Tough love proves too tough

Controversial “wilderness therapy programs” come under critical scrutiny - and lawsuits - after several teenagers die while in their care.

  • Aaron Bacon, hours before his death at camp

    Photo courtesy the Bacon family
  • Aaron Bacon in 1994

    Courtesy the Bacon family

PANGUITCH, Utah - What gnaws at Sally Bacon is that she never hugged her son good-bye when he was pulled from his bed one March morning two years ago and hauled off to a southern Utah wilderness program for misbehaving teenagers.

Thirty days later, she got the chance. It came at a funeral home in Page, Ariz., where Aaron Bacon lay on a stainless steel table, a white sheet covering all but his face.

"I went into the room and his face was unrecognizable," the Phoenix woman sobbed at a hearing in Utah last year. "He had these sunken cheeks, and his eyes, he looked like a skeleton, his hands were all bone. I ripped the sheet off. He was literally bruised, black and blue, from the tip of his toes to the top of his head. He had sores between his legs, open sores. The bottoms of his feet, I don't know how anyone could have walked or hiked on them.

"I began screaming, because something was terribly wrong."

Sally Bacon will retell those memories to a rural Utah jury this fall, when the trial begins for seven employees of North Star, the company that led Aaron Bacon's last trip. The employees are charged with felony counts of neglecting and abusing Aaron, who apparently died from acute peritonitis - an ulcerous meltdown that gradually ate holes in his lower intestine. At issue is whether North Star officials should have recognized the boy's deteriorating health and could have prevented his death. It also has raised the question whether a federal crackdown is needed on so-called "wilderness therapy programs."

Critics call them "hell camps;" satisfied parents call them the best thing that ever happened to their son or daughter. Companies take rebellious kids aged 12 to 18 into the backcountry for several weeks, teach them how to live off the land, and overcome their bad habits and bad attitudes. The assumption is, they then go home to Mom and Dad as responsible young adults.

Aaron Bacon's journey to North Star began in Phoenix, where his parents had watched him spiral downward into regular drug use, with slipping grades, conflicts with gang members and bouts of depression. He smoked marijuana daily, and experimented with LSD, speed and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Aaron promised to quit drugs if he would be allowed to switch from private to public school, and his parents agreed. But when his grades and attitude continued to plummet, his parents showed him a brochure for a wilderness camp run by North Star. He tore it up in their faces.

"I knew it would be rigorous, but he loved the outdoors, and I pictured him sitting around a campfire discussing issues with a therapist," Sally Bacon says. At wit's end, she and her husband decided to sign the enrollment contract, pay the $13,900 fee and send Aaron to North Star.

Most wilderness camps for troubled teens cost $13,000 to $20,000 for an average nine-week stay in the sticks, with most of the fee payable by health insurance. In the West, the camps tend to be short, adventure-based programs, says Archie Buie, director of the National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps. But if the youth reverts to his or her defiant ways after returning home, many programs offer a "parental satisfaction guarantee" that allows return visits to the program at no additional cost.

Buie estimates there are 115 organizations around the country offering outdoor education experiences to troubled youths, either as private ventures, adjuncts to hospitals or as nonprofit foundations. Licensed and monitored by regulations that vary greatly from state to state - if they exist at all - the programs use a variety of treatment methods, from military boot-camp-style discipline to laissez-faire supervision.

Teens enrolled in these programs are frequently taught basic outdoor survival skills, such as starting a fire without matches or making snares to capture small animals. Several companies adopt an American Indian theme, erecting "tipi camps' and teaching students to make pseudo Native American crafts. Employees of North Star Expeditions, for example, were only to be referred to by "Indian names' such as Two Crows, Horsehair and Wall Walker.

Marketing their services in upscale magazines such as Southern Living and Sunset, programs like North Star cater to "troubled, defiant teenagers on a self-destructive path." They are known as non-adjudicated programs, to distinguish them from other private companies that are authorized to accept teen criminal offenders. Most minors in state-run programs are juvenile delinquents, whose care is paid for by taxpayers.

For desperate parents whose teens seem out of control and "in with the wrong crowd," the concept of wilderness therapy sounds like a miracle cure, worth any price. The companies claim thousands of success stories of teens in turmoil whose lives and outlooks were dramatically altered by spending weeks trekking and soul-searching in rugged country, cut off from TV, telephone, family and friends who are "a bad influence."

