Like Paris Hilton, I Am A Survivor Of A Troubled Teen Treatment School And It Was A Nightmare

These facilities operate under the premise that adolescents must be broken through isolation, harsh rules and punishment in order to be fixed.
reform school
reform school
Photo Courtesy Of Deirdre Sugiuchi

“Something happened in my childhood that I never talked about with anyone. I still have nightmares,” Paris Hilton explains in her new documentary, ”This Is Paris.” The camera cuts to footage of a teenage Hilton at the troubled teen treatment center, Provo Canyon, and Hilton describes being traumatized, even now, two decades later.

“I don’t know if my nightmares will go away, but I do know there are hundreds of thousands of kids going through this,” she says. “And maybe if I stop their nightmares, it will help me stop mine.”

My teen treatment industry nightmare started when I was sent to a religious reform school, then known as Escuela Caribe, in the Dominican Republic two and a half months before my 16th birthday.

Hauling rocks during a quarterly work week, helping prepare the foundation for the director's house.
Hauling rocks during a quarterly work week, helping prepare the foundation for the director's house.
Photo Courtesy Of Deirdre Sugiuchi

At Escuela Caribe, everything I previously took for granted became a “privilege.” Someone watched when I used the toilet. I had to ask to stand, to sit, to enter a room. My second night, the housefather took three of us out front and forced us to perform situps, pushups and duck walks. I was unable to perform a perfect pushup. The housefather decided I was rebelling. He forced me to stand, arms out straight, in what I recognize now as a stress position. He ordered another girl to place thick books on each of my outstretched hands, warning me to not let the books drop.

Both my school and Provo Canyon were part of the multibillion-dollar troubled teen treatment industry, which took off under President Ronald Reagan. Tough-on-crime policies, hospital deregulation and changes in insurance coverage contributed to a disturbing trend of juvenile wards becoming one of the most lucrative sectors of the for-profit health care industry, the elite arm of the youth control complex.

At that same time, a new type of parenting culture arose, Dr. Elliott Currie explains in ”The Road to Whatever,” one which had high expectations but provided little support to help children develop the emotional and intellectual tools to perform, reflecting the conservative social policy climate at large. This type of family, which tends to be affluent and is often white, has formed the troubled teen industry’s core clientele.

My parents were hardcore evangelical Christians — they didn’t allow me to listen to “secular music” or even wear pants until I entered junior high. There was no one thing that led to them sending me away. My ADHD was misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. According to them, I was hanging out with the wrong crowd. I was sexually assaulted the summer before but I never told them because not only did they pathologize my sexuality, they forbid me autonomy over my physical body. They believed corporal punishment was biblically based. When they made the decision to send me to Escuela Caribe, they promised me I was going to a normal boarding school.

In the documentary, Hilton explains how, after a move to New York City, she began partying, prompting her parents to send her to Ascent, Cascade, and then to CEDU, before sending her to Provo Canyon, which Hilton describes as “the worst of the worst.”

As long as I have known about the troubled teen industry, I’ve known about Provo Canyon. A friend was shipped there six weeks before I was sent to my first facility. I’ve read horror stories online. “I feel like the people who work there got off on torturing people and seeing them naked. They would prescribe all these pills,” Hilton confirms.

As an adult, I discovered that in 1979 both my school and Provo Canyon were the focus of a congressional inquiry into the abuse and neglect of children in institutions, 10 years before my friend and I were sent away, two years before Hilton was even born.

Activist Kenneth Wooden censured my school, then known as Caribe Vista, for having low-paid, untrained staff who “brainwashed” students, put them into solitary and beat them. A staff member forced a girl with a shaved head, a common penalty for running away, to confess how she was being punished for her “weakness of the flesh.” She had run away from the school and was found “mingling with a Dominican male.”

Wooden condemned Provo Canyon for violently kidnapping students from their bedrooms, drugging them with Thorazine, and throwing them into solitary confinement in a 3 feet by 3 feet cell the staff then called the “pee room,” where students were forced to go to the bathroom on the floor.

In the documentary, Hilton describes being kidnapped, then later forced into solitary at Provo for not taking medication. “They’d make people take their clothes off and go in there for 20 hours. I was freezing. I was starving. I was alone,” she said.

Such mistreatment is standard practice at many troubled teen facilities, which operate under the premise that adolescents must be broken through isolation, harsh rules, and punishment in order to be fixed, something called “tough love,” tactics based on CIA brainwashing techniques.

In such facilities, which include therapeutic boarding schools, anti-drug programs, wilderness survival camps and conversion therapy programs, students are forced to police each other’s behavior and attack each other in group therapy, a methodology derived from what has been deemed ”the most dangerous cult in America, Synanon,” as Maia Szalavitz explains in ”Help At Any Cost.”

