Wilderness and Transports: View From the Other Side

The feedback seems to be huge, and perhaps that’s was the goal for Sulome Anderson, writer for The Atlantic Magazine. Sensationalism is the overall tone of Andersons article “When Wilderness Boot Camps Take Tough Love Too Far” as she presents a one-sided view of wilderness therapy for at-risk teenagers. I want to take this opportunity to point out significant short-comings in her article because I cannot in good conscience leave readers thinking Andersons vantage point is the tell all.


It is not.

I actually spoke with Anderson on May the 15th of this year regarding what she said was her interest in writing about wilderness camps and transporting teens there. So I spent about an hour chatting with Anderson about SafePassage that day. I went into detail explaining our intervention based model for transporting at-risk adolescents and walked her through the process. Most importantly we spoke about why utilizing a Transport Team is the optimum way for parents to have their at-risk teens delivered safely to a wilderness treatment program.

Anderson and I continued our conversation…

...we discussed training: crisis management intervention; para-verbal communication; non-verbal behavior; and personal safety are just a few of the criteria SafePassage transporters ascribe to. We talked about flying with a student vs. driving them to the Destination of parental choice and the factors that govern that decision.

...we discussed Age of Majority: Minor being defined as one who is considered to be below the line of demarcation which signifies adulthood in the eyes of the law; how this is not the same in every State; and, how this translates to a Minor being subjected to parental decisions. Yes, teenagers under the Age of Majority are Minors.

Wilderness, I told Anderson, is not a punishment, but an opportunity for change. “Travel safely,” I said as we ended our conversation and Anderson headed for RedCliff Ascent.

From the get-go Anderson has the reader believe that Wilderness Camps are synonymous with Boot Camps. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you take the time to read through the Red Cliff Ascent website, you will be able to compare and contrast the differences between Wilderness Camps and Boot Camps. This provides parents and guardians with accurate information for the critical decisions they are making.

Anderson refers to a “crop of students” she encountered at RedCliff Ascent. Let me stop you now and make sure you understand, according to my friends who are wilderness staff, Students who attend wilderness treatment programs are not referred to as crops. They are struggling teenagers in young adult bodies who, through some unfortunate or unforeseen twist on their road of life, are in need of a therapeutic component to their education. The Destination where they find themselves has been, in most cases, chosen out of careful consideration and is providing an opportunity for change. These “crops” are feeling, thinking human beings in crisis; not vegetation waiting to be harvested.

Anderson focuses her attention on a “heavy-set, red-faced girl” who is crying and wants to go home. Did it ever occur to Anderson that this girl may be crying and begging to get her way out of habit? Did Anderson consider the possibility that this girl may be a master manipulator and this is one of her techniques? Odds are that this drama Anderson is witnessing is what this girl has become accustomed to producing on cue, at home, in order to get her way. Remember she is at RedCliff Ascent for a reason, not because her parents wanted to go on holiday without her. Crying as a manipulation technique in order to get her way is something this teen will learn is not an acceptable behavior in real society. RedCliff Ascent staff, as well as other wilderness programs, train their staff to help this type teen shed the baggage of resorting to this infantile, drama-fest and learn more acceptable behaviors to accomplish the same goal. Parents as well as professionals in this industry know that drama is a major food group for many teen age girls. Anderson apparently did not get this message.

Andersons article seems to make the reader believe wilderness is only for teens that make wrong choices. Not so. Many teens find themselves in crisis because they are depressed because their best friend was killed in a car accident, or because their parent’s divorced and they are struggling to simply stay emotionally afloat. Wilderness is about so much more than just being a stop-over place for teens. It’s about working with teens, who are troubled by many different issues, helping them to identify why they are struggling; and walking with them as they seek to work through those issues; learn better coping skills; and help set their feet on a better path. Wilderness is good place for this process to begin. Through group accountability and one-on-one sessions with a therapist teens go from crying in a corner, to busting a fire from almost nothing. This therapy helps put life into perspective for teens in crisis and it unfolds for each student differently.

As it has been told to me wilderness programs in general aim to have a model for treatment that allows each student to progress at an individualized rate of speed, so to say, and that rate is based on what each one’s own emotional and physical abilities and capabilities will allow. That’s why some stay 4 weeks and others stay 12 weeks.

Can you say Montessori?  Wilderness is akin to the Montessori model for education, but adds a therapeutic concentration.

I feel compelled at this juncture to point out that wilderness treatment programs as well as therapeutic schools establish their campus as a “drug-free zone” so they can work with troubles teens who are users and abusers of all types of substances. The only way that the campus can be maintained as drug-free is through examination of incoming persons and personal effects. Each wilderness has individualized their method for searches. Now before you get all weird on me, think about it. Once the campus is sanitized and is considered to be a drug-free zone, and at-risk teens, some of which are substance abusers, are continually being admitted to the program, how else would you suggest they keep drugs away? It takes more than simply asking a user to empty their pockets to know with certainty that they are not contaminating the campus.

Several of my colleagues weighed in on this Anderson article throughout week. We talked about the references made to ongoing investigations regarding unsubstantiated allegations made toward a very good wilderness treatment program, Second Nature Blue Ridge and how it seems inappropriate to share dirty laundry before the truth has been ascertained. Otherwise, is that considered to be gossip? Well, at the very least, that certainly taints the waters. Lies are told when the truth would do better… and bad things happen to good people. That’s just the sad truth. We have already established that teenagers are master manipulators; that they often lie or exhibit behaviors that are unacceptable just to get their way. Did Anderson stop to consider that the teen that made the allegations might be lying? It’s hard to know, so why not simply hold off on speculation; that never accomplishes anything productive.

