Some parents take extreme measures in search of help for kids
Last summer, a couple in Northern California paid two imposing men to come into their home at 4 in the morning, handcuff their 17-year-old daughter and force her into a car headed for the airport. After months of threats, the parents had enrolled her in what’s called a therapeutic wilderness program, where she would hike three to five miles a day with a 25-pound pack, learn to make a fire with two sticks and theoretically transform from a manipulative teenager and failing student back into a young woman they could live with.
Six months later, the daughter still has nightmares about being taken from her bed in the middle of the night, but when recounting the story over the phone, her mother calmly said, “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
Parents in Los Angeles relayed a similar story. They had found a large handful of unprescribed Xanax on their 16-year-old son’s dresser, and suddenly the moody behavior and the days spent locked in his room started to make sense. Their son didn’t want to go to rehab, he didn’t believe it would work, and he didn’t want his parents to spend the money. He talked about running away to Oregon.
So they hired a transport service — the son referred to them as “the big, scary men” — and after the parents woke up their son (also at 4 a.m.) and told him that they loved him and that they were doing what they thought was best, they watched him pull out of the driveway in a car driven by strangers, his middle finger raised.
There are times — emotionally exhausting and agonizing times — when parents realize that something in the family system has gone horribly awry and that for a kid’s safety and future, the son or daughter is better off living somewhere else.
It is a terrible decision to have to make: one that is scary, expensive and humbling. So what makes a parent do it? These tend not to be people who think normal adolescent challenges constitute a crisis. Sending a kid away can make the child feel abandoned, therapists say, so we’re really looking only at parents pushed to an extreme response because of an extreme situation. Think drug addiction, promiscuity, school truancy or the threat of suicide.
At the same time, horror stories about wilderness programs are swirling.
Web sites catalog deaths of kids in residential programs, tales of sadistic counselors and boot-camp conditions in which water and food are withheld as punishment. Last summer, 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen died on his first hike in a therapeutic wilderness program in Oregon. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of death.
Then there is the crippling expense: Sending an adolescent to a therapeutic boarding school or a therapeutic wilderness program (and often parents do both) can easily cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. Insurance almost never helps, and neither does the government.
Despite all this, the number of people sending their kids to wilderness therapy programs had been growing until the recession hit, said Douglas Bodin, chief executive of Bodin, a consulting group with offices in California and Utah that helps parents pick the best place for their child.
“If we’ve exhausted all other resources — behavioral changes, testing, helping the parents change their parenting approach — when everything else doesn’t work, we ask, ‘OK, can you effectively manage and keep the child safe?’ ” Glick said. “And if the answer is no, then they go to these programs.”
Nobody is promising that once a kid returns from a wilderness program or a therapeutic boarding school that problems will be fixed.
“A lot of what my program did is allow people to communicate again,” the teen Xanax abuser said. “Things will not be perfect afterward, but things are more likely to be normal.”
In the meantime, for most parents, the decision to send a child away requires a leap of faith.
“You constantly question yourself, even after you’ve seen success,” one mother said. “There is still a part of you, me, that would like him home, and yet I still realize we do not have the resources he needs. I can provide all the love in this world, but I don’t have the skills to treat my son.”