My name is Nancy Solomon. I work at WNYC. I have a 20 year old son who is the subject of this conversation.
KAI: In this episode, we’re gonna look at one way families are trying to protect their kids from entering the justice system…. families who have a lot more means than the ones we’ve profiled so far.
But I’m not a parent. And I can only imagine how terrifying it must be to look at your kid and think, ‘wow, he is sliding out of control. Or worse, to be unsure...to wonder, is this just a teen thing, or is something irreparable about to happen?
So I asked Nancy to help me understand when she had that moment of desperation with her son.
Nancy: Um, So this starts in high school and he starts -- I don't know whether it starts with him smoking pot or whether it just starts with him flailing academically in high school.
Either way, it wasn’t just about a kid getting stoned behind the house too much. He was flat out not going to school. Nancy had been patient, tried to let him find his way. But she felt like time was running out…she let him drop out of public school - and found him a great private boarding school.
Nancy: and I got him in. And he got himself in! He wrote himself an essay, he went on the trip up there to see the place. Things were really looking a lot better. I was so relieved.
For a few months… and then...
In early May...he got expelled.
Kai: What were you thinking at that point?
Nancy: I was thinking I needed some kind of therapeutic intervention.
She’d actually already sent him to a specialist, someone who focused on adolescent boys.
I had just really gotten the report from this psychologist right about the time that he got expelled.
Kai: What did the report say?
Nancy: You know, it was kind of complicated, but it was basically that he has a low grade depression and the psychologist’s concern was that with the low grade depression and the interest in drugs, when he discovered an opioid he was going to be all in.
Kai: Oh wait a minute. That's that's a big step there.
Nancy: Yeah. So that was scary, to hear from somebody like, he is at risk of a serious drug problem if you let things go.
That was it. She started thinking about a crazy idea that everyone had been pushing. Friends, family, the therapist -- everybody.
Nancy: So wilderness therapy is this thing where, um… uh
so these are places, obviously in the wilderness, they're therapeutic, but they're basically like, you know, super tough love. You're going to be out in the wilderness. And you're going to backpack and camp in the rough for weeks and weeks until you find your own internal motivation to put your life together.
Up until now, Nancy had totally rejected this idea.
But now, like, now I'm at a point where when he comes back from his boarding school, he is 17 years old and six weeks away from his 18th birthday. And now I'm getting, you know, advice that when he turns 18, I lose all power to send him anywhere without his agreement.
A ticking clock... She’s running out of time.
Kai: So I gather that you decided to do it.
Nancy: Yeah. So I decided to do it. It was, it was a horrible night. Horrible. I didn't sleep and it was just--the look on his face. I mean, I betrayed him. And um...it’s the hardest thing I've ever done.
I’m Kai Wright, this is Caught, and in this episode we explore a path that runs parallel to the juvenile justice system. For parents who can afford it, there’s an entire private industry that claims to have figured out how to help troubled teens. WNYC reporter Sophia Paliza-Carre travels into the private, pricey world of wilderness therapy.
AMBI - driving
SPC: The first step - is often the most challenging. Once a parent has decided it’s time to send a kid away, they have to figure out how to send them. Because if it’s gotten to this point, a parent’s essentially lost all control.
Temarcus: It’s almost 2 o’clock now, the pickup is scheduled for 3.
So they’ll call in someone like Temarcus. In this industry, Temarcus is known as a “transporter.” He gets a kid from home to a program. Because this generally happens in the middle of the night and without warning, some kids call this “getting gooned” or getting kidnapped.
Temarcus: 20-30 min out we’ll just give the family a call. What I’ve noticed it’s been really helpful for parents to have that final 30 minutes, to emotionally get themselves together. . .
Yeah Hey - how you doing? Still hanging in there right?
It’s 3 am - Temarcus is coordinating the pick up of a young girl on the east coast.
Temarcus: Just wanted to let you know we’re in the neighborhood, whenever you guys are ready for us. You have any last minute questions we can help you out with? (fade under)
He’s already driven 4 hours today from his home in North Carolina. He won’t be home for another 24.
Temarcus: Long day, long day yeah.
