Losing Erica: Cynthia Clark Harvey Doesn't Want Anyone Else's Child to Die in a Wilderness-Therapy Program

Cynthia Clark Harvey climbs the stairs to the second floor of her north Phoenix home, pausing in a small bedroom. It's the kind of room empty-nesters tend to keep, and this one is packed with artifacts from her daughters' childhoods. Briana's Beanie Babies hang on the wall in an organizer with her name on it; there's a needlepoint of a panda and some balloons, marking Erica's birth.

In that same room there's a framed self-portrait of Erica. Drawn in 2001, just after her 15th birthday, it looks like it took days to complete. Cynthia doesn't recall whether the drawing was done in pencil or soft charcoal, but she does remember that Erica finished it for a school assignment in just a couple of hours. She turned it in so she wouldn't fail her art class, but Erica didn't like the portrait, Cynthia recalls, adding, "She said she looked like she was scared shitless."

The image is haunting. Erica's eyes are enormous, framed by two braids, and the pain on her face is so exquisite it's hard to look at it for long. It's the portrait of a young girl losing her mind.

What happened to Erica Harvey and her family is the stuff of young adult novels and after-school specials — except this story is true. Cynthia Clark Harvey and Michael Harvey's sweet, straight-A, firstborn child hit puberty and fell into a downward spiral of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-destructive behavior.

She was dead before her 16th birthday.

But Erica didn't take her own life. On Memorial Day weekend in 2002, she flew to Nevada with her parents and sister. Erica thought she was going on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe. The truth was that Michael and Cynthia had signed her up for a wilderness-therapy program — their last-ditch attempt to get Erica off street drugs, which formed a dangerous combination with the anti-depression and anti-psychotic medications she was on. The three-week camp was supposed to be a more palatable alternative to a hospital. An adventure. Something fun.

The camp officials had told her parents to lie to Erica. She was angry. She hugged her sister goodbye, but not her mother.

"I told Erica, 'I love you,'" Cynthia recalls, standing in tears at her kitchen island on a recent fall afternoon, replaying the scene in her head as she has so many times over the past seven years. "And she said, 'Well, I hate you. Don't touch me.'

"And that was the last thing I heard from her."

What happened next has been documented in hundreds of pages of police and medical reports; Cynthia has testified about it before Congress.

On her first full day at camp, Erica and other kids were taken on a wilderness hike. At first, the reports indicate, she did well — taking off ahead of the others, even though she'd refused most food and drink since arriving at the camp. But by 6 that evening, according to eyewitness accounts, Erica was acting oddly, talking gibberish. Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fell off the trail, into a deep ravine. She didn't get up. She had no pulse.

At first, the staff thought she was faking, then began CPR. It was 45 minutes before someone called for a helicopter, and it took hours for the help to arrive; the staff was confused, giving the wrong coordinates to a search-and-rescue team. As it turned out, that staff also didn't have experience dealing with a kid on psychotropic drugs, like Erica. The EMT on the trip was on his very first trek.

Erica had been down for five hours when hospital staff noted her temperature was still 101.7 degrees. The official cause of death was heatstroke and dehydration.

Erica Harvey is not the only kid who's died in a wilderness-therapy program.

It took a while for her to get the gumption to go online, but once she did, Cynthia Clark Harvey found others in similar circumstances — middle and upper-middle class families who had paid a lot of money to scare their kids straight with a tough-love adventure, only to see them return abused. Or not at all.

There are no comprehensive statistics because there is almost no regulation of the industry, but in 2007, the United States Government Accountability Office documented reports of thousands of cases of abuse and neglect at "therapeutic" programs all over the country — including 10 deaths that the GAO studied in depth. The GAO investigated at the behest of Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat who introduced legislation in 2007 to regulate the largely unmonitored "troubled-teen industry" and held hearings on the subject.

Before that, the spotlight on wilderness-therapy camps had been dim. Maia Szalavitz, author of the 2006 book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, explains that these programs are really off the radar in a lot of ways.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.