Thursday , April 18 2024

‘They ruined my life’: Inside America’s harrowing ‘wilderness therapy’ camps for ‘troubled teens’ where over a dozen kids have DIED and survivors are left traumatized from ‘torturous abuse in filthy, freezing conditions’

Survivors of America’s ‘Wilderness Therapy Camps’ have said the death of a 12-year-old boy is just the latest damning episode for an industry that brutalizes children in the name of a bogus therapy.

The boy was transported by two men on February 2 from his home in New York to Trails Carolina, which promises parents ‘trusted residential mental health programs’ for their children.

When police were called to the site in Transylvania Country the next morning they found him naked from the waist down, frothing from the mouth and already stiff with rigor mortis, according to their search warrant affidavit.

He was the second boy to die at the camp. Alec Lansing, 17, was found dead in a nearby stream where he had lain for two weeks after running away in 2014.

But at least a dozen children have died since 2000 at the camps which dot the American landscape and are just one feature of the multi-billion dollar ‘troubled teens’ industry.

Lodgings at Trails Carolina where the 12-year-old boy, identified only as CJH, was found dead on his first night earlier this month frothing at the mouth and stiff with rigor mortis

Lodgings at Trails Carolina where the 12-year-old boy, identified only as CJH, was found dead on his first night earlier this month frothing at the mouth and stiff with rigor mortis

Meg Applegate was abducted from her home at 15 by two strangers in the middle of the night and forcibly enrolled in a troubled teen programs

Meg Applegate was abducted from her home at 15 by two strangers in the middle of the night and forcibly enrolled in a troubled teen programs 

Kyra Frankowski was allowed a sponge bath in a bucket of water every other week and a plastic tarp for shelter after being dispatched to a wilderness camp at 14

¿We were just at our most raw, vulnerable state, just trying to survive,' she said

Kyra Frankowski was allowed a sponge bath in a bucket of water every other week and a plastic tarp for shelter after being dispatched to a wilderness camp at 14

Many offer activities such as yoga, hiking, and sessions with trained psychiatrists for a vast range of conditions including depression, eating disorders, addictions, low self-esteem, behavioral problems, stress, trauma, anxiety and hopelessness.

But former staff and campers say the reality is often an attempt to ‘break’ the child with punishments and extreme privation that amounts to torture.

Kyra Frankowski told USA Today she was only allowed a sponge bath in a bucket of water every other week and a plastic tarp for shelter after arriving at Second Nature Wilderness in Utah as a 14-year-old.

But she said that even the sponge baths would be abandoned as the children tried to endure the freezing winter weather in January 2014.

‘I felt like I was stripped down to my most vulnerable point,’ she said.

‘That’s what they would say was the point. They were trying to ‘break us down so they could build us back up’.

‘We were just at our most raw, vulnerable state, just trying to survive.’

Punishments included ‘pack drills’ in which the freezing teenagers were repeatedly required to unpack and repack their bags in under a minute.

The survivor said she was forcibly wrapped in her tarp and had her shoes taken away one night by a male staffer who slept next to her to pin her down.

‘They don’t tell you even around when you might be leaving because that’s ‘future tripping’ – you’re getting lost in future thought.’

Kayla Muzquiz said wilderness programs are wielded as threats to the 200,000 children already taking part in ‘troubled teen’ programs that include reform schools and residential facilities.

She found herself in the system at 12 when her mother died before being sent to the SUWS camp in rural North Carolina which closed in April last year.

‘We would wake up every day and hike 10 miles with almost a 60-pound pack on our backs,’ she told the Arkansas Advocate.

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‘It was excruciating because I had an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder, so while I was hiking, I was constantly in pain.

‘They didn’t do any tests to see if there was anything wrong with us before sending us out into ‘the field’ as they call it.

‘But I almost died like three times. I woke up next to a snake, a copperhead, twice.’

Kayla Muzquiz said wilderness therapy is used as a 'threat' to children already swept up in the 'troubled teens' industry

Kayla Muzquiz said wilderness therapy is used as a ‘threat’ to children already swept up in the ‘troubled teens’ industry 

Ian August was 14 when he died of hyperthermia at a camp in Utah on a desert hike in 95 degree heat but a judge threw out charges before they could reach trial

Ian August was 14 when he died of hyperthermia at a camp in Utah on a desert hike in 95 degree heat but a judge threw out charges before they could reach trial

Caleb Jensen, 17, died from fever in a soiled and saturated sleeping bag after days of vomiting and double incontinence

Lane Lesko, 19, was shot dead by police after running away from Summit Achievement in Michigan. A state attorney ruled it justifiable homicide

Caleb Jensen, 17, (left) died from fever in 2007 and Lane Lesko, 19, was shot dead by police in 2016 after running away from his camp

A study at Charles Sturt University in 2021 revealed that around half the teens in the camps are forced to attend and many are physically removed and transported from their homes by camp staff, sometimes with handcuffs and restraints.

