The Associated Press, June 14, 1999
'Behavior Modification': Salvation for Problem Teens or Brainwashing
ENSENADA, Mexico (AP) -- The 130 residents of the converted beachside motel are mostly teen-age and mostly American, but you wouldn't know it by listening: No shouts, no stereos. Just the rhythmic crash of surf.
Under strict order, the youths at Casa by the Sea go about their day's routine of quiet exercise, study, chores, and, when approved, group discussion.
Not long ago, before their arrival, their days were spent in a dark, defiant cycle of drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior, many of the teen-agers say.
Those who have been in the program long enough to be allowed to speak to outsiders claim a commitment to turning their lives around, to positive and constructive action. Their families often express joy and relief.
Yet the methods used to achieve that conversion are criticized by some former participants in the program and by some families who say it involves coercion and abuse.
A high wall separates Casa from the coastal highway, and a cliff separates it from the Pacific Ocean. Justin Bell stands atop the cliff and looks out. In nine days, the clean-cut 18-year-old will go home to Midland, Texas, where he once struggled with depression.
Many residents are barred from speaking with outsiders, but school officials are allowing Justin to tell his story.
One evening last year, he says, he went out of control in his backyard, ranting and waving a metal pipe at anyone who approached. Psychiatric treatment had failed to prevent the breakdown.
His parents, at wit's end, decided on a drastic alternative. Four days after the episode, strangers walked into Justin's bedroom, woke him and whisked him off into the night.
Hired by his parents, the "escorts" drove him to an airport and took him to Jamaica, to Tranquility Bay, a sister school to Casa.
Eight months of living under a strict code of behavior taught him a lot, Justin says: to value himself and his family, to take control of his future. In three additional months at Casa, he has prepared to return home, go to college and join the everyday world.
He credits the program with not just turning his life around, but with saving it.
"If I hadn't gone into the program I'd be dead right now, because I would have killed myself," Justin says.
"Desperate situations need desperate solutions," he adds.
That could be considered the motto of the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools, a nonprofit group based in LaVerkin, Utah, also known as Teen Help. The association oversees seven rehabilitation programs, including Casa and Tranquility Bay, with a total enrollment of 950 youths ages 12 to 18. Their families pay between $1,990 and $3,490 a month.
The program employs "behavior modification" that includes spare living conditions, a strict code of conduct and swift punishment for violating that code.
At Casa, new arrivals find every minute structured. They wear uniforms and cannot speak out of turn. They earn liberties by improving behavior and attitude, spending on average one year to climb the program's six levels.
Punishment ranges from "self-correction" forms to "time-out" rooms to fines and tests on assigned motivational tapes.
Teen-agers focus on their personal issues in group seminars, where they discuss "trust, choices, responsibility, anger and especially self-esteem," according to program literature. Details of the seminars are confidential.
Two associated schools, in Cancun, Mexico, and in the Czech Republic, have been shut down by authorities amid allegations of abuse and concerns about children being illegally confined.
Donna Burke, a Houston real estate agent, said her two teen-age sons were mistreated at Tranquility Bay and turned into "Stepford children." When she paid them a visit at Tranquility Bay, she said, they were thin and there was "terror in their faces."
She said they displayed ringworm scars and chemical burns suffered while mixing cleaning solutions for their janitorial chores. They showed her plywood beds where they slept on soiled mattresses, and they had no soap, no toilet paper, no fans, no hot water.
Since they returned home, she said, they have been reluctant to speak about their experience. They are, however, perfectly behaved.
"There's no lip, no back talk, no arguing," she said. "All of those things are nice, but I want normal kids. I don't want my kids doing drugs, but I don't want robots. I got back two strangers."
Methods used in the Teen Help seminars are based on those of the "human potential movement" that was widely popular in the 1960s and '70s, said Janice Haaken, a psychology professor at Portland State University. She said they also are similar to those used by the military and mental hospitals.
New participants are put in a strict environment under an authority figure who "appears to have total control," she said. Rewarded for cooperation, "eventually you begin to concede that control."
For a teen in emotional crisis, such leaders can become very attractive, she said.
But there can be "a high risk of abuse of power," Haaken said, because the program operates with only minimal regulation: Seminars are run by facilitators who are not required to be trained therapists and by teens in the programs' upper levels.
Tom Burton, a California lawyer who has filed three lawsuits against Teen Help, said the schools are profiting off parents and deceiving them into thinking they are paying for top-quality therapy.
The program's directors stand by the schools. "We have nothing to hide," said Karr Farnsworth, president of the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools. "Parents are ... very much in support."