After decades in the public eye, Paris Hilton is a complicated and not always sympathetic celebrity. However her new YouTube documentary suggests that her scintillating brand of superficiality and poor little rich girl rebellion masks genuine trauma.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, Hilton spent some of her youth inside the “troubled teen industry” — a collection of tough love boot camps, wilderness programs and “emotional growth boarding schools” — that sells itself to parents, at least in large part, as therapy. Instead, what some of these services provide is often closer to torture, using a host of methods not backed up by science which but have been found to cause real harm by advocates, law enforcement and lawmakers.
What some of these services provide is often closer to torture, using a host of methods not backed up by science which but have been found to cause real harm.
Take the way Hilton was brought to Provo Canyon School, the Utah facility at which she says she stayed the longest. In the middle of the night, she says, burly men with handcuffs dragged her out of bed and forced her into a car, screaming all the way, while her parents stood by and did nothing.
In the documentary, she says she was not told where she was going or what was happening — she thought she was being kidnapped. Such an experience is clearly traumatic. Indeed, being cut off from loved ones and put into a situation of complete powerlessness and uncertainty is basically a recipe for causing post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, it is done routinely as a way of getting supposedly “troubled” teenagers into these facilities.
Moreover, the businesses that provide these so-called “escort” services are completely unregulated. So much so that a man who allegedly molested his stepdaughter was a mainstay of the business at the time Hilton was “transported.” (His company is still listed on a website that promotes troubled teen programs, although the link is dead. After his stepdaughter decided not to testify, charges were dropped.)
Or, consider the wilderness program where Hilton was sent before Provo Canyon. According to various exposes and the research I did for my book, these programs often place children in such harsh conditions with so few rations that kids are reduced to eating lizards or other small wildlife. There are no training requirements for counselors. Dozens of teens have died in them — often as a result of medical neglect when their complaints about heat, cold, starvation or illness are ignored.
Provo Canyon was opened in 1971 and has a checkered history. It was sued in the early 1980s for abuses similar to those Hilton describes, including the punitive use of solitary confinement, beatings, and a disciplinary tactic called “the hair dance,” in which teens were, yes, dragged around by their hair. “A lot of people who worked there got off on torturing children and seeing them naked,” Hilton alleges of the staff. (The school was sold to new owners in 2000 and says it cannot comment on earlier practices. Hilton attended prior to the sale. A spokesperson for the previous owners declined to comment to TODAY.com)
In 1982, an appeals court decided against the school — but it was not a complete victory. Such tactics were only illegal, the court ruled, if carried out “under color of state law.” In other words, courts couldn’t mandate that children be sent somewhere to be abused because that would mean that the government could be held responsible for it — but it was perfectly fine for parents to pay others to do it privately. And that’s what happened to Hilton.
Utah, where Provo Canyon is located, was the home base for a multimillion-dollar network of tough love programs. Known as the World Wide Association of Specialty Schools and Programs (WWASP), this network “treated” thousands of children in at least two dozen facilities in at least six states and six foreign countries in the late 1990s and the 2000s. After scandals, the schools have closed or been sold to new owners, but that doesn’t mean abusive employees haven’t moved on to other programs.
These programs don’t just traumatize teens, however. They can also split families, by preying on the desperation of parents with children in crisis.
These programs don’t just traumatize teens, however. They can also split families, by preying on the desperation of parents with children in crisis. As Hilton put it, “It taught me not to trust anyone, not even my own family.” Because the programs prepare parents in advance to expect bizarre reports of abuse from their “lying” and “manipulative” children, even true accounts can be ignored. Hilton’s mother, for instance, believed her daughter was exaggerating on the few occasions she spoke about her experience before making the film.
In 2007 and 2008 — following the release of my book, “Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids” — Congress held hearings on the issue, including testimony by Government Accountability Office investigators who’d looked into the programs and validated the testimony of survivors like Hilton.
Their stories — and those of parents whose children didn’t survive — include accounts of beatings, starvation, sexual abuse, months of solitary confinement, severe medical neglect, use of stress positions and emotional abuse aimed at complete humiliation. Some were, “forced to eat vomit, lie in urine and feces, forced to use toothbrushes to clean toilets and then on their teeth,” according to California Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, who led the hearings.
Miller added that someone who came to the sessions late could easily “think we were talking about human-rights abuses in Third World countries.” But no: these were stories of American kids. One of the survivors who testified later died by suicide — one of at least 100 students from the same disciplinary boarding school who would die after “graduating,” either by suicide or overdose. Survivor activism eventually led to its shutdown.
So how have these abuses been allowed to continue since at least the 1970s? For one, by claiming to be schools, the programs dodge the kinds of federal regulations that prevent psychiatric hospitals from using restraint and solitary confinement as punishment. Since they are private and not labeled as prisons, they don’t fall under that set of regulations, either — even though, as Hilton’s story shows, teens are locked in and usually recaptured if they try to run away. And, although corporal punishment of adult prisoners is illegal, it is permitted in these programs if they are located in one of the 19 states that still allow students to be paddled at school.
Miller proposed bipartisan legislation to regulate the industry after the hearings, which actually passed the House twice. But it never made it through the Senate — and teens today are little more protected than Hilton was, depending on state regulation and media pressure.
Child abuse doesn’t cure addiction, mental illness or teen rebellion — in fact, it exacerbates and may even cause these problems in some cases. We have proven treatments for teen mental illness and drug problems — none of which involve midnight kidnappings and most of which involve family therapy, at home.
It might be hard to have much sympathy for Paris Hilton, but her experiences show that these kinds of programs hurt everyone, even heiresses. No one, rich or poor, should ever have to suffer through the abuses of the troubled-teen industry again.