Sarah Stusek was 17 when she awoke in the middle of the night to find her phone gone and a man and a woman standing over the bed who told her ‘we’re here to take you’.

‘At first, I was completely frozen I couldn’t say a word,’ she told Newsweek.

‘Then, as they approached and physically restrained me, I started screaming. I thought I was being kidnapped.

‘I was freaking out, shrieking while trying to fight them off, but nobody was coming to help me.’

Her parents had decided she needed ‘guidance’ after smoking pot and skipping school so sent her from her home in New York to a wilderness camp in Montana.

‘I had never heard of wilderness therapy before. I was never warned, or even had an inkling that this type of thing went on in the world.

‘For the first two weeks, I was on suicide watch, and during my two months at the camp, we would sleep in the snow, wake up with the sun and do calisthenics to warm our freezing bodies’.

Meg Applegate said she was abducted from her home at 15 by two strangers in the middle of the night before spending three years in troubled teen programs in Idaho and Montana.

She still wakes up with panic attacks and struggles not to wolf her food after suffering chronic hunger during her placements.

But she has gone on to win a degree in psychology and found the charity Unsilenced to campaign against institutionalized child abuse in the troubled teen and youth mental health industry.

Applegate has gone on to win a degree in psychology and found the charity Unsilenced to campaign against institutionalized child abuse in the troubled teen industry

Applegate has gone on to win a degree in psychology and found the charity Unsilenced to campaign against institutionalized child abuse in the troubled teen industry

But at least a dozen children have died since 2000 at the camps which dot the American landscape and are just one feature of the multi-billion dollar ¿troubled teens¿ industry

But at least a dozen children have died since 2000 at the camps which dot the American landscape and are just one feature of the multi-billion dollar ‘troubled teens’ industry

Glossy websites paint a picture of rural bliss offering extensive therapy for conditions including depression , eating disorders, addictions, low self-esteem, behavioral problems, stress, trauma, anxiety and hopelessness

Glossy websites paint a picture of rural bliss offering extensive therapy for conditions including depression , eating disorders, addictions, low self-esteem, behavioral problems, stress, trauma, anxiety and hopelessness

But former Trails Carolina worker Jonathan Hyde said the reality is undertrained staff trying to cope with children whose needs they cannot meet

But former Trails Carolina worker Jonathan Hyde said the reality is undertrained staff trying to cope with children whose needs they cannot meet 

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A primitive hut with plastic sheeting for windows is the basic accommodation at Trails Carolina, but campers say conditions are even harsher elsewhere

A primitive hut with plastic sheeting for windows is the basic accommodation at Trails Carolina, but campers say conditions are even harsher elsewhere 

In 2011 Daniel Huerta, 17 died in Florida when a staff member crashed the van they were travelling in.

In 2005 Anthony Haynes, 14, died at a camp in Arizona after being made to stand for hours in the desert sun on a day that reached 114 degrees

In 2011 Daniel Huerta, 17, (left) died in Florida when a staff member crashed the van they were travelling in, and In 2005 Anthony Haynes, 14, died at a camp in Arizona after being made to stand for hours in the desert sun on a day that reached 114 degrees

‘This industry was built decades and decades ago, without any foundation of regulation, reporting, governance, anything really,’ she said.

‘So, how do you regulate 100 years later, when it’s a $23 billion industry, and we’ve got 120,000 to 200,000 kids being funneled into these facilities annually?’

‘Many of these programs strategically operate in the middle of nowhere, and kids can’t run away.

‘But also because they become the economy and so the entire town often depends on the jobs at that facility. So, you’re not going to have your town really turning on you.’

Three years ago Oregon became the only state so far to regulate teen kidnapping services when it outlawed the use of handcuffs.

The grim conditions at one notorious camp were profiled earlier this year in a Netflix documentary ‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare’. 

Former military special forces officer Steve Cartisano established the Challenger Foundation in the Utah desert in the 1980s and charged parents $16,000 to supposedly tame their wayward teens by allegedly tying them to trees, taking away their rations and forcing them to carry bags of manure.

These days the camps’ websites are full of glowing testimonials about how their therapeutic services have turned lives around.

But they have struggled to point to any studies that support their claims and former staff say their training is often pitifully inadequate.

Jonathan Hyde, 35, said he took a job at Trails Carolina after just three days of training in 2020.