We discussed the part of Andersons article that makes mention of unconfirmed teen death counts related to accidents that occurred in therapeutic environments, but since she does not tell us how many struggling teenagers attended wilderness during that same time frame, or the numbers of accidental deaths of teenagers at large, we have no way to accurately pinpoint the percentages of accidental deaths per total wilderness population to accidental deaths in the teen population in the United States. So instead of making it seem like wilderness camps are a horrible dangerous place for teens, let’s compare apples to apples instead of adding to that pile of dirty laundry.

It is a very sad occurrence when a child dies – regardless of the circumstances surrounding the event. Furthermore, when that incident occurs in an environment where professionals have the responsibility for taking care of the child it becomes a devastating tragedy.  It is something each of us in the industry think about every day; hope we don’t have to talk about, and, pray that it does not happen on our watch. If there was a way we could prevent future accidental deaths from occurring in while students are in treatment, we would do it in a heartbeat.

As an industry, we continually work to improve the quality of the service provided. We do this is through being in compliance with State Regulations; aligning ourselves with associations such as NATSAP, National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, and ascribing to high standards of practice. Do we need Federal Regulations as well? No. The Feds should leave the regulating to the States and focus on the roads and borders.

There will always be a few that come along and mess up the good by claiming they have a newer, better, shortcut model for treatment or by finding a loophole in the law in which to hide.  That technique, however, is not sacrosanct to the mental health industry: it invades every corner of society. Creating a method to achieve a higher profit margin by using a lower grade of material; trading off unskilled or untrained labor for positions which credentialed professionals should be employed is something that, no matter how many regulations are put in place, will continue to arise. Of course this is wrong and that is why it is so important for parents and guardians to do their homework before they rush ahead with placement.

Excuse me…what did you just say? Did I really hear you say that you work all the time; your situation has already risen to crisis mode; and, you don’t have an extra few hours for your due diligence? Then hire a professional Life Coach or Educational Consultant that is familiar with the therapeutic industry and is in the practice of placement for struggling teens. Members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association make it their personal concern to travel to therapeutic schools, wilderness camps and other therapeutic environments  to become familiar with the therapeutic model of the program or school; they take time to get to know the counselors, therapists and staff at the individual locations and become familiar with the specialized areas of treatment that each provides. This practice arms the consultant with accurate information for student placement; appropriately matching the student with the therapist at the program. Sometimes this is referred to as a fit between the student and therapist and program.

There is one more thing that is weighing heavy on my mind that is not referenced in Andersons article: the abuse Program Staff are forced to take from some out-of-control students that are brought to their campus even though those students are not an appropriate fit. Why does this happen? Sometimes there are unidentified underlying issues that rise up as the layers are peeled away during therapy; but often times the reason is that the parents do not provide enough information about their son or daughter during the application process to the receiving program for an accurate evaluation of the student to be made. As a result, the struggling teen is placed in a program that is not designed to facilitate treatment for the issues at hand.

I call it withholding.

Sometimes parents misrepresent the situation with their at-risk teen. Either they are acting in haste to get placement and inadvertently leave out information from the application; or, well I don’t want to make any unfounded accusations, but I have had more than one parent in my career say to me that they did not believe we would come help them if they told us everything that was going on with their teenager.Get the picture?

We ask questions because we as transporters need to know what we are walking in to and we want to be able to provide agents who specialize in dealing with the issues your teenager is struggling with in order to best assist your family during your time of crisis. Admission personnel ask questions because they have a model for treatment and they are trained to ascertain if your son or daughter will be an appropriate fit for their program. If parents misrepresent your teen’s issues, the staff will have no way of knowing that their program is not equipped to provide for your teen appropriately until after your student has already arrived on campus. This sets off a series of problems that affects the population, the staff and subsequently this mis-placed, struggling teen often times the teen lashes out at the staff and/or the teen population through verbal and physical abuse.

There are good programs providing different levels of care for students struggling with issues of all kinds, but every program is not a suitable fit for every teen in crisis. Therefore it is up to the parents to be forthright when they are seeking placement so their at-risk teenager can receive the proper treatment in the proper environment. No reputable program wants your at-risk teenager unless together they are a fit. Tell the Admission counselor your teen’s history and let them make the determination. Do not try to manipulate the system.

We are not here to pass judgment, but we cannot provide the right kind of help if you withhold information. Remember, you are looking for the right therapist to work with your out-of-control angel; just because your friends teen went to a particular wilderness camp does not mean that is the correct placement for yours…even if they got into the same trouble…together. Get help making the best choice for treatment.

Answer me this Kemosabe: why was the wilderness success was played down? Do we know how many teen lives were saved by time spent in a wilderness program; therapy received and new coping skills learned? Anderson only talks about one success story and then she neglects to mention if the at-risk teenager is receiving after-care or if he went home on a parent-teen contract. These are key elements for continued successes and positive personal growth following wilderness; these methods of ongoing accountability are also recommended by many wilderness therapists and counselors.

Anderson did not do her homework. She left the reader with the impression that transporters are goons and transport companies are about forcible delivery of students. This is a gross misrepresentation of the vital role transport companies have in the process. SafePassage Transport Teams see to the safe transport of at-risk and struggling teens; we are also an advocate for the student during the transport; we help them stay focused on moving forward in a positive direction so they arrive at the Destination in a place of acceptance for the opportunity that has been provided for them. This is not easy, but it is a key element in at-risk teens having a smooth transition from home to treatment.

On a personal note: I am a supporter of the Constitution and I do understand with great clarity Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press. However, I do not see the need to print such expletives as the “F-bomb”, even when quoted outright. It seems to have been used for shock value in Andersons piece and the fact that the editor has allowed the obscenity to remain in the copy serves only to disrespect the reader and add to the sensationalistic tone of the article. If this caliper of copy is the new standard for The Atlantic Magazine then I will find new reading material.

Lane Taylor