Imagine you have taken a time machine back to when you were sixteen years old and in high school. After finishing your homework, you lie down in your childhood bedroom and drift off to sleep, processing yet another day of figuring out who you might become. Suddenly, you are woken up by strangers in the middle of the night who take you away from everything you have known with little to no information of where you are going.
Once you arrive at a secluded, unfamiliar place, you are stripped of your phone, belongings and connection to anyone you know in the outside world and put in isolation. An adult brings you an unknown sedative that you are forced to swallow. You are told you must be monitored, losing your right to privacy even when using the bathroom or showering. Staff members regularly sexually, psychologically, and physically abuse you and the other kids through strangling, beating, use of restraints, forced heavy labor, and food or sleep deprivation. Any phone call home is also monitored. This may sound like a nightmare with a plot similar to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” but for sixteen-year-old Paris Hilton, this was her life while attending Provo Canyon School.
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Provo Canyon School is just one of the many boarding schools within the “Troubled Teen Industry,” an unregulated billion-dollar industry that is facing lawsuits and allegations of severe abuse. Paris Hilton was just one of over 50,000 American children sent to these “troubled teen” boarding schools each year by well-intentioned parents. For detailed accounts of what they are like, read BBC’s interview with twenty troubled teen survivors here.
In my own hometown, it was not uncommon to hear through the grapevine that a peer had been taken in the middle of the night and sent away by their parents. Even I was almost sent to an outdoor wilderness version of these programs. Most parents are unaware that these private teen residential treatment companies, or the billion-dollar “Troubled Teen Industry (TTI)”, are abusive in their approach.
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These “therapy” stay-away camps advertise themselves to parents as being a last resort to help their “troubled” child. Yet, most of these teens are struggling with the trials and tribulations of high school on top of undiagnosed mental health and/or consequent substance abuse issues. Ironically, most of these programs are not licensed in developmental psychology and are therefore not even equipped to support teens struggling with their mental health. These “rehabilitation centers” then end up inflicting more trauma on teens through the use of punishment, isolation, control, and negative reinforcement, which have been psychologically proven to not work.
For example, disciplinary intervention has been calculated to increase the tendency for juvenile criminal re-offense by 8 percent, whereas counseling has reduced the chance of re-offense by 13 percent. These residential treatment centers recklessly neglect the well-being of their participants, and at least 145 children have died from preventable causes in these facilities within the last three decades. At least 62 of the deaths were from asphyxiation or injury caused by restraint.
After over two decades of feeling silenced for fear of being disbelieved, and possibly re-traumatized, Paris Hilton bravely shared her truth in her new YouTube documentary This is Paris. She details the pressures she faced as a young girl coming of age in the public eye as she dealt with an eating disorder, sexual abuse, substance abuse, insomnia, anxiety, trust issues and being simultaneously hyper-sexualized and infantilized by the media. The aim of her new documentary is to reclaim her story and stand up against this abuse. She largely blames herself for the persona she has inhabited up until this point, but it’s worth it to ask ourselves as her audience — how much of her persona did we as a public project onto a young girl who was secretly suffering underneath it all? Paris’s experiences remind us that abuse is easily normalized and hidden, especially when it is happening to children. Additionally, it can happen to anyone — even those with extreme privilege.
Paris is using her privilege to shine a light on this issue through creating an online nonprofit platform for submitting and reading survivor testimonies, organizing a silent protest with former students of Provo Canyon like herself, attending social justice programs in Washington D.C., and promoting bills on the state and federal level. (Watch her testimony here.)
There is currently no federal regulation of the Troubled Teen Industry, so we are lucky to have Paris championing for action which has helped her to heal as well. She is finally able to sleep and in a recent interview she states, “I just think back to when I was a little girl and just how painful and terrifying it was to be there, and I know that me back then would be so proud of the woman I am today to actually have stood up for myself and for everyone and really just using my platform to do good…. My heart breaks for anyone in there, but I’m so happy that using my voice has saved some children from having to go through any more torture.” Hilton reminds us that it is never too late to take charge of the darkness within our past in order to allow the light of joy within us to shine through the present and future. The young lives brought into “troubled teen” facilities must be protected and uplifted so that they are also afforded bright futures.
For resources on how to help see below:
#BreakingCodeSilence.net is a social movement organized by survivors of institutional child abuse and activists to raise awareness of the problems in the Troubled Teen Industry, and the need for reform. They have resources for parents, advocacy work, and educational information.
Donate or Start Your Own Chapter with the National Youth Rights Association.
In-depth Study of the Troubled Teen Industry and how it works.
Read: “Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp-A tragic accident exposes the dangers of an out-of-control billion-dollar industry.”
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