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As we talk about regulating the "troubled-teen" industry...

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As we talk about regulating the troubled-teen industry....

I called Congressman George Miller's office to ask about his proposed legislation which aims to prevent abuse and deaths within America's adolescent residential treatment programs. They told me there are no efficacy standards in the troubled-teen industry, and no federal standards of any kind. I was informed that legislation cannot address this lack of efficacy because private programs are not required to be proven safe or effective. Parents have the right to "put their kids wherever they want".

I believe that any law intended to prevent abuse within this industry should really begin with public awareness. One of the best ways to learn about the dynamics of abusive treatment programs is to read about Phillip Zimbardo's Lucifer Effect and the Stanford Prison Experiment. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" and many programs are based on subjecting powerless kids to an absolutely powerful social system. This is a recipe for disaster, and it happens to be the very basis of many programs within the troubled-teen industry.

Hopefully, federal legislation will also focus on psychological abuse, and will be based on a deep understanding of Robert J. Lifton's Eight Criteria for Thought-Reform. Each individual criteria for thought-reform ought to be prohibited from being used as a coercive measure. Detailed examples should be included that show how these methods have been used in programs throughout the last 50 years.

Coercive environments rely on built-in power imbalances that are a fertile breeding ground for sexual abuse, psychological torture, violent treatments and medical harm. But these are only symptoms of an underlying system of thought-reform. Addressing the symptoms could be a good first step if the root causes are also identified, understood and addressed.

The System behind the Systematic abuse

The chronic abuses taking place in teen programs are nourished by the toxic combination of two poisons, a harmful process enabled by an extreme environment. The "therapeutic mileau" is meant to facilitate the "un-freezing" of the psychological structure of a client. But this "break 'em down, and build 'em up" process consistently causes psychological harm and goes hand in hand with extreme forms of cruelty. History shows us that although these methods are powerful, they are dangerous. There is no safe way to restructure a teenager's psychology through aversive treatments and Pavlovian re-conditioning methods. Wherever human kindness and basic contact with the world can only be earned through compliance; when communication with family is forbidden and the identity is assaulted; when a child is not allowed privacy or autonomy over bodily functions; when complaints are met with punishment; when a child is denied compassion and yet prevented from leaving; where "un-freezing" is forcibly coerced...abuse is being used as a "therapeutic tool". This type of social system is a "Bad Barrel" that will consistently produce "Bad Apples." Why do we assume this behavior-change technology can ever be practiced safely?

A most corrupt legacy

Can we draft legislation that addresses the corruption that has enabled abuse throughout this industry's history? The little bit of research I've done tells me that coercive programs have always resulted in abuse and have always relied on legal corruption and the blind eye of state acquiescence.

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Marcus Chatfield is the author of "Institutionalized Persuasion; The Technology of Reformation in Straight Incorporated and the Residential Teen Treatment Industry (2014)." He is a prospective graduate student living in Florida.

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