably as a result of complications from a spider bite. Despite showing signs of medical distress for days, the program's medical staff said the boy was faking — and because he was weak and couldn't exercise, he was forced to wear a 20-pound sandbag around his neck.

Szalavitz has also documented cases of girls forced to give lap dances as part of their therapy, and another girl told to cover herself in dirt to symbolize the fact that as a rape victim, she was dirty. How is that going to make them better? she asks.

The truth is that no one really knows what to do with mentally ill kids. Most insurance plans will pay for expensive care for only so long. Then, parents are on their own. Community-based treatment, while widely touted as the best option, is tricky to apply and all but unavailable, particularly in a place like Arizona, which has a rich history of under-funded behavioral-health services.

The largely private, often unregulated "troubled-teen industry" fills a void — as long as parents can afford to pay out of pocket, since insurance rarely covers the bills. In 2002, Erica Harvey's wilderness therapy program cost $8,040 for a 21-day session. Today, a 21-day session at a Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program costs $11,185.

James McDougall sees families struggle a lot with what to do with a difficult teenager. It happens a lot. A former Maricopa County juvenile court judge, he now practices mental-health law, trying to get help for families like Erica Harvey's.

It's not easy, he says.

"You're dealing with the mind here. I don't really know that anyone knows the answer, or holds the key, to solving these problems."

There simply aren't adequate services in the Phoenix area, McDougall says, adding that a wilderness-therapy camp was not an appropriate solution for Erica, from what he was told about her case.

"If it's an underlying psychotic disorder — for example, bipolar — those kinds of programs are not going to turn someone around. Medication will do that, and counseling will do that."

But by spring 2002, Erica was doing so poorly that both a counselor and a psychiatrist advised Cynthia and Michael to do more. And the couple was willing to do just about anything to make her better. Cynthia spent months researching options for Erica, but she didn't learn that kids had suffered and died in wilderness-therapy programs until it was too late. She and her husband sued Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Programs; they settled for an undisclosed amount, but that didn't bring closure for the family. Nor did the news that authorities in Clark County, where Erica had died, refused to press charges against the camp.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Kids have been dying at these things for decades.

Why didnt she bother to spend 5 minutes looking into their qualifiacations?

Phoenix Concert Tickets