He actually works full-time checking in on foster kids for a placement agency, this is his side gig. Lots of people in transporting are law enforcement, or worked at programs before.They find these jobs, by word of mouth.
Temarcus: So I guess we’ll just go on and head on over, Ok.
So we’re close to the home, we don’t ever want to drive by the home, because you never know who’s up who’s in the yard or looking out of windows. We have t-shirts and pullovers to put on with our company logo on it just to kind of let individuals know that you know …. that we belong here.
Sophia: It’s a two-person job - so once he and his female partner get inside, they’ll budget about an hour. The parents make sure there’s nothing dangerous in the house. Take away phones. And wake up the kid and tell them where they are going. Then they get out of the way.
Temarcus: You think about all the scenarios that can potentially happen. Could this be a scary situation for an adolescent? Yes.
Sophia: He says it mostly goes well. But sometimes a kid really resists.
Temarcus: kids say they’ll go and then they get to the front door and there’s a lot of resistance, holding poles, grabbing doors, or grabbing something last minute. We don’t restrain kids or anything of that nature, we just assist the kids
Sophia: An “assist” means gripping a kid’s upper arm, or locking arms with them, to keep them from running. Temarcus says he doesn’t carry handcuffs, but there are transporters who definitely do.
Temarcus: We try to select music that the kid likes, it keeps them calm, they’re being stripped of everything.
Sophia: Once a kid is in the car, they’ll head straight for the airport, get through TSA and board a plane. Wilderness programs aren’t casual camping trips. They’re meant to break kids down and rebuild them. These programs offer the wilderness as a solution for all kinds of issues:
(clip from commercials) There’s no running water, no electricity, no screens, the only thing that glows in the dark: a campfire ...
In the 12 steps with 16-21 day therapeutic expedition.
Anxiety and pretty much anything else.
with the wilderness as our catalyst we reveal potential inspire hope and save lives and we believe it….and we live it…
The catch is - it can cost over $500 a day, mostly out-of-pocket. But people are paying. A recent economic impact study found that programs like these - are helping to bring in over $400 million to the state of Utah, a hub for this industry.
Wilder: for every kid that comes into the state of Utah, almost one job is created, that blew my mind.
Jenney Wilder runs an online directory of these programs. She found that “behavioral healthcare” as she calls it is bringing in about 5 times what Sundance film festival brings in to Utah. And she says more and more parents want this alternative kind of intervention.
Jenny: It’s just totally different than dragging little Joey or Jane to the family therapy
But this idea….it isn’t actually new.
Think about, Walden Pond.
(reading of Thoreau) A lake is the landscapes most beautiful and expressive feature, it is earth's eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature
Remember Thoreau’s philosophy of self-reliance - struggling to find yourself while alone in the elements? This is a deeply American idea that became an organized movement way back in the 1880s.
Imagine it’s post-civil war. America’s booming - and if you’re a wealthy industrialist you might send your lazy, 15-year old son, to a place like Camp Chocorua in New Hampshire. (SFX 1880s music)
Will: They had to paddle out in canoes and they cooked over a fire. And a lot of people that educators at the time said how can you do that to these kids that is so harsh; that's so tough.
Will White wrote a book on the history of wilderness therapy. He says this camp was one of the first to start a tradition of teaching elite american boys the value of work and independence.
And then in the early 20th century, we get the Boy Scouts. (SFX, boy scout oath) They taught young boys outdoor skills like fire-building and knots. And they adopted and fetishized Native American traditions.
In the 1960s, we get Outward Bound (SFX, kids yelling and jumping). Founder Kurt Hahn thought outdoor challenges were the way to build character.
(SFX, ambi of caravan) Then we see a lot of programs popping up in the 1970s and 1980s, that were largely unregulated, including a program called Visionquest. Visionquest took adjudicated kids thousands of miles across the country in covered wagons, and camped in teepees.
(audio from promotional video) These youngsters have been in trouble with the law many times. Standard treatment hasn’t worked. The road this wagon train travels is the one that can lead to home.
Unfortunately, Visionquest has been criticized for its boot camp - like methods and investigated in federal court after reports of child abuse and the death of kid. This is when the “tough-love” model of the late 80s took hold. And these were the first programs that admitted kids who were taken against their will. Some used abusive methods, resulting in injuries and even deaths, which spurred a congressional hearing in 2007.
