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This past summer, a couple in Northern California paid two imposing men to come into their home at 4 in the morning, handcuff their 17-year-old daughter and force her into a car headed for the airport. After months of threats, the parents had enrolled her in what's called a therapeutic wilderness program, where she would hike three to five miles a day with a 25-pound pack, learn to make a fire with two sticks and theoretically transform from a manipulative teenager who cursed out her mom and dad and had started failing in school back into a young woman they could live with. Six months later, the daughter still has nightmares about being taken from her bed in the middle of the night, but when recounting the story over the phone, her mother calmly said, "I would do it all over again in a heartbeat."
FOR THE RECORD:
Wilderness programs: A Nov. 14 article ("Tough Love, Tough Call") about parents deciding whether to send troubled children to therapeutic wilderness programs quoted Dr. Ron Glick as saying, "For a parent, taking this step can be like admitting they are an alcoholic. They are admitting they've failed as a parent." The article did not explicitly clarify that Glick was not calling the parents failures but, rather, was saying parents can feel as though they had failed. —
Parents in the South Bay relayed a similar story. They had found a large handful of unprescribed Xanax on their 16-year-old son's dresser, and suddenly the moody behavior and the days spent locked in his room started to make sense. Their son didn't want to go to rehab, he didn't believe it would work and he didn't want his parents to spend the money. He talked about running away to Portland, Ore. And so they too hired a transport service -- the son referred to them as "the big, scary men" -- and after the parents woke up their son (also at 4 in the morning) and told him that they loved him and that they were doing what they thought was best, they watched him pull out of the driveway in a car driven by strangers, the son's middle finger raised in the air.
There are times -- emotionally exhausting and agonizing times -- when parents realize that something in the family system has gone horribly awry and that for a kid's safety and future, the son or daughter is better off living somewhere else. It is a terrible decision to have to make -- one that is scary, expensive and humbling. So what makes a parent do it?
These tend not to be people who think normal adolescent challenges constitute a crisis. Sending a kid away can make the child feel abandoned, therapists say, so we're really looking only at parents pushed to an extreme response because of an extreme situation. Think drug addiction, promiscuous and unprotected sex, school truancy or the threat of suicide.
It is rare, but perhaps not as rare as one might think. One parent interviewed for this story described herself as "close with her kids." Another said that the family made a point to eat dinner together five nights a week. The parents were not divorced. They were not struggling financially. They were seemingly "normal," except they had run out of skills to deal with their deeply troubled children.
"People say you cannot send your kid away until you reach the point where you think they are not safe," said one mother, who, like every parent and child interviewed for this column, asked that her name not be used to protect her family's privacy. "For a parent to admit that someone can do a better job with the person you love best in the world is a very humbling place to be."
Psychologists said that on some level, deciding to send your kid away to be taken care of by strangers is admitting to a fundamental inadequacy. Your child desperately needs help, and you, the parent, are no longer in a position to help.
"For a parent, taking this step can be like admitting they are an alcoholic," said Dr. Ron Glick, a clinical psychologist who works with teenagers in Hermosa Beach. "They are admitting they've failed as a parent."
One mother felt judged by friends outside her immediate circle after she sent her son first to a wilderness program, then to a therapeutic boarding school.
"It changed our family dynamic, it changed our relationship with each other, with our other kids. You question everything about yourself, and it is very lonely," she said. "You feel like everyone in the neighborhood is looking at you, and they are looking at you."
People do question how a parent could possibly send her child away, said a mother from the Bay Area who sent a suicidal child to a treatment facility in Iowa in September.
"I think that was an unasked question that was implicitly there, because we hadn't advertised the depths to which our son had gone," she said. "But when we explained what we went through, they understood."
But, of course, horror stories about wilderness programs are swirling. Websites catalog the deaths of kids in residential programs, the tales of sadistic counselors and boot-camp conditions in which water and food are withheld as punishment. Just this past summer, 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen died on his first hike in a therapeutic wilderness program in Oregon. Investigators are still trying to determine the cause of death.
And there is the crippling expense: Sending an adolescent to a therapeutic boarding school or a therapeutic wilderness program (and often parents do both) can easily cost between $10,000 and $15,000 a month. Insurance almost never helps, and neither does the government.
Despite all this, the number of people sending their kids to wilderness therapy programs had been growing until the recession hit, said Douglas Bodin, chief executive of Bodin, a consulting group with offices in California and Utah that helps parents through the process of picking the best place for their child.
"If we've exhausted all other resources -- behavioral changes, testing, helping the parents change their parenting approach -- when everything else doesn't work, we ask, 'OK, can you effectively manage and keep the child safe?' " Glick said. "And if the answer is no, then they go to these programs."
Nobody is promising that once a kid returns from a wilderness program or a therapeutic boarding school that problems will be fixed.
"A lot of what my program did is allow people to communicate again," the teen Xanax abuser said. "Things will not be perfect afterwards, but things are more likely to be normal."
In the meantime, for most parents, the decision to send a kid away requires a leap of faith.
"You constantly question yourself, even after you've seen success," one mom said. "There is still a part of you, me, that would like him home, and yet I still realize we do not have the resources he needs. I can provide all the love in this world, but I don't have the skills to treat my son."