Critics say there is little evidence to show that wilderness therapy works. They cite one study in the mid-1980s, where the city of San Diego tracked the first 100 delinquent boys it sent through the VisionQuest program. After one year, 55 percent had been arrested again. After three years, 92 percent had been arrested again.

Still, industry leaders like Buie insist that the concept works. "The job is to make sure it's done right," he says. Now, an increasing chorus of parents, civil rights attorneys and prosecutors say too many companies are doing it wrong, and that for some, results have proved deadly.

The recently formed California activist group, Voices Forever Silenced, contends that more than a dozen youths have died nationwide since 1980 in various outdoor treatment or adventure camps. Three teens, including Aaron Bacon, died at teen camps in Utah between 1990 and 1994. The most recent death occurred last June, when 18-year-old Dawnne Takeuchi was thrown from a semi-truck near Pagosa Springs, Colo. Kimberly Stafford, the VisionQuest counselor driving the supply vehicle, was convicted of careless driving and was ordered to pay $270 in restitution.

"How many more lives are going to be lost before we see the necessary changes needed?" asks Voices Forever Silenced co-founder Cathy Sutton of Ripon, Calif. One of the group's main fights has been to pressure Congress for federal regulation. Sutton's 15-year-old daughter Michelle died of dehydration six years ago while enrolled in the now-defunct Summit Quest program in Utah.

So far, the group has had little success in convincing Congress to impose national standards on wilderness treatment programs. Buie and others in the industry continue to resist federal regulation, arguing instead that self-regulation is adequate. As one gesture toward that goal, Buie's association recently pledged never to use force to treat teens.

But as scandals continue to hound the industry, some programs are disappearing. In Utah, for example, the number of wilderness therapy schools has shrunk from 13 in 1990, to three today.

Even some wilderness therapy companies held up as model programs after Aaron Bacon's death have had their troubles. In January, six youths enrolled in Utah's nationally praised Aspen Achievement Academy bolted from their camp in Garfield County after some teens allegedly beat a counselor. They stole a walkie-talkie, which they used to fool authorities into believing they had taken hostages. Deputies later found the youths, but Garfield County Attorney Wallace Lee subsequently determined there was not enough information or evidence to charge the teens with any crime.

The incident has raised concerns that future renegade youths from the Aspen Achievement Academy may assault tourists, hikers and recreationists who also frequent the public lands around Capitol Reef National Park.

"There have been some concerns expressed to us by folks who want to know what areas Aspen kids are using," says Gary Hall of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM is now considering whether to renew the academy's permit to use public lands for the therapy and survival programs for at-risk teens. "They are now on a six-month permit that runs through June, so we are doing an environmental assessment on the program and presenting that to the public for comment."

Despite the number of deaths and mishaps, there has yet to be a criminal conviction against any operator of a teen wilderness therapy program. But if prosecutors can prove neglect and abuse of Aaron Bacon in a state district court this fall, employees of now-defunct North Star could well be the first to be convicted.

The prosecution's evidence is stark: Aaron Bacon, a 5-foot-11-inch teen, began the course weighing 131 pounds. When he died 30 days later, he weighed 108 pounds. Investigators from the Garfield County Sheriff's Department and the Utah attorney general's office have found that during the last 20 days of his life, Aaron went without food for at least 11 days. He also went without a sleeping bag for 14 nights when the average overnight temperature was 32 degrees.

Aaron's worsening condition is chronicled in his journal as well as the journals of other campers. He wrote about how his counselors laughed at him for losing control of his bowel movements. Another teen wrote that Aaron was starting to look "like a Jewish person in the concentration camps."

Defense attorneys will argue in court that what while their clients may have shown poor judgment, they were not responsible for the death of Aaron Bacon. Most of the counselors say they believed Aaron was faking his illness to manipulate the group.

"This was a tragedy," says defense attorney Floyd Holm. "Based on what we know now, it should not have happened. But for every tragedy, it does not follow there was a crime."

The real crime, says Aaron's father, Bob Bacon, is that so many young people are dead. And no one will take responsibility.

"The ignorance, arrogance, incompetence, callousness and greed of the people running these programs is proving repeatedly to be dangerous, abusive and even fatal," says Bacon. "The lessons are not being learned."

Christopher Smith reports for the Salt Lake Tribune.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- The rise and fall of Steve Cartisano


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