Taking a break during work week. Students were always told to smile for the camera.
Taking a break during work week. Students were always told to smile for the camera.
Photo Courtesy Of Deirdre Sugiuchi

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be broken down, to be programmed. We were punished for having normal human reactions. Terror was used as enforcement. There was a constant threat of being beaten or punished for standing up for one’s self or others. In a short time, I looked away from abuse reflexively.

We were forced to make up false confessions, rewriting letters home declaring how we were the problem, how our friends were bad influences, how we would have died had we not been sent to the program.

We were forced to police each other. Within a year I was coerced into becoming a high ranker, essentially a form of overseer. I didn’t want to participate in the abuse of others, but if I didn’t, I would have been demoted, and I had to get out.

I survived my two years like Hilton, by thinking of what I would do after, which basically consisted of reconnecting with my friends, going to college and being some sort of artist.

Afterward, I suffered from complex post-traumatic stress disorder — flashbacks, anxiety attacks, depression, hypervigilance, self-loathing, the works. I no longer trusted anyone.

“Coming out of Provo, I was very traumatized. It made me strong, but it also gives me anxiety,” Hilton’s voice breaks while describing her experience in the documentary. She describes feeling “electronically raped” by her first boyfriend who released her sex tape. Later, she said she was physically assaulted by other boyfriends.

Jessica Pike, Hilton’s friend from Provo, says afterward she also found herself in an abusive relationship. “I think being in places where they are abusive to you make you think that is a normal way to be,” she said.

To survive, I cut almost all contacts. I moved to the same Southern boho college town where I live now and I became someone else. I earned my master’s and became a children’s librarian. My best friend and I married and had a child. We were able to give him the support I had longed for growing up.

I felt fortunate compared to some of my peers, who suffered from various addictions, were later imprisoned, died by suicide or otherwise died violently.

Like Hilton, it was years before I recognized how much damage had been enacted upon me, a realization which was complicated because my parents paid for the abuse ($3,000 a month in the early 1990s). Eventually I woke up and realized my silence protected no one, and that speaking out was not only a way to heal, but was imperative.

A recent ProPublica expose found that over the past 35 years, at least 145 children have died at residential programs. In June, Cornelius Fredericks, a 16-year-old Black teenager, died after being restrained at a for-profit facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Many programs accept federal funding to take foster care placements despite being cited for abuse.

Despite allegations of rampant ill treatment and death, troubled teen program VisionQuest has received millions in federal funding to house migrant children. Because there is no federal oversight of residential facilities, it is impossible to know how many children across the country are being mistreated, conditions which have worsened during the pandemic.

Yet the troubled teen industry remains unregulated in part because of political connections. Mel Sembler, founder of Straight, Inc., is a longtime Republican donor and was appointed vice chair to Donald Trump’s 2016 victory committee. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) founded the private equity firm Bain Capital, which owns CRC Health Group, a national chain of treatment centers linked to at least six questionable deaths as of 2013, as well as Aspen Education Group. Romney finance co-chair Robert Lichfield founded the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), which included Provo Canyon.

In 2007, 133 teens filed suit against Lichfield alleging extreme physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. My school, Escuela Caribe, subject of the memoir ”Jesus Landand documentary ”Kidnapped for Christ,” shut down in 2011, only to reopen as Caribbean Mountain Academy.

In 2016, Vice President Mike Pence fundraised for parent organization Lifeline Youth and Family Services, despite Lifeline being cited in 2015 for failing to provide educational programs and after accounts of violence at a stateside faith-based juvenile detention facility. However, the troubled teen industry donates to both parties, stifling regulation.

Since the release of ”This Is Paris,” thousands of survivors have joined Hilton in sharing their stories tagged #breakingcodesilence, a nod to the organization pushing for regulation. We are sharing the petition created by Hilton and are collaborating on spreadsheets documenting abuse. We are connecting the abuses of the teen treatment industry to the prison industrial complex at large, and recognizing how enslavement for profit has operated in America historically.

But most important, we are recognizing how we were harmed by being incarcerated in a cult-based industry which abuses kids for profit. Together we are healing.

I’ve been speaking out against the troubled teen industry for over a decade, but for the first time, I am starting to feel a glimmer of hope. It feels timely, in 2020, as protests against unchecked police brutality, anti-Blackness, and fascism are occurring worldwide.

Maybe we will take the terror enacted upon us and join forces with the larger movement for abolition, working collectively to create a more compassionate future, one where institutionalized abuse is eliminated, one where people are nurtured instead of harmed.

Deirdre Sugiuchi is a writer based in Athens, Georgia. She recently completed her fundamentalist Christian reform school memoir, Unreformed. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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