‘There were a couple of weeks there where the licensed therapist wouldn’t even show up to that group, and it was her assistant who didn’t even have credentials,’ he told USA Today.

‘One of the issues of the place is that the people that spend the majority of the time with them are not trained therapists.

‘I had kids that were vocally suicidal. I had kids that tried running away. I had kids that would try and fight you.

‘If you’re paying that much money, I would think you’d be getting therapy multiple times a week.’

Caleb Jensen, 15, pictured with his mother Dawn Boyd Woodson and sister Marie Burgess, signed off his final letter to his family with the words ¿I want my mommy¿

Caleb Jensen, 15, pictured with his mother Dawn Boyd Woodson and sister Marie Burgess, signed off his final letter to his family with the words ‘I want my mommy’

17-year-old Alec Lansing, seen here, spent almost two weeks dead in a stream after running  away from Trails Carolina on an excursion in November 2014

17-year-old Alec Lansing, seen here, spent almost two weeks dead in a stream after running  away from Trails Carolina on an excursion in November 2014

Former participants who went to the Trails Carolina camp in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, had described conditions as 'not humane'

Former participants who went to the Trails Carolina camp in Lake Toxaway, North Carolina, had described conditions as ‘not humane’

All children have been ordered out of the camp by the North Carolina department of health and human services while the criminal investigation proceeds

All children have been ordered out of the camp by the North Carolina department of health and human services while the criminal investigation proceeds

The programs typically last 90 days and can cost around $60,000 but access was made easier in 2016 when the American Hospital Association accepted wilderness therapy as a treatment model, allowing some families to claim it on their medical insurance.

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Trails Carolina said that primary therapists are working on site ‘two to three days per week’.

‘Therapeutic progress occurs seven days a week in the field through the assignments, activities and challenges outlined in each student’s treatment plan,’ a spokesman added.

But the death toll continues to mount up as families look to the wilderness as a solution to their problems at home.

In 2005 Anthony Haynes, 14, died at a camp in Arizona after being made to stand for hours in the desert sun on a day that reached 114 degrees.

Camp owner Charles Long was convicted of reckless manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison.

Two years later Caleb Jensen, 17, died from fever in a soiled and saturated sleeping bag after days of vomiting and double incontinence.

Hours earlier he had signed off his final letter to his family with ‘I want my mommy’.

A judge later dismissed a grand jury indictment for child abuse and criminal negligence against New Jersey-based Community Education Centers Inc. 

In 2009 Sergei Blashchishen, 16, died from dehydration and heatstroke on his first day at camp, and in 2011 Daniel Huerta, 17 died when a staff member crashed the van they were travelling in.

Trails Carolina was fined $12,000 after staff took five hours to alert authorities when Alec Lansing, 17, disappeared from the camp outside Asheville in 2014.

It took two weeks to find the nearby stream where he had died of hypothermia after falling into it and breaking his hip.

The center is currently being sued by two women who say they were sexually assaulted by other girls at the camp but were forced to stay in the same hut as their attackers, in one case being moved into the next bed along.

The North Carolina department of health and human services ordered all children out of the camp and placed a ban on new admissions in the wake of the latest death.

Police are treating the death as suspicious and in an application for a search warrant Transylvania County Deputy Andrew Patterson said officers found possible bruising around the boy’s eye and foam in his mouth ‘which could have indicated he ingested some sort of poison’.

‘He was not wearing any pants or underwear, his pants and underwear were lying next to his right shoulder,’ he added.

‘During interviews camp counselors were asked how his pants got into this position and they did not know.’

Trails Carolina has insisted that the boy was repeatedly checked on during the night, including just 90, minutes before he was found dead.

Conditions in Utah's Challenger Foundation wilderness camp were the subject of a Netflix Documentary earlier this year: Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare

Conditions in Utah’s Challenger Foundation wilderness camp were the subject of a Netflix Documentary earlier this year: Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare

The company site says they are 'dedicated to helping teens working through behavioral or emotional difficulties'

Jeremy Whitworth (pictured) is the co-executive director of Trail Carolina camp, based in North Carolina

Jeremy Whitworth (pictured) is the co-executive director of Trail Carolina camp, based in North Carolina

It says it is ‘cooperating fully with investigators’, and has lashed out at ‘distorted media coverage’, posting a handful of letters it has received from well-wishers since the boy died.

‘Their kind words are a salve to our wounds at a time when our work is being twisted by the negative narrative that is being feverishly sown online,’ they wrote.

‘We hope you, too, can find comfort in these words as we all continue in our work on behalf of children and families.’

Second Nature Wilderness have been asked to comment. 

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