Orlando Sentinel

Some par­ents take ex­treme mea­sures in search of help for kids

- By Deborah Netburn TRI­BUNE NEWS­PA­PERS

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.”

dnet­burn@tri­bune.com

 ?? REUBEN MUNOZ/TRI­BUNE NEWS­PA­PERS IL­LUS­TRA­TION ?? Ther­a­peu­tic wilder­ness pro­grams for chil­dren can cost from $10,000 to $15,000 a month.
REUBEN MUNOZ/TRI­BUNE NEWS­PA­PERS IL­LUS­TRA­TION Ther­a­peu­tic wilder­ness pro­grams for chil­dren can cost from $10,000 to $15,000 a month.

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