The Troubling Reality of Wilderness Therapy

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Scholars claim that unregulated wilderness therapy programs fail to protect the children participants.

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As part of a multi-billion dollar “troubled teen” industry, wilderness therapy programs often set back families thousands of dollars each. Today, these programs find themselves facing rampant criticism from TikTok users and even Paris Hilton.

Programming of these programs is oriented towards children who are trauma survivors or who allegedly suffer from behavioral issues. Many wilderness therapy participants, however, allege that these programs perpetuate child abuse and neglect.

Concerns about wilderness therapy have swirled around regulatory spaces for years. Although published nearly a decade ago, Daniel Pollack, Khaya Eisenberg, and Katie M. Shipp’s article in the Michigan Child Welfare Law Journal detailing the controversies, unregulated nature, and potential solutions for wilderness therapy hold great relevance today. Since their article’s publication in 2014, lawmakers have continuously failed to address the harms from wilderness therapy programs.

Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp argue that wilderness therapy’s lack of regulation results in extreme—and occasionally deadly—harm to the children who participate. Although a few states, such as Utah, have enacted statutes in response to tragedies that have occurred at wilderness therapy programs, most states have not. Furthermore, a lack of federal oversight allows many program owners to relocate, rename, and reopen programs elsewhere if forced to shut down in a different state, according to Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp.

Because of this lack of oversight, Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp argue that wilderness therapy programs often fail to fulfill the promises they make. Many programs tout counseling and therapy resources designed to combat problematic behaviors or address previous traumas. In reality, children spend most of their time with field staff who lead their team-building exercises and coordinate their activities in the outdoors, often involving intensive hikes and camping. Field staff hiring typically entails vague requirements about leadership and counseling skills, while wilderness therapy programs hire fewer qualified clinical mental health professionals, contend Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp.

An even greater concern raised by Pollack, Eiseberg, and Shipp is the potential for human rights violations occurring at such therapy camps, many of which have prompted a rise in litigation against program operators. Children are often forcibly removed and transported from their homes without their consent or willingness to participate in these programs. Failure to train staff to handle mental health crises or identify ailments raises additional ethical complications for Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp.

In arguing for a human rights approach, Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp describe the tragic fates of many teenagers who participated in wilderness therapy programs, including that of Aaron Bacon, a teenager who passed away at a wilderness therapy program in 1994. Supervising staff at the program reportedly refused Bacon food during miles-long hikes, and accused Bacon of faking pain when he was unable to continue carrying his backpack. The field staff member overseeing Bacon was nineteen years old, and apparently failed to provide Bacon with adequate medical assistance despite his pleas, resulting in his eventual death.

Utah’s Outdoor Youth Programs statute, one of the first and most comprehensive state statutes addressing wilderness therapy programs, incorporates measures to address many of the aspects that resulted in Bacon’s death, including water provision, calorie consumption, and protective clothing requirements. As previously stated, however, Utah is just one of few states with such a statute, and no state or federal law mandates a centralized reporting system for such incidents.

Pollack, Eisenberg and Shipp propose recommendations to improve the regulatory scheme concerning wilderness therapy. First, they recommend a uniform licensing program that requires programs to be licensed and consistently evaluated on compliance and clinical safety. By addressing the lack of consistency across states in tracking the registration and operation of such programs, lawmakers can keep a closer eye on potential violations at such camps and regulators can conduct random inspections of program sites periodically.

Second, Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp suggest that both state and federal lawmakers should create a database serving as a centralized registry of individuals who own and operate wilderness programs. At the time of the article’s publication, regulators failed to identify a definitive number of wilderness therapy programs. A centralized database could track any particular relocations or reopenings of programs that had been closed for neglecting or abusing participants. The database would also include consistent consumer evaluations collected by the programs and published on a regular basis. Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp maintain that Increasing transparency would allow parents, potential participants, and state lawmakers to understand the implications and realities of participating in such programs.

Lastly, Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp argue that lawmakers should bolster protections for children who attend these programs by requiring adequate staff qualifications and background checks, as well as safe and effective child-to-staff ratios. Under Pollack and team’s recommendations, laws should be as detailed as possible to encompass mandatory logs of children’s activities, adequate clothes and equipment, frequent contact with and accessibility of licensed medical professionals, and limitations on physical exertion, time without sustenance, and outings in inclement or extreme weather.

Referencing ongoing regulatory efforts at the time, Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp highlight proposed federal legislation that would implement specific health and safety standards that troubled teen programs, including wilderness therapy programs, would have to comply with. Children would also be required to have reasonable access to a phone, as well as national and state child abuse hotlines, and staff members would undergo mandatory training to identify symptoms of illnesses such as heatstroke and dehydration. Similar to the registry suggestion, the bill planned to create a website compiling the names, locations, and owner information of such programs for public access; the website would include any infractions associated with any individual or program listed.

At the time of the article’s publication, lawmakers had introduced H.R. 1981 in Congress. Ultimately, the bill died in committee. As of 2022, Congress has failed to pass any legislation implementing a federal framework for regulating youth wilderness therapy programs, despite federal investigations and reports detailing deaths, abuse, and misleading marketing tactics employed by program employees.

When considering the tragedies and cycles of abuse perpetuated by wilderness therapy programs, lawmakers should address this ongoing threat to child welfare, conclude Pollack, Eisenberg, and Shipp.