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The Troubled Teen Industry’s Troubling Lack of Oversight

July 17, 2023

Evelyn Tsisin L’24, G’24 makes the case for federal interventions to regulate an industry fraught with abuse of adolescents and youth.

Tens of thousands of teens are held in residential treatment facilities (RTFs) across the United States. These RTFs make up the “troubled teen” industry, which receives millions of dollars of revenue from Medicaid, local and state governments, and school districts.

Writing for The Regulatory Review, Evelyn Tsisin L’24, G’24 argues for federal government regulation of the industry to address the rampant abuse and mistreatment of youth in RTFs.

For The Regulatory Review:

“You might only be 15, but as far as we can go to kick your ass is how far we’re going to get,” State Senator Brad Molnar (R-Mont.) reportedly commented in opposition to a state bill that aims to improve oversight of the troubled teen industry. This statement comes amid renewed calls by survivors, advocates, and legislators to tackle the rampant physical, psychological, and sexual abuse of youth in residential treatment facilities (RTFs).

This rhetoric, this industry’s actions, and the federal government’s inaction in response to mounting demands for reform are unequivocally unacceptable.

The troubled teen industry encompasses a variety of RTFs, including therapeutic and behavioral treatment facilities, attitude-adjustment schools, boot camps, and wilderness programs. An estimated 50,000 teenagers were residing in such facilities as of 2020. Residents are often enrolled in these programs by parents with behavioral concerns, but youth may also be funneled into these facilities from foster care and juvenile detention. Due to a lack of access to local and community-based treatment options, residents are often sent to RTFs across state lines, complicating efforts to regulate and monitor these facilities.

Teens may be subject to legally and ethically dubious tactics before they ever step foot on the grounds of the RTF, with the advent of an industry practice dubbed “gooning” by which youth are placed into these facilities against their will. Some parents hire transport services to stage kidnappings of their children, violently extracting teens from their homes in the middle of the night and delivering them to RTFs thousands of miles away.

Once there, RTFs advertise care, promise behavior modification, and seek to “fix” whatever parents may deem wrong with their teenage kids. But RTFs too often punish mental health and behavior, instead of treating it. Actual, evidence-based treatment, such as cognitive behavior therapy or trauma-informed care, is frequently supplanted by cruel, archaic methods of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

The Regulatory Review is a daily online publication that provides accessible coverage of regulatory policymaking and enforcement issues across a full range of regulatory topics and from a variety of perspectives.

Launched in 2009 and operating under the guidance of Cary Coglianese, Edward B. Shils Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science, The Review is edited by students at Penn Carey Law. It is part of the overarching teaching, research, and outreach mission of the Penn Program on Regulation (PPR), which draws together more than 60 faculty from across the University of Pennsylvania.

Read Tsisin’s full piece at The Regulatory Review.