The “Troubled Teen Industry”

I read this article I found on the Huffington Post the other day and it’s been on my mind NON-STOP since. I urge you to give it a read. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this topic. I sometimes feel I have too great a bias to actually form opinions on this specific topic objectively.

I’ve suppressed a lot of memories from my time being handed over to the state and passed around to different facilities in what I assume was an attempt to “fix” something that was “broken” about me. Making sense of it all is still very troubling for me. But reading things in the media, such as the article aforementioned, reminds me of the promise I made upon returning home; to share my story when I can (and not be embarrassed by it), to denounce “treatment facilities” when I can, and see to it that parents and other stakeholders understand the repercussions of “treatment” for their loved ones.

When I worked as a drug addiction specialist (direct care worker in a teenage residential treatment facility), I was sure to be transparent in my life experiences with the teenagers I worked with. Even if that meant it could be manipulated by a client and used against me later (which happened maybe once the whole time I worked there, might I add). I knew it was taboo to talk about my experiences with using recreational drugs and the subsequent admittances to residential treatment. I knew that while my employer couldn’t tell me not to talk openly about it, they definitely preferred that I didn’t. I knew it was in the best interest of the employer to have employees that wouldn’t empathize with its clients (because it makes business difficult to have an insider also working as an advocate for the consumers). I didn’t care. Despite what society’s views are about kids that end up in these facilities, they are over-stereotyped. They are, in many ways, failed by the system that’s been designed to help them. Much like I was.

I had a social worker at 14 years old. I was depressed, anxious, suicidal, skipping school, and was experimenting with drugs. My parents didn’t understand this uptick in behaviors and were growing increasingly frustrated by it. So, they sought help through DHS (Department of Human Services). I was assigned a social worker whose job was to provide my parents and I with the resources necessary to get me back on track. When the outpatient stuff (teen support groups, therapy, psychotropic drugs) didn’t work to correct my continued avoidance of school and family, my parents looked into other options—the inpatient ones.

You see, growing up, I never had outlined consequences for certain behaviors. My consequences evolved only as seen fit. Depending on how hot off the handle or stressed out my mom was, I was subjected to a number of new or inconsistent methods of discipline. And because my dad was a permissive parent, I really only had one person working on my behalf. And that person was totally insecure in her role of parenting a troubled teenager. I think that proved to be the most fateful thing, as I got older. It was the underlying theme to every situation I found myself. It was the perfect storm.

At 14, I felt that my friends were more important to me than my family. When my mom would prevent me from seeing my friends, I rebelled. One such rebellion (walking out of the house late one night) turned into the police being called. When I was finally located, at school the next day, I was pulled from class and taken to the local shelter. After a couple of months in shelter, I was sent back home. I was placed in another outpatient program designed for foster kids, much younger than myself, who faced family dysfunction by way of attachment issues. I ended up walking out of that program on the third day (much to the disillusion of my mom) because it was laughably unparalleled to my needs.

I continued to smoke pot throughout this time, generally felt misunderstood and was still missing a lot of school; so those were the issues at hand. I was also increasingly frustrated by the power that my mom and social worker were wielding over me at this time—I was angry with my mom all the time. I felt knit-picked over everything—I would get spiels every time I said “shit”(which was also laughable considering that I inherited my colorful vocabulary from my Dad). The school had caught wind, by this point, that my behavior at school was “need-to-know” information for my parents and social worker. So, from that point on, it was hard to ever find any positivity in my demeanor. I was being watched at school and home; I had no privacy, no trust, and no benefit of doubt.

Have you ever snooped on someone that you loved? You know what comes of it, don’t you? Nothing good. If you are looking for some dirt, you will always find some, no matter what it is exactly that you find.

It was decided that I would need a different kind of inpatient treatment to deter me from further self-destruction. But my parents had to relinquish their rights as my guardian before the state would take on my case of placing me. So, in the spring of 2005, I was CINA’d (or placed as a Child In Need of Assistance). For some reason, the first place they thought to try out on me was a strict, structured, “positive peer culture”, detention-like facility. The facility was an old de-commissioned lunatic asylum from the late 1800’s. The place itself looked scary enough without knowing the program it now houses.

This facility is the one that is so strikingly similar to the ones I read about in the article. They are quick to use restraint, they use peers against each other, and they employ “hall shut-downs” (when we have to sit in a chair in the hallway and face the back of the head of the person in front of you, working on quiet things like homework or reading all day, no talking, nothing). During my short time there, it felt like all eternity. I was dropped off by my dad, hours from home, admitted, strip-searched, doused with lice treatment and rinsed in the shower with cold water. I was given, what I came to call, “Bob Barker sandals” (the same ones they use in jails and prisons). I then sat with my things in the hall and watched as staff went through every single thing I had and made a pile of stuff I could keep and stuff that would be sent to storage. I couldn’t have any pictures of my parents, friends, or pets. I didn’t get to keep a stuffed animal I brought (that’s a privilege). The pile of my stuff to be sent to storage far exceeded the things that I could keep. I lost my sense of identity without any of my stuff. It was horrible.

I had a roommate who told me that she was placed there for trying to kill her stepfather with a hammer. Not sure that she could be believed but that’s what she told me. I remember having my once-a-week phone call with my mom my first week and telling her about what that roommate told me. The staff overheard me talking about it (because they listen to the phone calls in their office), intervened me by taking the phone away, asserted that I was lying and that if I were to be talking to my mom about things going on within the facility, that I wouldn’t get anymore phone calls. So, I was never allowed to tell my mom how bad things were while I was there. The next time I talked to her, all I could do was cry and ask to come home. At which point I was put in a “group confrontation”—generally told to stop my pity-party or it would escalate up to restraint and a night in the time-out room. I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw other girls get slammed—yes literally slammed—backwards in “restraint” for things as minor as popping their knuckles or crossing their arms across their chest. I learned pretty quickly not to draw attention to myself; to keep my head down and my mouth shut. But I was definitely flagged by all the crying I did. I went to court after 30 days there to find out the findings of my evaluation. Come to find out, I was a perfect candidate for their program! Imagine that! Luckily, my social worker thought I was scared enough to stay out of trouble if I got to go home.

And I am forever grateful that that decision was made on my behalf. I thought about suicide every night I went to bed when I was there for those 30 days–with a court date. I have no doubts that if my placement there were indefinitely dependent on my success with the program that I would have attempted suicide any opportunity I had.

Things were pretty good for a while after coming home from that place but I would go on to find myself in this vicious cycle of circumstances until I was an adult. It’s the way the system works. It works much the same as the justice system works; it’s easy to get in, so hard to get out. Also, much like the criminal justice system, there is little differentiation between criminality and mental illness. So there are many options out there including rehabilitative and punitive and I think it is easy to assume, as a parent or social worker needing to help their child, that any program is better than none.

And that could not be farther from the truth.


Author: Caitlyn

Artsy, crafty, history-conscious, earth-friendly, new mama.

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