It’s time to take action against institutional child abuse


Content warning: child abuse, cult ideology, mention of suicidal ideation and self harm

Oct. 17 to 23 is Institutional Abuse Awareness week. Survivors of institutional abuse are rallying to have their voices heard and hopefully put an end to the despicable network of programs that exploits and abuses vulnerable youth.   

American children continue to be victimized for profit within what is known as the Troubled Teen Industry. The Troubled Teen Industry is comprised of a wide range of long-term facilities including residential treatment centers, wilderness programs, juvenile criminal facilities, rehabilitation programs, behavior modification centers, conversion therapy centers, religious therapies, boot camps, therapeutic boarding schools and other congregate care settings. It can be frightening to watch your child struggle with mental health or behavioral issues. What may be more frightening, however, is the abuse they suffer while seeking treatment. The Troubled Teen Industry has a long and violent history of victimizing already vulnerable youth populations. With the countless treatment programs available to desperate families to “fix” their struggling child, it can be easy for these families to be preyed upon by an industry fueled by greed. 

The Troubled Teen Industry has recently come into the spotlight with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears coming forward about their experiences with institutional abuse. However, this type of torture is far more common than one may realize. The American Bar Association estimates that over 120,000 young people are living in congregate care every year, including juvenile criminal systems, psychiatric facilities and foster care. Many of the methods employed in these settings can be traced back to an alarming origin: the infamous cult known as Synanon, and “the game” that would inspire new “programs” continuing its legacy of child abuse and attack therapy. Synanon was originally started as a “self-help” drug rehabilitation program in 1958, and it quickly attracted a devoted following and evolved into a violent and fraudulent commune, religion and cult. After Syanon’s founder Charles Dederich pleaded no contest to conspiracy to commit murder, the organization was declared to have a “policy of terror and violence,” and went bankrupt soonafter.  

The ideology that began with Synanon unfortunately continues to live on in modern day congregate care settings. Members of the cult have gone on to form their own therapeutic models and open additional programs such as CEDU, WWASP, Enthusiastic Sobriety and Straight INC. These programs in turn continue to have immense influence over the structure of long-term youth treatment facilities that continue today, and are often not appropriately monitored. This sadly leaves many youth open to the same abusive tactics that have claimed the lives and health of countless vulnerable young people and financially exploited their families.  

Parents are often required to sign over their parental rights to these facilities or use “transport services” to have their children legally kidnapped and taken to programs, many of which do not employ empirically based methods. Instead, they tend to favor more radical and extreme methods of therapeutic intervention and behavior modification. Thanks to organizations such as Breaking Code Silence (501c3), there have been an increasing number of accounts surfacing of youth who have been subjected to abuses within these programs.  

The American Bar Association has listed the following issues within these abusive congregate care programs: 

  • Basic human rights violations 
  • Inhumane, degrading discipline 
  • Inappropriate use of seclusion and restraints (physical, mechanical, and chemical) 
  • Medical and nutritional neglect 
  • Forcing sedatives or psychiatric medication without psychiatric evaluation 
  • Severe restrictions of communication with parents, lawyers and advocates 
  • Substandard psychotherapeutic interventions by unqualified staff 
  • Conversion and Aversion therapy 
  • No access to Report Abuse/No access to authorities, advocates, or legal representation 
  • Restricted Communication 
  • Sexual assault, harassment, grooming and staff/student sexual relationships 
  • Financial opportunism and deceptive marketing 

More prominent cases of institutional abuse have made recent headlines, such as facilities like the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center torturing people with intellectual disabilities with electric shocks. Practices like these kill children like Corneilius Fredricks, who tragically passed after being held in a fatal restraint last May.  

After leaving a youth facility, many are extremely scared of being sent back into these abusive settings. Survivors of institutional abuse often face mental health conditions and trauma disorders frequently experienced by prisoners of war or survivors of human trafficking, such as CPTSD, OSDD, panic disorders and substance use disorders. After leaving the TTI, many have reported facing homelessness, abusive relationships, estranged family relations, self-harm and suicidality. It can be extremely difficult to reintegrate into “normalcy” when experiencing such atrocities in formative years. Sadly, many survivors are not believed, and face barriers to seeking justice because of the power their abusers hold over them and their family. The Breaking Code Silence Movement aims to amplify the voices of TTI survivors, restore their agency and enact positive change.  

All former attempts at regulating the TTI have not been extremely successful due to the nature of the facilities and their elusive rebranding. According to the National Youth Rights Association, the Troubled Teen Industry rakes in about $1.2 billion per year; it is no wonder why these facilities continue to operate in the United States. Many families place their trust and finances in these programs, essentially outsourcing the abuse of their children. With the startling figure of 120,000+ youth being held each year, it is likely we all know someone who has been placed in congregate care. Survivors of institutional abuse are speaking up and sharing their stories and advocating for legislative change, including the Accountability in Congregate Care Act, this week as part of Institutional Abuse Awareness Week, hoping to create conversation around the all-too-common phenomenon of institutional abuse in America.  

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