Troubled kids, troubled system

Former students describe isolation, physical punishments, 'cuddle puddles'

By Lucy Tompkins, Cameron Evans and Seaborn Larson • Originally published on January 25, 2019

Former students at Montana’s residential schools complained about a lot of things in their interviews with the Missoulian: minutiae-laden “level” systems, physical exertion as punishment, lack of communication with their families.

Some of their most vehement responses involved the use of isolation as a method of punishment or “treatment.’’

Karlye Newman, whose 2004 suicide spurred a largely unsuccessful push for meaningful regulation of residential schools, was put in isolation nearly 30 times in six months. That's according to the school’s own notes, which were included in a lawsuit filed after her death.

Christopher Bellonci, a Harvard-affiliated board-certified psychiatrist who testified as an expert witness in a lawsuit stemming from Newman’s death, said such methods don't teach young people helpful skills for navigating their issues.

“Sure, I mean you can coerce people to behave,'' he told the Missoulian. "That’s what jails do."

In fact, Montana's prison system provides more oversight and protection to teens than they get in private programs for troubled youth.

The Montana Department of Corrections doesn't allow teens to be put in solitary confinement "as a sanction to manage behavior.'' Isolation is only allowed in emergency situations to protect teens from hurting themselves or others.

Moreover, youth in seclusion in state corrections facilities must be observed by staff every 15 minutes and, if seclusion lasts more than 72 hours, it must be approved by the Department of Corrections director or the Montana State Prison warden and the teen must first be evaluated by mental health staff to ensure the isolation won't harm his or her mental health.

Those guidelines quote a 2016 U.S. Justice Department review on the use of restrictive housing — that is, isolation — that says "the placement should be brief, designed as a ‘cool down’ period, and done only in consultation with a mental health professional.”

Yet the former students interviewed by the Missoulian said isolation was not uncommon as a form of punishment or treatment. 

Sean Colin, who attended Montana Academy in Marion in 2015, said the private residential treatment program used "solo reflection time'' when students broke rules to give them time to think about their choices.

Students, Colin said, could not speak or interact with anyone. He was isolated once for three days when he was 17, but said other students were put in isolation longer. While he said he managed it OK, for most people, it was a “nightmare.''

In addition to social isolation, he said there was also “tenting,” when a student would be assigned to stay alone in a tent in the woods off campus for breaking rules.

“People can be in that situation for anywhere from three to five days, depending on what you did,” Colin said. “It’s definitely a bit more punitive when you get put in a tent. They bring you food and you have bear spray in case you get attacked by a bear.”

Carrot-and-stick behavior modification

While isolation may have been the most dreaded punishment, it was not the only carrot-and-stick behavior modification approach featuring terms like "levels'' and "consequences'' used at the state's private residential programs.

That philosophy is detailed in the policies and procedures for the Ranch for Kids in Rexford, Lincoln County, near the Canadian border. The Missoulian obtained its policies, and those of other programs, through a records request.

The Ranch, which now houses about 24 children ages 12 to 18, specializes in “troubled” adopted children and children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and brain damage. No one on staff is certified or a trained therapist or counselor, although the program has a Russian translator, according to licensing records. Parents have to pay extra to send their children to an outside local therapist. No individual treatment plans for students are kept on-site.

Like most other programs, the Ranch operates on a level system, with Level 00 as the lowest and Level 2 as the highest. Policies from the Ranch show that children are demoted for harming themselves.

Students who run away are placed in seclusion and put on Level 00. They may also be physically restrained by staff for running away, policies show. According to the manuals:

At Level 00, policies dictate that students are not allowed to talk with anyone, and must spend all their free time “in the corner,” isolated from their peers for seven days. The only activity they’re allowed for exercise at that level is jumping jacks. The next level, 0, also bans children from talking to any peers and places them in seclusion, meaning all free time is spent away from peers, for three days.

Kids in the two lowest levels eat “alternative meal plans,” which are cooked without condiments or seasonings. An inspection report shows that mattresses are taken away from kids who consistently wet the bed. Every week, staff and students meet for Level Meetings, where students are assigned a level in front of everyone based on that week’s behavior.

Children at upper levels get one 15-minute phone call home a week, monitored by staff. Policies explain several “realities” children at the Ranch must learn to accept, including, “People acquire necessities and desires through diligent work. These things do not just ‘fall out of the sky.’ Especially you should understand that society will not give you what you want merely because you were at one time a poor, orphaned child.”

