Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Troubled teen programs guarantee torture, not treatment

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Katherine Kubler was seventeen years old when transport services unexpectedly abducted her from her previous high school, an arrangement made by her parents, and sent her to the Academy at Ivy Ridge, a troubled teen reform school meant to treat disruptive behaviors. However, throughout her stay, she realized the true nature of these supposedly “therapeutic” reform schools—instead of positive rehabilitation, they further physically and mentally damage children.  

Kubler is now an activist and director of the trending Netflix original documentary series “The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping.” The documentary follows Kubler and former classmates as they expose the harsh reality of these institutions by reflecting on their past experiences of physical abuse, sexual assault, and psychological warfare. 

“The Program” immediately immerses viewers into the daily life of an average student attending Ivy Ridge by visiting old classrooms where they spent hours completing mindless quizzes, hallways previously filled with mattresses for incoming students to sleep on for observation, solitary confinement rooms, and other traumatic memories. 

Later into the first episode, the students eventually visit what is referred to as the “no-camera” room, notoriously known for being one of the most physically abusive spaces in the facility. 

“If you came in this room, it was over,” recalled Dominick, one of Kubler’s former classmates, in the documentary. “They’re tossing you into the wall, slamming you onto the floor, whatever they want to do to you. Banging your head into the [radiator] thing. It didn’t matter because there’s no cameras here.” 

It is a haunting ordeal for a teenager, who is already uncertain of their self-worth, to have guards push them to the floor and beat them, repeating “you don’t matter.” This maltreatment made them lose all sense of self-importance and wholeheartedly convinced themselves that they truly didn’t matter. All of the claims, including those of sexual assault endured by students from faculty members, are undocumented due to the lack of physical evidence gathered by proper authorities, but the students’ recollection of the harrowing abuse in the documentary is visceral. 

During the documentary, Alexa Brand, another former classmate of Kubler’s, speaks out about her experience with a faculty member who progressively began to demonstrate predatory behavior towards her, such as sharing a bed. 

“You know, you can’t even smile at another human being, and now you have somebody who is pouring so much predatory love and affection on you,” Brand said. “But the only thing you’re able to receive is or the only thing you’re able to feel is I matter. Like, I matter to somebody.” 

Children are naturally inclined to crave attention and care from their parents, and when they’re withheld from that, feelings of neglect and loneliness are expected. 

And when being admitted into an institution of such nature by your family—the people meant to protect you—it can cause overwhelming feelings of betrayal and confusion, especially for a young child. They’re constantly grappling with the question of, “What did I do to deserve this? What did I do wrong?” The children being admitted into these institutions are often just average teenagers exhibiting typical behaviors of rebellion and mood instability. 

And as a young child being subjected to these levels of physical and mental abuse, they just want the comfort of their families and to feel loved, but eventually, those feelings transgress into resentment. Paris Hilton has been an outspoken activist against troubled teen programs for years due to her time in the system. Through a YouTube documentary, she describes her experience as the main reason for her growing hatred against her parents. 

Not only do these institutions compromise formative years in an individual’s life, resulting in life-long trauma, but they also destroy one’s relationship with their family. The people who are meant to be these children’s support systems who guide them through adolescence become the perpetrators of the most traumatizing time in their lives. Sometimes, victims can successfully rekindle relationships with their families, but for others, the pain they endured is unforgivable, and they choose to remain no-contact. 

These scenarios can damage children in the system, and post-system, to the extent that the victims find it easier to take their own lives. 

In 2018, Michael Wilson, a reporter for the New York Times, investigated the resulting suicides of children in these programs. In Wilson’s article, he shares the stories of previous alumni who attempted to hang themselves from their bunk beds, hid in walk-in coolers to drink bottles of bleach, and drowned themselves in nearby lakes. 

Wilson specifically mentions Jon Martin-Crawford, an alumnus who testified before a congressional hearing regarding the treatment in these programs and said:

The nightmares and psychological scars of being dragged from your home to a place in the middle of nowhere; restrained in blankets and Duct tape; assaulted, verbally and physically—those scars and that trauma never go away. For my friends who have since died from suicide because of the nightmares or those who still suffer the nightmares, our time and our voice will not be in vain.” 

Martin-Crawford committed suicide seven years after testifying. 

Although Congress has recently established the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, which aims to reinforce and implement the best health practices in youth residential programs, many victims don’t think this will create effective change. 

During an interview about the act, Ms. Ianelli, a previous residential program student, said, “I feel that [the Stop Institutional Act] is very soft. It’s like trying to put a Band-Aid on an arterial bleed. This is a devastating, harmful industry. Today a kid could die in a program.” 

The act is far from enough to prevent the multi-billion industry from further harming children, especially those who continue to be haunted by the distant memories of attending such an institution. 

Kenneth R. Rosen, a journalist for The New York Times, spoke about his time in the troubled teen industry and how “those programs are now a distant memory, but the contours of those inescapable feelings of rejection and dismissal, of living up to the expectations held by others and not myself, follow me.” 

With this documentary series, Kubler is creating an outlet for victims such as herself to unmask the false preconceptions of the industry and not allow their voices to be overlooked by society. Not only are the former students speaking for themselves, but for people such as Rosen who have attended, students currently attending, and the lives lost. Society must acknowledge what children are being exposed to and how detrimental these establishments are to an adolescent’s psyche. 

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