An Invisible Civil Rights Crisis: Interview with Bill Boyles

An Invisible Civil Rights Crisis: Interview with Bill Boyles
  • Discrimination against children -- or "childism," as the late academic Elisabeth Young-Bruehl sought to brand this specific form of prejudice -- is a civil rights problem in America. Parents sometimes feel that all their kids need is a bit of "tough love" and unfortunately, that "tough love" can transform into physical and emotional abuse.

    One phenomenon that many people are unaware of is how parents from the "tough love" school have actually outsourced their responsibilities to (often exorbitantly expensive) behavioral modification institutes in the middle of nowhere which likely promise that after months or years in their institutions, the kids will almost certainly come out 'fixed.' But this promise is a scam.
    I call it the invisible civil rights crisis because kids are being given bad treatment and thus being emotionally abused, but as they're cut off from contact with anybody who isn't either from the institution or trusted by the institution, they are invisible to the outside world. You may know somebody who has been sent to one of these institutions. If you know a teenager who has disappeared, his parents say he's at "boarding school," and none of his friends have been able to get in touch with him or get details about the institution he's at, his parents have likely shipped him off. For my Orthodox Jewish friends reading this, you possibly came across the rather unfortunate story in 2008 about the boy who had been unjustly sent to Tranquility Bay. I attended one of these institutions myself for 26 months.

    I wanted to begin a discussion so folks can get an important perspective on these places outside what they tell parents. We are lucky to have here somebody who is quite experienced with and knowledgeable about many of these institutions, activist Bill Boyles. By way of introduction, Bill is a founding member of the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY) from Orlando, FL. At 14, he was forcibly escorted to Brightway Adolescent Hospital in St. George, UT, where he stayed briefly before being sent to another facility, Paradise Cove in Western Samoa. After spending 22 months in Paradise Cove, he was transferred to yet another program, Casa By The Sea in Ensenada, Mexico. He spent 8 more months in Casa By The Sea before graduating shortly before his 17th birthday. All of the above programs were under the umbrella organization, World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP). He discovered CAFETY one night after deciding to try and find old friends from his WWASP days and has never looked back. He works for the abolishment of abusive programs and the establishment of youth rights.

    Bill, I think when people first hear about these institutions, they're curious and have a lot of questions. First off, they like to assume that parents wouldn't just send kids off if the school staff didn't possess some expertise and the kids hadn't exhibited some terrible pattern of behavior. Can you discuss those points? Would you say the staff at these institutions are generally trained properly and the kids deserve what they get?
  • Well, I think it's important to note the difference between what the parents think about the staff and the truth. I am an optimist. While I know there are some bad parents out there that don't care and just want to be rid of their child and their parental responsibilities, I'd like to think the majority of parents that send children to these schools do so thinking their child is going to receive the best treatment from qualified professionals.

    This couldn't be further from the truth. Most of these programs use high school graduates or even dropouts as staff, pay them minimum wage, and have no trained therapeutic professionals on hand. Even in cases where they do have therapists or psychiatrists, the fact is that "tough love" and "confrontational therapy" are far from widely-accepted, evidence-based treatment models. These were experimental models developed in the 1970s and 1980s that largely did not pan out and were abandoned by the mainstream therapeutic community. I think these schools use them because they appeal to parents who, deep in their heart of hearts, want to punish their children for the defiance they've been exhibiting.

    The important thing to note here is that many of these treatment centers blatantly state that they are not providing treatment of any kind in the contracts they have parents sign. Unfortunately, parents either do not read these contracts or allow slick salespeople to slime past their objections and misgivings about these types of clauses.
  • I agree with you. I think most of these parents want their kids fixed and just sort of assume that the program will work because of a priori biases. It's important for people to understand that's not necessarily the case. Even mainstream mental health treatments are rife with issues the professionals themselves often are the first to acknowledge. How much moreso these institutions which operate under the radar using controversial methodologies which have not been proven efficacious. Time magazine's neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz did some excellent work exposing what goes on.

