Tough Love Hurts


In a new report, the Government Accountability Office cites "thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death," in "residential treatment programs" for "troubled youth." The report was released yesterday at a House hearing where the parents of Aaron Bacon, a teenager who died at a Utah boot camp in 1994, testified. According to The New York Times, "His parents said they saw Northstar as a place that would distance Aaron from negative influences at his high school, where he had begun dabbling in drugs." The staff there starved him, forced him on long hikes, and beat him, according to the GAO, "from the top of his head to the tip of his toes." Northstar's owner and four employees pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in 1994, but none served any time in prison.

While Northstar was shut down, other abusive "tough love" programs continue to operate, as Maia Szalavitz showed in an appalling reason exposé earlier this year. In addition to criminally negligent managers and incompetent or sadistic staff members, lax state regulators and excessively trusting parents bear a share of the blame for this situation. But as Szalavitz's piece makes clear, the problem would not be nearly as big or as persistent were it not for the anti-drug hysteria that drives panicked parents to send their children to places like Northstar. Aaron Bacon is no longer "dabbling in drugs," and in that sense, I suppose, his "treatment" was a success.

In follow-ups to her reason feature, Szalavitz has noted Mitt Romney's ties to "tough love" camps and highlighted attempts to squelch criticism of such programs. Her book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids is available here.