The policies also explain the Ranch’s attitude toward therapy and counseling, which it refers to as “less formal.” Most students at the Ranch don’t receive any counseling with a licensed professional, inspection documents show. Instead, it touts “spontaneous counseling sessions with staff."

“Some of our best talks happen while we’re chatting out on the trail, garden, kitchen, or living room. When the need arises, we talk.”

The student handbook says that Ranch staff “became involved in this project because they are deeply-committed, caring, loving human beings. Yet they know that often ‘tough love’ is the only way to help young people.”

The levels

Student after student at Montana programs talked about their experiences with the level system.

Reina Rodriguez was 15 in 2011 when she went to Clearview Horizon, the program in Heron where Michele "Mickey" Manning worked after leaving Spring Creek Lodge Academy. The program Rodriguez described at Clearview was startlingly similar to the practices at Spring Creek described in the lawsuit Judith Newman filed after her daughter committed suicide there seven years earlier.

Reina Rodriguez attended Clearview Horizon in 2011, where she said the type of therapy she received only hurt other girls' progress in treatment. Experts say there has never been any evidence to show "confrontational therapy" practices are a helpful treatment model.

Rodriguez, now grown, flashed back in an interview to her Saturday mornings at Clearview. That’s when she confronted the gravel pit. Nearly every Saturday, she had two hours to hike up and down its steep sides 50 times, punishment for various infractions during the week.

If she left fabric softener under her bunk, she got the pit.

If she forgot to put the bowls away after feeding the dogs, she got the pit.

If someone overheard her talking about kissing girls, she got the pit.

At the pit, if a staff member sitting in a car clocked Rodriguez at only 30 climbs instead of the assigned 50, she’d have to do the other 20 the following Saturday.

Rodriguez had a special trick to cope with the pit. “I didn’t look up at the top,” she said. “I knew it would be super discouraging because it was so big. If you stopped, you got yelled at.”

Rodriguez said that twice when she was suicidal, she was tied by the wrist to another girl with a dog leash.

Other girls tried to kill themselves at Clearview, Sanders County law enforcement records show. Three girls were hospitalized for drinking bleach in 2008, 2012 and 2018. Another two were taken to the hospital for unspecified self-harming in 2012 and 2013.

Rodriguez recalled one night when a girl drank bleach.

“I was a Level 3 at the time, trying to keep everyone calmed down in the basement. The staff had asked me and another girl to go upstairs and make dinner. We were in the kitchen trying to cook while she was getting medical attention … . I didn't know if she was going to live or die, and I was being asked to cook dinner.”

At Clearview, Manning, who wasn't licensed as a counselor in Montana until 2014, led what were called “processes,” a kind of group visualization therapy, Rodriguez said. The processes involved yelling, beating duct-taped towels on the ground, and forcing girls to decide which of their peers deserved to live or die in an imaginary shipwreck with only six spots in a lifeboat, according to five former Clearview students interviewed by the Missoulian.

At the end of one process, a lower-level girl had to wash everyone’s feet, according to Rodriguez and another former resident.

“They would tear you down and then build you up again, only to tear you down later,” Rodriguez said.

'Cuddle puddles'

Last year, Missoula attorneys Lance Jasper and Rob Bell secured a $925,000 settlement against Monarch, a Sanders County program that abruptly shut down in late 2017 and gave parents two days before their children were shut out.

Documents Monarch was forced to produce in the case showed its operators, including Patrick McKenna, had used the program to purchase lavish vehicles and host “shareholder meetings” in places like Hawaii and London.

Four Monarch students spoke to the Missoulian: Katherine "Cricket" Burkhart, who attended Monarch in 2016-2017; Tori Jane, 2004-2005; Rebecca Moorman, 2003-2005; and Grace (who asked that only her first name be used), 2012-2014. All said they were subjected to strange and punitive treatment.

When Jane tried to run away, she was put on a "ban," meaning she couldn't talk to anyone, and had to dig out a tree stump.

“It took a couple weeks," she said. "Every day, morning to night, I was out there digging out my stump. I dug all around it with my shovel and exposed all the roots, then sawed all the roots, then popped it out with a shovel."

She had been sent to Monarch for depression and thoughts of suicide.

Students also said they had to disclose every detail of their sexual history when they arrived at the program. And every morning and night, they would do "smooshing," which students described as "forced intimacy" with their peers, in which staff also participated.