    This world is foreign to many of our readers, so I'd like to -- if we can -- give them as much of an introduction as one can without them experiencing it themselves. Let's start from the beginning, with why parents decide to send their kids to these institutions. I've heard a tremendous range myself, but you've been more involved. What are the range of issues you've heard that drive parents to send their kids to these places, from the most benign to the most horrific?
  • Wow. That's a big question.In the past, it seems that defiance, non conformity to religious or other familial values, and drug or alcohol abuse were the prime motivating factors behind a placement of this nature.

    However, these programs have grown in scope and become much more savvy when it comes to convincing parents. They now often claim they can help children with a range of problems, from the ones listed above, to serious mental issues like bipolar and depression, to learning problems like ADD/ADHD, to the treatment of autism spectrum diagnoses, to pornography, sex and "gaming", and "internet" addictions.

    The best part is, they will even give your child a diagnoses over the phone based on a telephone conversation with you, the parent, by asking you some basic questions about behavior. This should be a HUGE red flag. Would you listen to an oncologist if he talked to you on the phone, asked you about your symptoms, and diagnosed you with cancer and prescribed chemotherapy? And let's be honest...these treatment measures are at least as drastic as surgery or chemotherapy.

    Children die every year in these places, from causes that were very preventable had the schools not been abusive or negligent.
  • It sounds like there isn't anything in the DSM they won't diagnose...and then say, hey, we've got a program for that!

    The measures are indeed extremely drastic. For a kid to be ripped from his home at 12-17 years old to live in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of other teens deemed troubled for an extended period of time is a difficult, and sometimes even traumatizing experience. So this leads well to what I wanted to discuss next: How do kids get to these schools? I recall some stories from peers of mine how their parents had pretended they were taking them to a weekend retreat, a Hogwarts-type of fantasy where boarding school would be "great fun", or a connecting flight to Disneyworld. Perhaps you could elaborate on similar stories you have heard. But also, we mentioned earlier that you were "forcibly escorted." How does the escorting process work? Who comes, when do they come, do you know they're coming to escort, etc.?
  • inxsmh12 Added by: Mark Pelta
    So glad u are talking about this
  • Great job guys!

    For more info on WWASP Programs please visit
  • For myself, the program recommended an "escort service" to my parents. My parents contacted this agency, which sent three large men to our house very early in the morning. They woke me up by surprise, handcuffed me, strap tasers to me feet, and then dragged me across the country to Utah. This seems to be a very common method of getting kids to the program. In fact, I'd say this "kidnapping" is the most common method.
  • Indeed, that's consistent with what I've heard too. I've also heard if you're lucky, they may tell you if you're good, they'll get you McDonalds on the way to the program. But you have no idea that you're about to be taken away from home. Folks arrive at all times during the year.

    Now, the program I attended -- the now defunct Hidden Lake Academy -- was an intense experience for me, but I hear the WWASP institutions are even harder. So let's discuss what happens when you get there. We can discuss generically how these programs work or you can discuss your own experience, whatever you're more comfortable with.

    So you get there and...then what? What staff members do you meet? How do they introduce you into the program?
  • Well, when I personally went to WWASP, they used a short-term facility in St. George, Utah to inure kids to the rules systems and such. Generally, they have someone who has been there longer and is trusted sit down with you and explain the rules. Then they watch you very, very carefully. Some programs have different rules, such as not allowing new kids to speak at all for a time or starting them right off in a very strict and strenuous regime of rules and forced labor.
  • We were strip searched when we came in.

    So there's a student who explains it? That's interesting, I didn't know that. We had an Intake Department whose job it was to introduce us to the system. I assume like us you have nothing when you get there except clothes and maybe books (albeit I was personally banned from reading anything outside of school for about a year since they wanted me to interact with my peers more. But I'm not sure if you even had books?). . -- no money, music players, video games, phones, etc.