(SFX, testimony of clip from child abuse at private facilities): In the guise of behavior modification, youth are being deprived of food, sleep and shelter. They are being forced to endure stress positions...
Today states like Utah have established licensing rules to prevent abuse. And programs have lowered the kid to staff ratio, and implemented more training. Though there’s still no federal oversight and state regulations vary.
(Sfx airplane taking off, sound of phone ringing)
So choosing a wilderness program means relinquishing control of your child. And that starts with the transport. Which brings us back to Temarcus.
Temarcus: Absolutely it was a tight window but we made it.
When he has a chance he called me from the airport.
The youth became very emotional there was a lot of crying holding onto the mother, um, but over the course of 30 min she was able to calm down and have a civil conversation.
She’s now off in a program out west without access to any kind of electronics, so we can’t ask her how it went. Instead, meet James.
James: So what I remember is you know coming to and these two guys told me to get dressed.
Seven years ago he was woken up in the middle of the night in Manhattan, with no idea what was in store for him. He had fallen asleep while watching TV, and now all he knew was…. he had to go with these men. So he put on a blazer and slacks...he thought maybe that would make his transporters look like his bodyguards. Then they drove to JFK and got on a plane.
James: And the guy who was with me. He was like a police officer. So he was like doing some work on his computer as I remember. This is just like another day for him like he's done this a million times. And for me it's like it’s like, you know, surreal. I can't believe this is happening.
James is a pretty quiet guy, but he’s the most quiet when he recounts this experience. The plane he got on when he was 16 years old - it was headed for Utah.
James: They told me that you can get out of there and a couple of weeks you know, three weeks. And that was a lie. I was there for two and a half months.
And how he ended up there, started on a street corner not far from Central Park
James: My old stomping ground. Um. Yea.
He shows me his old school, where he went from kindergarten all the way up until 10th grade. It’s this old building, a private school, and they introduced him to his passion which is fencing, when he was only six years old. It’s what he did every night and every weekend. He was actually top ten in the country, back in the day.
Bonnie: He was very active, he was very curious. Um, he was always engaged. Um, he was a happy, happy kid.
Bonnie, his mom. She’s petite….very put-together. She started to look for help for James when he was around 8, just after his dad died of cancer.
Bonnie: I wanted him to have someone to talk to and to vent to. And so I did that way back then. And I was told: he's you know, he's fine he's fine, he's fine. I didn't know that he was.
It’s at around the same time that James started struggling with reading.
Bonnie: So that set this all rolling.
She took him to the pediatrician and then a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with an attention disorder. And he then was put him on medication which seemed to help. He also ended up getting special one-on-one tutoring at school.For a while, James was pretty focused on school and on fencing. But then in middle school, he got distracted.
James: Eighth grade was like going to hookah bars, going to bars, going to high school parties
He started smoking weed and cigarettes. He got interested in girls, and didn’t want to be training all the time, especially on Friday nights.
James: And then like ninth grade was everyone was clubbing. It was like very ridiculous and like so that was the difference of the social scene... was a big part of that kind of realm of like downtown of the meatpacking and Soho and all that kind of stuff.
He felt like the big issue for him was that his friends had a lot more money than he did. He was well-off, but he says he couldn’t drop thousands of dollars in one night, or wear Gucci all the time, like they could.
And then everyone started to do more expensive drugs, like cocaine, so James found a way to keep up.
James: We started with money from my mother. Like I remember my friend and I we were like looking through my mom’s stuff and we found a bunch of cash and like we thought we like hit the jackpot.
SPC: How much do you remember how much cash it actually was?
James: Like fifteen-Hundred dollars. Yeah it was a lot of cash.
James: [We left some of it there though and then we blamed it on the cleaning lady, my cleaning lady at the time or I did. And you know I said I was going to space out within like two weeks. Which I thought was like a long time and it ended up being like two days.
In high school, he graduated to pawning his mother’s jewelry. Then stealing laptops from school. Meanwhile Bonnie started to get suspicious. She took James to see a social worker. He didn’t seem to mind talking about himself for 45 minutes. But beyond that he wouldn’t listen to her. He’d leave the house at 3 or 4 am and cut school. Bonnie found burn marks in his bathroom sink.
