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When Tyler Oakley was 15 years old, he fell asleep in his Boulder home thinking about the coming holidays. It was December 20, 2018, and his house was cluttered with Christmas decorations. His biggest worry as he closed his eyes was getting through his Spanish final the next day.
Sometime around 2 a.m., Oakley woke to find two men hovering over his bed. He panicked, jumped up, and reached for his phone, but it wasn’t there. Neither was his skateboard.
The men were not burglars, though. He knew this because they stood flanked by his uncle and aunt, his longtime guardians. One was a larger, burly man who looked ex-military. The other was smaller and had a calmer disposition. Only one explanation for the situation popped into the teenager’s head: He’d recently been smoking and drinking with his friends, even dabbling in cocaine and psychedelics. Were these friends of his uncle’s, staging an intervention?
They weren’t. The men simply told Oakley they were “transporting” him. To where, he didn’t know. Neither the men nor his aunt or uncle said much else.
Oakley refused, but the two men issued an ultimatum: There are two ways this can go. Either you come of your own volition—or we’re going to take it into our own hands. The teen relented. They restrained his arms anyway and led him to a dark passenger van outside. The door slid shut, and the engine turned over.
Frustrated, scared, and confused, Oakley’s mind raced as he considered possible scenarios. He had heard of lockdown facilities for troubled teens. Was that where he was going? He peppered the men with questions but received only vague answers. After a couple of stops, a change in vehicle, and more driving, the men delivered Oakley to the Utah backcountry.
For the next three months, he would take part in a wilderness therapy program called Second Nature. Cut off from all outside contact, Oakley would backpack in the Uinta Basin, sometimes in deep snow, with a handful of other teenagers and Second Nature staff. The only reprieve from hiking and setting up camp was a weekly meeting with a therapist.
Will I be home for Christmas? he had asked the two men in the van that first night. Possibly, they said, but that was just a line. Oakley wouldn’t return home to Colorado for more than two years.
Oakley’s story isn’t uncommon, and it isn’t new. Since at least the 1970s, teenagers across America have been whisked to wilderness therapy programs, often against their wills—“gooned,” colloquially—and then ushered into aftercare residential facilities, a scenario that can go on for months, if not years.
Originally founded by psychologists, faith groups, and nonprofits, among other entities, many wilderness programs started in the West, particularly in Utah, where there is boundless access to public land. These early programs, which became part of what many now refer to as the “troubled teen industry,” were often run by underqualified therapists and largely went unregulated, even though some of them received state funding as repositories for kids who’d run afoul of the justice system. According to a 2013 article by the American Psychological Association, these initial iterations of wilderness therapy were more like boot camps, some of which pushed children—many of whom were sent by court order—into “challenging and even punishing experiences.”
Over the years, though, the notion that wilderness programs could only be for juvenile delinquents sent by the legal system changed. Privately owned businesses began opening programs whose marketing strategies started targeting a different demographic: well-to-do but desperate parents of defiant children.
Most for-profit wilderness programs work something like this: Participants are taken into the backcountry, where they hike during daylight hours, learn survival skills, and camp at night. The wilderness immersion, combined with a version of talk therapy—sometimes delivered to the group around the fire, sometimes in one-on-one sessions—is presented as a way to interrupt recreational drug use and instill self-confidence and some respect for authority. After a certain amount of time in the wild, many kids move to inpatient residential facilities, receiving further treatment in a group-home setting, before being released. But the experience doesn’t always go as advertised, and when Aaron Bacon, a 16-year-old from Phoenix, died on a winter trek through Utah’s Escalante River Basin in 1994, people began taking a harder look at wilderness therapy.
Like Oakley’s guardians, Bacon’s parents thought a wilderness excursion would do their son some good. His grades had plummeted, and he was smoking marijuana. North Star Expeditions, a wilderness program founded in 1990, seemed like a good option. Instead, Bacon’s death—from an untreated stomach ulcer trip leaders accused him of faking—was covered in Outside magazine, the New York Times, and High Country News, among other media outlets, and became a flashpoint for departments of human services everywhere.
Several therapy program workers were initially charged in Bacon’s case. The charges—some having to do with abuse and neglect of a disabled child—stemmed from the fact that Bacon had been consistently prevented from eating and had gone more than a week without a sleeping bag in freezing temperatures. In the end, only one instructor served time. North Star closed.