    You speak to the regime of rules and labor. What's the daily schedule like?
  • The daily schedule is typically intense and regimented. It varies from place to place, but generally includes common elements:. A typical schedule in WWASP might be something like this: Wake up early, forced exercise, breakfast, school, more forced exercise, group therapy, school, lunch, more forced exercise, watching an educational video ("Drugs are bad, m'kay?"), school, shower, dinner, school, something else "therapeutic", bedtime.
  • So you wake up about what time?

    And then when you say forced exercise, some people might think you mean 20 jumping jacks or something. What might that entail?
  • Oh man, we would wake up very early. I think around 6ish. Forced exercise, or "skills", as WWASP calls it, would mean different things. Yes, the morning session when we first woke up and did a head count might be pretty easy, maybe 50 jumping jacks, 50 pushups. Just a little something to get the blood pumping. But the later skills period could be much more intense. It varied depending on which staff was running it, but 50-100 pushups where you would have to hold yourself just off the ground for several seconds each, then maybe 100 "six-inch killer" leglifts, 100 regular leglifts, 100 situps, bearcrawls, duckwalks, sprinting, squats, it was about 30 minutes of the most painful exercises they could think of making you do, and if you couldn't perform, you got in very serious trouble. And this, of course, wasn't even when they were using it to punish you. I literally heard and saw a kid blow a hernia during a punishment skills session. We were doing leglifts and he started moaning and saying he couldn't do any more. They threatened him with isolation and losing his levels, and he kept going. Then came a loud pop, he fell over screaming. They dragged him off to isolation. Later, they realized he had a massive hernia and ended up having to have surgery. This was not an isolated incident; hernias were very common in Paradise Cove.

    Other forced exercise in Samoa included forcing us to swim in the ocean, which sounds awesome, but the sinks and kitchen sinks and showers all discharged right into that small cove where we were swimming untreated, and even the septic tank emptied into that same water. The water was also full of dangerous fish like scorpionfish and crown-of-thorns starfish, as well as sea urchins and other stuff not fun to step on, and we often had no masks or shoes to wear out. My first week there, I came within inches of stepping on a crown-of-thorns and that could have been very serious. Another student saw me and shoved me off at the last second, saving me from a very painful and potentially life-threatening sting.

    The thing to remember is this: almost everything that was done to us, or that we were forced to do, was intended to be unpleasant and punitive. If you were overtly enjoying it, they would take it away or use the threat of doing so against you, and whatever it got replaced with was much, much worse.
  • Wow. I want to ask you more about the punishment sessions soon, including isolation, but for now let's move to meals and school.

    What type of meals did you have? Were food amounts limited? What type of qualifications did the teachers have for school and were classes like normal school classes?
  • Food is an interesting matter. Even among WWASP schools, the food quality and rules involving it vary widely. Generally it was poor quality, and not very nutritious, but just how poor varied widely. In a few of the WWASP schools, notably in Paradise Cove and Tranquility Bay in Jamaica, the food was terribly bad and not nutritious at all. It was generally fairly small portions, and leaned heavily to starchy foods like bread and rice, especially in Samoa. In other programs, the food was better, but better in this case is somewhere around what you might expect to be served in a jail or similar facility.

    The rules regarding food also varied. In Samoa, sometimes you could have seconds if you could choke them down and there was extra. You were also not required to eat anything more than one piece of bread a day. In other programs, you were forced to eat a certain amount of your food, generally something like 50 percent of each meal. The amount varied from place to place. I think the difference there was that Samoa was an all-male program, so eating disorders were not really something the program was concerned about, but in the all-female and coed programs, eating disorders were an issue. Interestingly, many of those programs also had a rule forbidding anyone to use the bathroom for an hour after eating, to discourage purging.

