Did a "Troubled Teen" Rehab Create Murderers? - Page 2

By Maia Szalavitz 06/02/13

In March, Evan Ebel gunned down the Colorado state police chief and was later shot dead by cops after a car chase. This was only the most recent in a string of bizarre murders by men who attended a brutal teen rehab called Paradise Cove.

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Residence huts at Paradise Cove photo via

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Ebel's history raises questions like, If he had received proper psychological treatment—rather than the abuses of Paradise Cove—would he even have committed the robbery that sent him to prison? And how did his lockdown at Paradise Cove affect his ability to stay out of solitary in prison or endure it once imposed?

Two other recent killings also have links to Paradise Cove. Chris Sutton, a deeply troubled young man from Miami, spent three years in the program after first threatening to kill his parents when he was 16. At 25, he actually hired a hit man to do the job—killing his mother and blinding his father in 2004. He tried to use the abuse at Paradise Cove in his defense, but was convicted in March 2011 and sentenced to life in prison.

Joshua Lambert, a 31-year-old Washington man who attended the camp when he was 15, confessed to stabbing both of his grandfathers to death in 2011. He is acting as his own attorney and claiming an insanity defense (he was diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder), in the bizarre case where he went from one house where he bound his great-aunt in duct tape and killed one grandfather, and then went to his mother’s home to kill the other grandfather.

“It was the worst time of my life,” Lambert said of being at Paradise Cove in his local paper, the Whidbey Times. He added, “It does make it easier to be in jail. I remember being sent to jail when I was 18 and thinking it was so much nicer than Paradise Cove.”

Any abuse the perpetrators suffered—at "troubled teen" camps or in prison—certainly does not excuse their horrendous crimes. Still, it seems likely that such brutal behavior-modification camps can exacerbate tendencies toward violent crime—in the same way that child abuse, domestic and neighborhood violence do.

WWASP has always insisted that it is not abusive and that the teens who had bad outcomes are liars who were simply beyond help. 

For its part, WWASP has always insisted that it is not abusive and that the teens who had bad outcomes are liars who were simply beyond help. WWASP's Ken Kay has called the allegations “ludicrous” and claims that, as of 2010, WWASP existed “only on paper” to defend against related lawsuits.

Although no one knows how many boys did time at Paradise Cove—Boyles estimates around 2,000—the number of homicides, suicides and overdoses that have been reported (the actual number is unknown) is excessive, even among troubled kids sent for treatment.

Two additional factors also make the numbers seem disproportionate. First, like Richards and Boyles, many teens sent to the camp were not involved in crime or drugs beforehand. Second, almost all of the teens had either wealthy or middle-class parents, since tuition ran at least $3,000 a month and boys stayed for at least 18 months. It was not covered by insurance.

US regulators have generally failed to stop tough treatment that is reportedly over the line from being imposed on youth, in part because no reliable follow-up studies have been done to see if these programs actually make people worse or simply don't help. Two Government Accountability Office investigations and two sets of congressional hearings several years ago demonstrated the lack of oversight, fraudulent marketing practices and deadly outcomes that have been reported in connection with many troubled teen programs. But legislation intended to help has never made it through Congress. While a bill to regulate these programs and ban abusive tactics was re-introduced this month by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), it is unlikely to progress given the general gridlock. Previous versions of the bill did pass the House twice, but stalled in the Senate.

If studies proved that these tactics increased addiction, suicide and violent behavior—as seems likely—it would be impossible to argue that any claimed benefits outweigh the risks. Such data could perhaps finally persuade Congress to regulate anyone who incarcerates teens for profit, no matter what they label their "program." And we could finally stop programs like Paradise Cove from preying on American kids and parents.

Maia Szalavitz is a columnist at The Fix. She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006), among other books. 

Disclosure: Several years ago, Szalavitz was asked to testify as an expert witness in a case against WWASP brought by the mother of a young woman who committed suicide in the program. Szalavitz's role would have been to describe the connections between WWASP’s management and its various programs and their troubling history, not to provide an opinion as to whether harm was done. She was deposed but did not actually testify because the judge excluded it. 

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.