"Everyone would pile in the common room and cuddle," Jane said. "We weren't really allowed to touch each other otherwise. So that was like allowing them to release it all at once. Staff participated in it, everyone would be rolling around on the floor and snuggling."

Moorman described it as "laying in a huge cuddle puddle, and there’s almost always staff involved. There would be a situation where a male staff member in his 40s or 50s would be in a cuddle puddle with 14-, 15-year-old girls. Lying there, spooning someone, just the way you would lay with someone that you're in an intimate relationship with."

She said they would be encouraged to scratch each other's backs, rub each other's hair.

"For me it created confusion because you also weren't supposed to have sexual relationships with anyone, but you’re also supposed to cuddle with people in this way. They said that it was to teach us 'safe touch,' like how to touch people in a non-sexual or nonviolent way. … I definitely don't think that my dad would have been very happy to know that he sent me there and I was required to cuddle with middle-aged men."

McKenna declined to comment on the allegations.

Bell, the attorney, said that "what happens is you have kids and sometimes families coming into these programs that are already damaged, they don’t go into these places because you’re a straight-A student who’s feeling great about themselves.

“The challenge is, that’s what these guys will try to exploit — 'Well, your person wasn’t perfect before they came in, and they’re not perfect now.' To which I say, ‘So what?’ That’s the job they undertook was to care for someone in need, and they violated the trust that was given to them.”

Marcus Chatfield, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, conducted his own research recently on the practices of the troubled teen industry. After receiving 235 responses in search of former patients and residents, he pared the pool down to 30 people: 15 who reported a positive experience and 15 who reported negatively. With that split, even those who described a positive experience still described an abusive process, he said.

"More than half also acknowledge it was brainwashing, but they still reported institutional abuse, even though they didn’t see it as abuse,” he said. “It was for ‘therapy.’”

Other punishments

New Horizons Youth Ranch in Rexford, now closed, penalized students for self-harming by requiring them to do five days of “work crew.” That and other practices were outlined in its policies manual, obtained in the public records requests.

Like other programs, it used a level system, and on the bottom level students couldn’t talk to any other students, call home or have condiments on their food. Five days a week, they were required to do 55 push-ups at 5 a.m. and run 10 laps. Students could be punished for talking about why they were in the program. 

Masturbation, attempted escape and attempted suicide got the highest level of punishment: a 3,500-word essay, a week-and-a-half of work crew. Other punishments included loss of phone privileges, chores, exercise, a “wilderness trip,” or sleeping isolated in a tent, policies and procedures show.

Level 4 and Level 5 students were considered Junior Staff and could discipline other students.

Wood Creek Academy in Thompson Falls, run by Sean Thorne, is a program for troubled boys and claims on its website to treat drug use, defiance and low self-esteem with behavior modification in programs lasting nine months to a year. It was licensed in 2013, and re-inspected in 2017, one of only two programs inspected that year, according to PAARP records supplied to the Missoulian.

At the time, 19 boys were living there.

Its website doesn’t name any staff members, but does say “our school safety standards are considered to be one of the best in the country.”

The most recent inspection, which was conducted in response to a complaint, found that “alternate meals” — oatmeal, powdered milk and an apple — are served to the boys as a form of discipline. When kids want to run away, staff said articles of their clothing are taken away as a deterrent.

“For example, a participant's pants were taken away when he tried to run away,'' a staff member at Wood Creek told inspectors. "Staff also stated if a participant is placed in separation for bad behavior, he has to shower outside using a hose and tarp for privacy.”

In the last 10 years, 31 runaways from Wood Creek have been reported to law enforcement, records show.

Bellonci, the psychiatrist who testified in the lawsuit filed after Karlye Newman's death, said that using physical labor and exercise as punishment became popular for staff convenience, not for child welfare.

"But what’s the record for those institutions and those interventions leading to positive change and growth for a young person? I would argue pretty negligible,” said the chief medical officer of the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

In 2008, Bellonci told the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, which was examining unlicensed and unregulated boot camps and wilderness programs, that isolation should never be used for molding behavior or for punishment and that doing so was "an outrage.''

Three years later, testifying in the lawsuit filed by Newman's mother, Bellonci was even more blunt. Using isolation to treat a depressed and suicidal young person "violates any standard of appropriate mental health treatment, care for someone in your custody and, I would argue, human ethics.”


City Editor Gwen Florio contributed to this story.