    As for school, in WWASP programs, you taught yourself. There were no teachers in the American sense of the word. The staff that did run the schooling would probably be more accurately called "proctors,"or rarely, "tutors." They basically ensured students did not cheat on work or tests or talk or do anything besides talk. I am not aware of any of them having any training or certifications as a teacher.

    Basically, you would go into school, and decide which subject you wanted to study. Then you would check out the appropriate textbook from the book room, and begin working. Basically, you just read the work, sometimes you had to do some work from the questions in the book, and when you felt you had a good grasp on the first chapter, you put the book away and went and checked out the first chapter test.
    You did the test, then went back to the book and did chapter two, and so on til you finished the subject. Any test you did not pass with at least an 80 percent, you were required to retake until you did pass. If you had trouble, there were really no resources. Occasionally, you could get some help from a fellow student who had passed the class, but that was pretty rare. Essentially, you just taught yourself. Sink or swim.
  • I apologize if you've answered this before but, how do parents not know the truth about these institutions. In their heyday is it just that the internet wasn't as accessible as it is today? Or do they not believe the testimonies from people who've been through the institutions?

    With a bunch of schools closing down, is there a downtrend in their availability and popularity? Or is it still a successful industry presenting dangers to children today?
  • Emily Added by: Mark Pelta
    I have a similar question to George's. I've spend many hours thinking about the psychological state a parent must be in, in order to consent to sending their child to an abusive program, sometimes despite evidence that these institutions are abusive. Are there specific techniques that programs use to manipulate parents into admitting their children, and then keeping them there? Or, are the parents simply so desperate for a solution that they refuse to honor any evidence revealing that the programs do more harm than good? In my situation, my parents placed complete trust in one educational consultant and refused to do any further research.

    Also, could you say something about students who develop PTSD, or what is essentially Stockholm syndrome? There seems to be a small, but meaningful number of students who claim that their program helped them, yet display post traumatic type symptoms upon graduation.
  • Addressing the issue of parents not knowing, the truth is that in WWASP's prime the internet barely existed at all, and it wasn't the always-on fountain of any and all information it is today. To top it off, I don't know of any websites that were really speaking out about the abuse for many years. Fornits and Antiwwasp were the first couple, and they didn't start appearing until around the middle of the naughts. That's when I got involved in advocacy. I think it's important to remember that many parents heard (and still do hear) about the program from friends who have themselves drank the Koolaid, as it were, and may have children who have just emerged from the program. These kids are under serious threat of homelessness, or worse, getting sent back, so they mouth the party line right up til their 18th birthday. In my case, family friends had sent their oldest son, a little older than me, to Samoa and he had just come home singing the praises of the program. Little did they know that by the time my folks were about to send me three months later, he was already back on meth and smack and basically up to all the same old tricks.
  • I remember when I found Fornits, I felt like I had an oasis in the desert. I don't know WWASP's relationship with them, but I know my alma mater was tight with educational consultants and they would advise parents to go to places like HLA.

    So can you tell us about the group therapy and the counselors? I think when a lot of people think group therapy, they think of an open space where students share their experiences and counselors give encouragement. As I discussed with Emily, that was not my experience at our school. Was it yours? What were the counselors like and how did the students treat each other?
  • Well, in the WWASP programs i went to, there were no counselors. We just kind of gave each other "feedback." It was pretty much a joke. In Samoa, we would often spend the time playing games like "Mafia" instead of doing anything at all therapy-related. When we DID take it seriously, the results could be disastrous. Imagine a group of teenage boys, in an incredibly harsh environment that whets you to a razor edge, then further trained in making vicious insights into one another, just emotionally ripping into each other like a pack of rabid dogs.
  • What is there to say in response to that? This really is, ultimately, a business to these people...and ultimately, a scam taking advantage of children at their most disadvantaged.

    I think that about covers the gist of the day-to-day schedule, so let's go into other factors that were part and parcel of the WWASP experience. Earlier you mentioned a punishment skills session. What was one punished for and how did the punishment system work?