The negative PR encouraged the industry to try to self-regulate. To that end, several trade organizations began recommending best practices and offering accreditation programs. But even some of those groups came under fire as board members and member programs were accused of abuse and violating state regulatory codes.
Allegations piled up after Bacon’s death, and in 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report on the industry. It cited 2005 data from the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in which 33 states had reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential treatment programs, an overarching term that can include wilderness therapy programs (depending on a state’s definition) and that can be synonymous with the term “congregate care facilities,” among other monikers. The report also included information on 10 cases in which children had died—from dehydration, heatstroke, restraint, and a fall while hiking—while in the care of such programs.
What the report didn’t include, because the authors felt it impossible to do so, was an overall picture of the extent of the American residential treatment program industry. “For example,” the report stated, “while states often regulate publicly funded programs, a number of states do not license or otherwise regulate private programs. Because programs determine how to describe themselves, especially in their marketing materials, there is no standard definition for ‘wilderness therapy program,’ ‘boot camp,’ or other terms used to describe the types of programs and facilities considered to be part of this industry.”
A year after the report’s release, U.S. Representative George Miller (D) from California introduced the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act. Despite passing in the House, the bill languished in the Senate. If it had passed, it would have established a way for states to better oversee and investigate incidents of abuse and develop centralized data systems for the entire industry. The bill’s failure in 2008 meant there would continue to be no federal oversight of wilderness programs, residential treatment programs, or congregate care facilities for teens. And, with little consistency among states on how private programs for minors are defined, licensed, and regulated, the industry has been able to operate and flourish in vast gray areas, often under very little scrutiny from state-level agencies.
The death of 16-year-old Cornelius Frederick in May 2020 only served to confirm what many detractors had been saying since the 1980s: Abuse and neglect are pervasive, if not endemic, to the industry. The fact that Frederick died at Lakeside Academy—a for-profit residential facility for kids in foster care and the juvenile justice system in Michigan—and not on a trail in the wilderness didn’t matter. In many states, including Colorado, the regulations for wilderness programs and residential treatment facilities are the same.
Twenty-six years after Aaron Bacon died, Frederick’s death—at the hands of Lakeside staff, who were caught on video sitting on his chest until he suffocated, because he’d thrown a sandwich—renewed calls for reform. This time, however, advocacy groups, as well as individuals like Tyler Oakley, had a new tool to wield: social media.
As the sun set over the thick forests of southern Colorado, 15-year-old Bella* knelt, her hands wrapped around a stick. After a day of hiking, she was hungry, but she needed a fire to cook dinner. Bella twisted the wood in her hands until smoke curled into the air.
As about a dozen girls huddled over bowls of warm rice and beans, group therapy began. They were asked by field guides to reflect on the self-efficacy, confidence, and trust they had developed through task completion: building shelters, starting fires, cooking meals.
The middle of the San Juan National Forest wasn’t where Bella had expected to be during summer 2020, but she had been struggling with anxiety and depression for a long time. The pandemic made everything worse, and she had reached a crisis. She needed a space to heal away from her everyday life, and Durango’s Open Sky Wilderness Therapy had promised that. She signed up willingly.
Although Bella stayed in her home state, many Colorado parents looking for wilderness treatment turn to neighboring Utah, where a large portion of America’s wilderness programs are still located. Under the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, states sending and receiving children must file paperwork. According to data acquired from a Colorado Open Records Request, since 2018, more than 800 young Coloradans have been placed into what Utah calls congregate care centers; 38 percent of them went to wilderness programs specifically. In fact, Kanab-based WinGate Wilderness’ founder and former executive director, Shayne Gallagher, says, “we treat more Coloradans than Utahans.”
What wilderness programs actually treat—and if that treatment is truly therapeutic—is up for debate. Marcus Chatfield, a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of Florida who’s researched wilderness therapy, questioned the marketing tactics of wilderness programs in a 2020 peer-reviewed article. Many should not, he wrote, call themselves therapeutic treatment centers because so many of their programs are undefined: “As long as parents enjoy the legal right to incarcerate their children without due process, to prevent a misuse of this right, all programs should be forbidden to claim the labels ‘therapeutic’ or ‘treatment’ until they are factually proven to be therapeutic and do in fact provide a predictable, safe, and effective treatment.”