Bonnie: I remember buying drug kits. And having one of my brothers come over here and just pick them up and take him in his bedroom and making him do the pee test and having a good talk with him. I thought that that would scare him a lot.
It didn’t. And things were building. James was shoplifting - clothes, electronics, groceries. But when the stores or cops that did catch him, they would often let him go, as long as he gave the stuff back.
James: I kind of just thought like the worst that could happen like you know like I could just move on from all this stuff and like none of this stuff could haunt me down the line.
But as he entered his sophomore year, Bonnie was crashing. She was constantly worried.
Bonnie: I didn't have a relationship with him. It was fear based.
I was terrified.
She didn’t know where he was, and when he was home he’d get angry, yell at her, and he even threw a chair once.
Bonnie: And when you're terrified of someone and angry with them there's there's no room for conversation because everyday was something else. And every day I’d say, well it all happened nothing else can happen. And something would happen. That was so different from what happened the day before, the week before.
And then in winter, things started to escalate. It looked like James was going to get expelled. One Friday, she says the school called her:
Bonnie: with the ultimatum. You know these are your choices. We will not invite James back next year unless this and this happens.
And Bonnie herself had hit a breaking point.
Bonnie: One morning I left late for work; and he was across the street on his way home. He was cutting school and I saw him across the street. He didn't anticipate me leaving late that morning and he was on his way home. And I screamed out his name and here I am with you know my laptop and one hand my purse in one hand and with heels on and I'm running down the street after him screaming his name like a crazy lady and for me that was a moment that I realized couldn't happen again.
By Monday, just 3 days after that phone call from the school, James would be gone.
KAI: Up next, we’ll find out...just exactly what James experiences in Utah.
KAI: When we left, Bonnie had reached a point of no return with her son. And she had finally taken action.
SPC: In the room where he grew up, James shows me his bookshelf, crammed with Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket.
James: So this is like dating back to when I was there all this....
Then he pulls out a thick, black binder.
SPC: The pages literally have dirt stains on them.
James: Yeah. So that's dating back from the desert.
It’s filled with worksheets and letters. Getting picked up in the middle of the night, that was just the beginning. After touching down in Salt Lake City, James was driven several hours away to Duchesne, where he was processed -
James: Yeah, so I got like gear, like a bright orange t shirts bright, bright red t shirts, like long johns, and you know like a yellow rain jacket and stuff... orange down jackets like stuff they could see me in if I run away. I had to get bloodwork done. I had to like strip down and then like do a squat kind of deal to make sure that I wasn't like hiding any drugs or anything like that.
The first thing he had to do, he was told, was to write his life story. He got 2 gatorades, which it turns out would be a small luxury. He slept under a tarp. For a New York City kid, this was a whole other world.
James: That first morning and there was like snow on the ground. And I was like, where am I. And I pinched myself again you know thinking is this real and Utah desert weather is changing by the minute. So it was very different than anything I'd ever experienced. It really breaks you down.
This breaking down is a part of most wilderness programs. Generally, everything is taken away from you. And you can’t eat a hot meal until you can make a fire without matches. For the first few days you can’t talk to anybody except staff and a peer mentor.
At first, James was very unhappy. He lied to his therapist and said his girlfriend was having an abortion, in hopes that would be enough reason to fly him home. But that didn’t work, and he was still stuck in Utah.
SPC: When did you settle in?
James: I would say … I mean settle in. It's hard to settle in the wilderness program. I don’t think you’re really supposed to actually. Um, When I gave up trying to resist constantly was probably a month and a half in.
Back in New York, Bonnie was relieved. She knew James was safe, and away from trouble. She wrote him letters, finally able to confront him -
Bonnie: Dear James I want you to know that I love you very much. It is possible for me to love you and not like or approve of your behavior. (fade under) I could not continue watching you make decisions …
The daily routine of wilderness was pretty simple.
James: We wake up and they'd say, "you wake up, good morning G7" like then we'd all wake up. The shoes would be dispersed to us like they would take our shoes at night so we wouldn't run away.
