How to Save a Troubled Kid?

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With its simple, log-sided buildings spread out over 150 acres among the Ponderosa pines in a remote part of western Montana, Spring Creek Lodge Academy might pass as a rustic retreat for budget-minded travelers. But Mary and Randy Carben didn't make the trip there from their home in Bridgeview, Ill., for a vacation. They were at Spring Creek because it's where their son John had lived since the morning in June when the Carbens paid two handcuff-brandishing escorts to take their 17-year-old there. Despite its bucolic appearance, Spring Creek is a specialty boarding school that uses strict behavior-modification techniques to rehabilitate troubled kids. John, whose parents made the agonizing decision to commit him to the school after he punched his mother, had made progress since his arrival. And so, like the roughly 120 other parents who gathered last month in a barnlike room near the academy's entrance, the Carbens were waiting anxiously to see their child for the first time since they sent him away.

Debbie Norum, a program leader whose son went to a similar school, prepared the group for the visit. No gifts were allowed, she told them. "Your children need to understand that it is a privilege to live in your home and that you are the gift. This is not a vacation. This is the beginning of a lot of work." When the admonitions were finished, the lights were dimmed, and the syrupy melody of the Diana Ross ballad If We Hold On Together wafted through the room as Norum instructed the parents to form a circle, close their eyes and take deep breaths. "I'm inviting you to go back before the chaos, when you felt unconditional joy, when your child wanted to hug you. That child isn't gone," she assured them. As she spoke, 60 teens quietly filed into the room, eyes darting from face to face in search of familiar ones. "Now, parents, it's time to hold out your arms," Norum said. "Teens, see who's always held out their arms for you."


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John's eyes filled with tears when he saw his mom and dad and clenched them in a long three-way embrace. Sobs and smiles filled the room as other happy parents delighted in the changes they saw in their children. "The kids who have done well are so responsible and engaged. We see this as the road back for our family," said Tammy Swarbrick of Santa Clarita, Calif., who beamed as she and her husband prepared to see their son Daniel, 14.

Restoring family unity for households in which children have careened out of control is the express goal of Spring Creek and the six other behavior-modification programs affiliated with the nonprofit World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) that oversee these for-profit juvenile boot camps. They clearly fill a need; about 2,500 students are enrolled in WWASPS programs. Yet in recent years, most of the schools have come under attack on charges of abuse, including food and sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, alleged beatings and the deaths of at least two children. In September the association's Mexican affiliate Casa by the Sea, near Ensenada, was abruptly shut down after local authorities investigated the school for several cases of suspected abuse, which, WWASPS president Ken Kay said, were proved "unsubstantiated." Nevertheless, a panel sponsored by the National Institutes of Health issued a study last month that called "get tough" programs "ineffective" and possibly harmful. Said the panel's report: "Programs that seek to prevent violence through fear and tough treatment do not work."

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