Who should be “treated” is another difficult question. Some participants have been in and out of juvenile detention centers; others have undergone therapy for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, behavioral issues, or substance abuse. But some wilderness programs don’t require any diagnosis or psychiatric evaluation for admittance. A child’s entrée can be solely based on parents’ needs or desires for their child—and their ability to pay the steep fee, a cost insurance sometimes won’t cover and which can be upward of $50,000 for three months. Those fees partially fund the nation’s estimated $23 billion residential treatment program industry. Despite the costs, some parents still consider these programs to be an invaluable treatment option.
Other parents, such as Bella’s mother, Chelsea, simply feel as if they’ve run out of options. Traditional talk therapy wasn’t enough for Bella, and many treatment centers in the Denver area, where they live, weren’t accepting new clients due to the pandemic, so Chelsea turned to Open Sky. She was drawn to the organization by what it calls a holistic, family-centered approach. “Our treatment model is really about looking not just at the whole person but the whole family,” says Emily Fernandes, Open Sky’s co-founder and executive director.
Fernandes, a licensed clinical social worker, helped found Open Sky 16 years ago after being a field guide for several other wilderness programs. After countless hours living out of her backpack and spending time with kids in the backcountry, she partnered with Aaron Fernandes, whom she met working in the field and later married, to realize his vision of a Colorado-based program.
Chelsea says dropping her daughter off was the hardest day of her life. She put her faith in Open Sky, but only after a tremendous amount of research: She searched the web, reached out to program alumni, and messaged Facebook groups full of parents going through what she was experiencing. Through word of mouth, she tracked down what she thought would be the best possible program for her daughter. But it wasn’t easy, and there were still red flags. Both Emily and Aaron Fernandes have, in the past, worked for Aspen Education Group, a program that has faced lawsuits and accusations of abuse.
Emily Fernandes knows that finding help for somebody you care about is invariably stressful and challenging. It’s especially difficult when the industry’s track record is uneven at best. She emphasizes that Chelsea’s deep dive is essential but also suggests several other steps to parents. She recommends making sure that a program is licensed by a state’s department of human services and that it has a solid track record with the agency. She also believes wilderness therapy programs and residential treatment facilities alike should be accredited, a step that means they have opened themselves up to evaluation by a third party, which may require practices and safeguards beyond what the state government mandates. Local leadership is another thing Fernandes stresses. In her view, Aspen Education Group—which no longer exists, although parts of the company were acquired by other health care companies—lost its way as it was bought by bigger parent companies in a relatively short amount of time. Each sale, she says, made it more difficult to ensure effective oversight at the local level.
Open Sky is located in Durango but operates in the greater Four Corners region. Regulated in two states—as an outdoor youth program in Utah and as a residential child care facility in Colorado—it has maintained good standing since its inception. State regulators and officials from the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council, which says it provides impartial validation that member programs meet or exceed industry standards, visit and interview groups of Open Sky teens in the field.
Bella spent three months with Open Sky before heading to an unaffiliated residential facility for another three months. Almost two years later, the now 17-year-old says that by going to Open Sky, she accepted the help she needed and learned coping skills to live a happier life. Chelsea puts it in even stronger terms: “It truly saved my child’s life.”
Not everyone feels quite so indebted. Type #troubledteenindustry or #breakingcodesilence or #unsilenced into TikTok, and the videos are legion. Teenagers, from very young to near adults, talk about their experiences at treatment programs around the country. The hurt and fear seem real. “My nightmares are often still about being taken against my will.” “When I got to Utah, I was strip-searched upon arrival….” “I had everything taken from me including my dignity.”
Social media is one of the first outlets teens use for, well, everything, and it can be a powerful tool when it comes to advocacy. Jenny Magill, 36, a Littleton resident and the CEO of Breaking Code Silence, knows this from experience. She heads the nonprofit organization, founded in 2021, which is committed to eradicating institutional child abuse and legitimizing what it calls “survivors.” Magill says being gooned is traumatic, being separated from family as a teenager is damaging, and that accreditation is a farce. Some Coloradans might believe the industry’s problems are more pervasive elsewhere, but not Magill: “We’ve got programs in our backyard that most people don’t know about.”
To process what she endured as a teen in wilderness programs in the South, Magill turned to social media to find an online community that would understand. “It has enabled me to use my voice and my skills…to empower other survivors and to help achieve justice for the suffering that I and my peers went through,” she says, “and to prevent it from happening to another child.”
