I recently conducted an interview with children's rights activist Bill Boyles about the troubled teen industry.* While we were able to cover a good deal of ground in discussing Bill's experiences in some of these institutions, time was limited and we didn't get to discuss the overall industry nor did we get to discuss activist efforts to expose what goes on. So I wanted to bring in somebody to fill in that gap.
Lillian Speerbrecker is the editor of the website SafeTeenSchools.org. The website is dedicated to "keeping children safe by exposing residential treatment centers/private boarding schools and their continued abuse against the children in their cafe."
Lillian, welcome. So first, let's discuss how you became involved in troubled teen activism. I understand you are an alumna of two institutions owned by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP). How did you end up at said institutions?
My family is extremely dysfunctional, when my mother and brother got sent to prison I had a hard time dealing with them being away so I started to act out. My step mother and father then decided to send me to a boarding facility in Mexico.
I hear ya. Since you've gotten involved in activism surrounding these sorts of institutions, I'm assuming you saw things at this institution people don't know about. What did you see there that you think people should be aware of?
Well I've been strip searched, restrained, hit with an object, had a staff threaten to reach in my underwear, was in isolation for a month with the lights on 24/7. But on top of all of that, the psychological abuse is the worse. These facilities believe in "break the child, then reprogram them," when it should be about love and support, sadly it's not.
Of course. These places make bullies, to even "advance" in these places you must bully and snitch on other students. You are constantly under watch. You are made to feel as if you are nothing. They tell you that your family hates you because of your actions as a child. I was told my rape was my fault (because apparently to them) I'm a slut and I was asking for it. Not that it is important but, I was a tomboy at home. No matter what you do to try to get out it isn't good enough.
First I was too "ghetto", it's not my fault I grew up in a bad area. Then I was to much of a tomboy. So I just became a ghost and stopped talking. That wasn't good enough for them so in an attempt to embarrass me they made me put my hair in pigtails and sing Britney Spears in front of our group of girls. I talk with my hands, I was made to keep my hands in my pocket when I talked, I was called fat when it was the food at the facility that made me that way. Then if everyone didn't like you there was no way you were going to advance in the program to get to go home. I'm not the type of person to be forced to be fake. I wouldn't stand for it.
When you think about it, it's really an emotional sort of bullying...but it's by adult authority figures towards children, so people consider it acceptable. It is not.
Let's discuss your activism on this front. So first off, you went to WWASP institutions, I went to a place called Hidden Lake Academy. My understanding is that, as difficult as HLA was for us -- and it was difficult -- it wasn't as difficult as WWASPS. And then there are other institutions which are "softer," shall we say, there's a wide range of these places. What exactly is the troubled teen industry, can you give us an idea of the different types of institutions parents might have to be skeptical of, that are exploiting their fears and their children for profit?
The Troubled Teen Industry consists of boarding schools, wilderness programs, boot camps etc. The thing they all have in common is they are marketed toward parents with "bad kids". They clailm they are therapeutic. I'm sorry about your time in Hidden Lake Academy and yes both facilities I went to were WWASP schools.
Recently, staff sexually taking advantage of children that has been coming to light. Events at Terria Blanca Ranch in New Mexico where the children were shackled and beaten. The death of Corey Foster at Leak and Watts. Was jumped on by staff members. Casa was shut down for child abuse when I was there in 2004. The list goes on and on.
Folks can see more about many incidents at your website. Actually, it was thanks to your website I saw this excellent article in the New York Times and I encourage folks to check it out: http://www.nytimes.com/2013... .
So let's say parents are having trouble with their teens and an ed consultant or somebody recommends one of these institutions. What should they look into and what alternative treatments might be available?
I actually have a list of alternative solutions on the website. We feel it is best for children to stay within their community. There are plenty of options for parents without sending their children to unregulated boarding facilities.
Alright, and what can people do to support awareness? I understand there's legislation in the works, e.g. the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2013? Are there online communities people can keep up with that keep tabs on the industry?
Yes there is current legislation to make these facilities regulated for the safety of the children. There are many other organizations that try to bring awareness towards these facilities. The main thing people can do is be aware what is going on, do their research and keep others informed of what is going on. There are many Facebook groups as well.
Thank you for taking the time as well! I would like to say one thing.
It only takes one person to stand up for what is right. Mental, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse against children, is what we try to prevent. You can make a change. You can help. Stay informed and inform others. These facilities are for profit, they only care about the money. They treat children like garbage and parade around that they are actually helping these children. These places cause more harm than anything. Please do your research. Also make sure you follow our website www.safeteenschools.org.