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Troubling the "Troubled Teen Industry"

The practice of separating child and adolescent delinquents in large congregate care institutions dates back to the first juvenile reform school established in the United States in 1848 in Westborough, Massachusetts. Reforming child criminals operated on the expectation that, while children should be incarcerated, they should not be mixed in with hardened, violent adults. Initially, juvenile reform was sold as an opportunity for children to receive "moral, religious, academic and vocational education" in a home-like setting rather than the walls of a prison. Over time, these standalone institutions became overcrowded and often evolved into campuses that sprawled amongst the trees, promising parents, therapists, and state officials the perfect solution for the troubled teen.



The cover of Paris Hilton's memoir stacked on top of the title page of Jan Nisbet's "Pain and Shock in America"
Paris Hilton opens up about her time at CEDU and Provo Canyon in her memoir


By the time Paris Hilton was sent to the CEDU School, a spinoff of the vicious and dangerous Synanon cult, founded by furniture impresario Mel Wasserman, these institutions were tightly run battleships of abuse and misery. Here in Massachusetts, therapeutic boarding schools cropped up across the state, some under the guise of high-end academic institutions, one even located within the walls of a castle! But (also) here in Massachusetts (and in Maine), nail salons are more tightly regulated than therapeutic boarding schools that are caring for vulnerable children.


Hilton opens her memoir with a discussion of ADHD and how it has uniquely impacted her life, but also how it likely contributed to the behavior that led her parents to send her to CEDU. She also observes that most of her peers at CEDU and Provo Canyon likely also had ADHD and that these "emotional growth" schools were, instead, increasing trauma experiences, demoralizing students, and making it impossible for them to trust anyone in a "helping" profession. Though these therapeutic boarding schools don't purport to specialize in working with individuals with disabilities, as Hilton noted, children and teens with disabilities are more likely to be sent to these schools as parents struggle to understand their impulsive behavior, imperviousness to consequences, and their "abnormal" personalities.


Individuals with disabilities have been largely victimized by congregate care institutions, most notably by the Judge Rotenberg Center (formerly the Behavior Research Institute) where a device called the graduated electronic decelerator (GED) is used to shock autistic residents into submission. Much like the starvation, isolation, and deprivation used on Hilton at CEDU and the Provo Canyon school, the JRC makes liberal use of aversives to modify the residents' behavior. But, also like Hilton's experience, much of the behavior manifested by the residents at the JRC is directly related to their disability. Many residents were shocked repeatedly for hand flapping, laughing, clearing their throat, and other self-stimulatory or repetitive behaviors, all of which are hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders. Jan Nisbet explores the existence of the JRC and its impact on the disability world in her book Pain and Shcok in America.


Stay tuned for tomorrow when we talk more about congregate care facilities for troubled teens and the disabled. Meanwhile, attached is an article about adult reflections on the troubled teen industry.


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