Did a "Troubled Teen" Rehab Create Murderers?

Personal Health

This article originally appeard on The Fix.

The crimes are heinous: murdering a pizza deliveryman for his uniform, then wearing it to shoot down Colorado’s state prison chief; hiring a hit man to kill your parents; stabbing both of your grandfathers to death. Besides the horror, these recent homicides share a surprising common element: In each case, the alleged or convicted perpetrator had been sent to an unregulated tough-love camp known as Paradise Cove.

Evan Ebel, the 28-year-old ex-con who is now notorious for the Colorado killings and the high-speed Texas car chase and shootout that ultimately led to his own death in March, attended at least two such programs, including Paradise Cove. His parents apparently sent him there around age 12 because they were concerned about his destructive behavior and suspicious that he was using hard drugs and alcohol

But Paradise Cove was anything but paradise for the boys who attended. The Samoa-based camp was part of a “troubled teen” chain—variously known as the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP), Teen Revitalization Inc., and Youth Foundation Inc.—that has had over a dozen of its programs (including Paradise Cove) closed down following reports of abuse. Former participants link at least 11 suicide or overdose deaths as well as three homicides to this particular camp—and many more to the network overall. Although apparently not using the WWASP name these days, the same high-level management is still involved in residential youth programs today, mainly in Utah.

The boys at Paradise Cove slept in straw-roofed huts on mats on a concrete floor. To prevent escapes, fluorescent lights burned all night, attracting mosquitos. Flip-flops were the only shoes permitted—another security measure—but these were rapidly destroyed by the sharp coral beaches where the boys exercised and worked. The cuts that resulted attracted flies and infections. “They’d just swarm on you,” Paul Richards, who attended Paradise Cove in 1997, told me for my book on troubled teen programs, Help at Any Cost.

Breaking any of the program’s strict rules—for example, sitting in the wrong position or talking out of turn—resulted in severe, escalating punishment. Beatings by staff were common. But the worst consequence was “The Box,” a three-foot-square windowless, wooden hut with a concrete floor, where teens were made to stay for days to months, subsisting on rice and water. Sometimes, they were thrown in hog-tied and left for hours. Other times, they were made to kneel or sit in stress positions, which rapidly became agonizing.

“You’d have to sit cross-legged with your hands on top of your head with your elbows sticking out,” says Bill Boyles, who attended Paradise Cove from 1997 through 1999 and is now an activist with theCoalition for the Safe and Ethical Treatment of Youth. “It’s ridiculously uncomfortable on concrete in the hot summer sun in the tropics and they wouldn’t let you take a shower.” (A website calledWWASP Survivors advocates for people who attended WWASP-related camps and serves as a watchdog over the "troubled teen" industry in general. Bill Boyles runs the Paradise Cove Survivorswebsite, which vividly details the brutal, squalid conditions at the camp.)

Unlike Ebel, Boyles had not been sent because of aggressive behavior—he was moody and had refused to go to school, but did not take drugs or commit crime. Paul Richards, who attended at the same time as Boyles, had been a straight-A student and star high school basketball player. In both cases, their main problem had been not getting along with their parents, but Paradise Cove accepted any child a parent labeled as troubled, so long as the tuition was paid.

“Therapy” at Paradise Cove consisted primarily of emotional attacks. “They just circle you up and they all start yelling at you at the same time and say how shitty a person you were…[things like] ‘You’re worthless, you’re pathetic, you’re a piece of shit, you’re a compulsive liar and nobody likes you,’” Richards told me.

“Ebel was extremely quiet, kept to himself,” says another former Paradise Cove resident, “Andrew” (not his real name), who is concerned that media coverage has portrayed teens sent to Paradise Cove as beyond help. “The realistic view is that if one was ‘troubled’ when they arrived in Samoa, they left as a basket case, and if one was a basket case when they arrived, they left as a [disaster],” Andrew says.

Paradise Cove was shut down by the Samoan government in 2000, after a report by the US State Department found “credible” allegations of “beatings, isolation, food and water deprivation, choke-holds, kicking, punching, bondage, spraying with chemical agents, forced medication, verbal abuse and threats of further physical abuse.”

Boyles says that the worst thing about the program was that the constant threat of emotional and physical violence numbed teens to the suffering of others. At one point, for example, a rumor spread that if a boy died, the program would be shut down and all of the boys would get sent home. En masse, the teens decided to cause such a death.

They chose the smallest, youngest boy to be their victim. Although stories differ as to whether they attempted to drown or stab him, the plot was known by dozens of boys and no one tried to stop it. Fortunately, the boy survived—not surprisingly, he later developed PTSD. But the incident showed that the teens involved were so desperate to leave and so accustomed to violence that committing murder seemed a reasonable means of escape.

“I would say not necessarily that it makes you more violent, but when you’re around that level of brutality and violence as a kid, you get inured to it,” Boyles says.

“Ebel was one of us,” Andrew says. “His mind might have been so distorted when he left that there was no path back to sanity. I don't condone his last actions that later led to his demise, but I, and most of us from the Cove, understand his thoughts and empathize with him.”

In the weeks before he died, Ebel sent a friend what has been described as a suicide note, attributing his anger to having spent years in solitary confinement during 11 years in prison for robbery and for attacking a prison guard. The letter, described by the friend who received it, said Ebel felt “ruined” and was “consumed” with rage and a need for “vengeance.” (According to several "alumni," the routine cruelty at Paradise Cove bred in some boys a deep resentment against their parents for sending them there.)

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, theWhidbey 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 excusetheir 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.

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 Officeinvestigations 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.

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