They’d make breakfast. They’d hike. Kids would call “groups” when they wanted to talk about an issue they were having. They’d see their therapist once a week. They learned how to “bust a fire” by using a 2 pieces of wood and a bow you’d rub together to get an ember - that was James’ least favorite activity. Eating was his favorite, especially refried beans and rice.
James: In the water was boiling we put a scoop of orange Gatorade powder and it would give it like a little tangy flavor. It is actually pretty good. These weird things you learn in wilderness
If you refused to hike, the group didn’t hike. And that meant you might stay there longer, because there’s no end date for the program. The counselors decide when you were ready to graduate.
James: And that was like the whole big thing like you're already here and you don't want to be here. So for you to have to stay here even longer and the more defiant you are the longer you're going to stay. It’s just the truth.
And the truth is James got pretty used to it.
James: Like it was just so different than the city and like peaceful and it was always interesting to come across people who were there cutting wood or you know riding ATVs or RV's or whatever it was; and they were just like living their life like here we are like a bunch of kidnapped kids … you know away for the summer, forcefully.
Then one day, about 3 months later, the counselors told James, get ready, you’ll be leaving. When Bonnie got the call that James was going to graduate, she flew out to Utah to see him for the first time. The program set up kind of a ceremony - the parents were blindfolded. The kids made wolf calls.
Bonnie: And I remember removing my blindfold and seeing James in front of me; and he had made a leather pouch for me. And just crying and holding onto him. When I saw him, his hair - I never knew he had curly hair. He hadn’t had a haircut in three months and it was all curly and long and even though I always say to people you smell them before you see it. But he looked so healthy and he looked so happy, that it was ... it was like a billion dollars to me.
So that was 7 years ago. James is positive wilderness helped him.
He’s been sober since then, and now he’s actually working on a masters in psychology. He’s grown up.
James: I knew that people were asking like we're reaching out their hand but like I was not willing to take any of their help. So, life is different to say the least.
But I have talked to other kids who have had mixed experiences. Some tried to run away, some felt mislead or betrayed, others are still angry with their parents. For some it leaves a lasting feeling of powerlessness
Noah: It was, really rough being in the wilderness.
For Noah, who went to Utah in 2009, he says sometimes the program made him feel like a dog.
You kind of lose all your rights and you’re like, you don’t feel like a person you feel like an object, like you’re property at that point. You want to get away, you want to be free again.
He did try to run away actually - made it for 4 days before getting caught. Noah says it’s hard to talk about his experience, because his friends just don’t get it. And his parents - don’t want to talk about it. But he wants to. Because, it’s still with him.
When I go to sleep still I shake, I shake myself awake a few times, it’s a weird twitch that I still to do today. Because you can only sleep during designated sleep time or sleep hours. If you were sleeping other than that you could get in trouble. So every night when I go to sleep, I twitch a few times, it scares my girlfriend.
Scientific research on whether wilderness is effective, is not quite there yet. Mental health professionals point out a lack of randomized controlled studies and that studies are often sponsored by the industry itself. And parents are suing insurance companies to try to get them to pay for these programs, because they usually DON’T cover them.
And without insurance the price tag is steep. Kids mostly don’t just go to wilderness programs and then come home. They almost always do a stint in a residential program afterwards, for at least 9 months.
Bonnie paid nearly $135,000 for James treatment, including time at a boarding school. She used her full arsenal of resources - she borrowed money from family members, she used up James’ college fund, and got a lawyer to get some funding from the public school system. Other families I’ve spoken to have spent much more, they’ve had to mortgage their homes or take out loans. Wilderness costs on average $513 a day and boarding schools can cost as much as $10,000 a month. By comparison the average cost of detaining a kid in juvie is $407 a day.
So - there’s a parallel, private alternative, which is actually a growing industry, for some kids who make bad decisions. Where they might get support, and maybe a chance to move on with their lives. Sometimes even probation officers suggest to parents to look into private options…and, in some cases, judges will okay programs like wilderness therapy in lieu of detention.
But if you can’t afford it, there aren’t a lot of other options.
[Long music break]
Next time: why is New York City talking about abolishing the JJ system for girls all together? CLIP OF DESIREE: I just want someone to love me. That’s basically it.
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