By posting videos to TikTok, the world’s most downloaded social media platform, those who experienced the troubled teen industry say they are pushing for better regulations. The blitz may be having an effect.
In Utah, where there are approximately 100 congregate care facilities (there are 45 in Colorado), Utah state Senator Mike McKell (R) introduced a bill to the state Legislature in 2021 after hearing firsthand accounts about programs in his state. “The last reform bill was about 15 years ago,” he says. “The industry just grew and grew and grew, and our regulatory structure was clearly not sufficient for the growth.”
The bill, which became law and went into effect in May 2021, seeks to limit or ban the ways in which the industry keeps kids obedient, including pain restraint, seclusion, and chemical restraint, which is something “we’re still having a few issues with,” McKell says. The bill also requires programs to report incidents of restraint to the Utah Office of Licensing within 24 hours. And, because many children have reported feeling isolated, the bill ensures that facilities allow confidential communication between children and their families.
Considering the allegations of pervasive abuse, one might think programs would be against the new rules. For his part, WinGate’s Gallagher says the more regulations, the better. When he was executive director, he says the government conducted about four to six checks per year on his organization. He acknowledges that maybe a handful of check-ins isn’t enough for certain programs.
Although the bill has had its successes, McKell says he’s still concerned. For starters, he believes kids are admitted too young and for far too long. Many programs start at age 13, and kids can miss out on everything from braces to prom. The senator also says there needs to be more oversight with regard to kids being gooned. Although Utah’s law mandates requirements for transport services, such as having insurance policies and registering with the state, McKell is pushing for further federal supervision. “I look at the way we transport kids across state lines,” he says. “That’s clearly interstate commerce. That’s something Congress should take a hard look at.”
McKell may get his wish. This past October, U.S. Representative Ro Khanna (D) from California said he is drafting legislation to ensure rights for those at youth treatment facilities. The legislation would establish a bill of rights for youth in congregate care centers nationwide, create legal definitions for institutional child abuse and neglect, and give states tools to reduce the use of institutional centers. Advocates such as Magill back the bill: “[These] programs cannot exist in the same space as regulations that ensure youth have the rights they deserve,” she says.
Oakley’s uncle, Foster Bailey, says he has no regrets about sending his nephew to Second Nature. The program had received bad press in the past, but Bailey had used a placement adviser to help him find an appropriate program for his teenager. These advisers, sometimes called educational consultants, charge a fee to inform parents about available programs. The third-party recommendation made Bailey feel confident about Utah-based Second Nature. (The program declined to speak with 5280.)
“We had no contact whatsoever for the first six to eight weeks,” Bailey says. “Partly because we wanted [Oakley] to experience the program without distraction, and partly because we were so utterly disgusted with the way he had treated us that we really weren’t interested in even speaking to him.”
Today, Bailey maintains that there’s value in wilderness therapy and believes that those in the program are offered navigational tools essential to living a fulfilling life. “I think the programs he attended significantly shaped the person Tyler is today,” he says, “and I wouldn’t suggest a thing to change them.”
Oakley, whose own TikTok video about wilderness programs went viral last October, has continued to bring awareness to the unknowns of an industry he says isn’t black and white. Cut off from friends and family for two years, Oakley felt scared and alienated. He had to face the fact that there was no escape—fighting his way out was impossible, and when he made a remark about running, he says he was forced to sleep restrained under a tight tarp. He says he also endured belittlement throughout his aftercare residential treatment. Oakley maintains that harsh treatment isn’t necessary for kids who are just making mistakes, and that wilderness treatment is not a cure for everyone who’s acting out.
Still, Oakley says therapy taught him a lot, and he tries to hold on to the positives. The 19-year-old currently lives in Hollywood, California, and plans to provide an account of wilderness therapy through a self-created TV show he’s writing. “I definitely gained an immensely deeper understanding for emotion,” he says. “But I didn’t have a childhood at all.”
Oakley knows he took a lot of life lessons from wilderness therapy, including how to break negative patterns in his life. “Everyone asks, ‘Did it help?’ and the thing is, yeah, of course it did,” he says. “I was there for two years; of course I got stuff out of it. They’re teaching therapy skills [and] ways to learn about yourself and other people.” After a brief pause, he adds, “But at what cost?”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.