Forgive me readers, this post will be off theme from my regular posts. Not that I exactly have a theme…
A Facebook friend posted a link – this link – to an article about some TV clown called Dr. Drew, and his interest in promoting a “therapeutic boarding school”. This issue, as some readers will know, is close to my heart; and I feel it’s my duty to use whatever outlets I can to bring a certain perspective to the discourse. If you or someone you know has a “trouble child” and is considering a school like this, I’d love it if you’d consider passing this post along. The site which is the source of the inspiration for this post – cafety.org, or Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth – also asks that you reach out to Dr. Drew to ask him to rescind his endorsement of DRA. All that info is at the bottom of this post.
To Begin, My Experience
I was a student of The Desisto School in Stockbridge, Massachusetts from 1994-1998. The school was defined, I believe, as a therapeutic boarding school. It was essentially a reform school. Or, as one former student called it, a multi-million dollar washing machine for brains.
The Desisto School attracted all sorts of people. Some of us were school-skipping misanthropes. Some antisocial recluses. Some suffered from severe chemical imbalances – docile one day, full of rage the next. In these cases meds had to be constantly adjusted to avoid mania, and home just wasn’t safe anymore. Some of us, just in from juvie, arrived on campus in shackles. Some of us put our fists through windows. Some of us, like myself, were runaways. Suicidal. Self-damaging. Outcasts in our home worlds. Many of the students had been adopted. Many had drug problems. Many had divorced parents.
We had one thing in common: Our parents had nowhere else to turn. Or, I should say, they felt they had nowhere else to turn.
Then Michael Desisto appeared in our lives. Charismatic, brilliant, almost adorable. He was a genius and a madman. He was a loving predator. Many of us are able to hate him while still cherishing him. We suffer from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I guess. I’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way. He died a few years ago and hundreds of students flocked to Stockbridge for his services. When people asked what it was like, I responded that half of us were there to pay respects. The other half were there to piss on his grave. For some of us, both. The truth, probably, is that we wanted mostly to reconnect with our classmates (inmates?) because no one else in this whole wide world can ever truly know what we went through.
It would be easy to go on and on about my experiences at the school, but you’ll have to wait for the memoir for that. I wanted to give that comprehensive intro so that y’all know I know what I’m talking about here, because in general, I have a few things I’d like to say about the therapeutic boarding school experience.
It Begins With Predatory Enrollment
Parents sometimes reach the edge of their capacity to parent. As was the case with many of my classmates, our parents felt they were left with no options. They found themselves incapable of ensuring the safety and well being of their own children. In some instances, kids aren’t only self injurious, but are also abusive to parents and siblings. Families must protect themselves. So…at their most vulnerable, parents seek help. This juncture is a precise perfect moment where a predator can gain inroads.
A person in their right mind will use a certain level of critical thinking. A parent, desperate, will say yes to surprising things. The people running these institutions will appear to offer what no one else can – a solution. Drastic measures, in these cases, seem appropriate and justifiable, and it’s more than tempting to succumb, particularly when the people in charge of making these first impressions are skilled at what they do.
A parent will say over and over that they’ll “do anything” for their child. Sometimes, what looks and feels an awful lot like “doing” for your kid ends up really, at least in part, being for you. I think the ex parents of the Desisto school who are really trying to be honest with themselves, can probably say that although leaving their child at Desisto’s gates may have been one of the hardest things they ever had to do, it was likely also a relief. A relief to go home, make a cup of tea, and not worry that their kid might be bleeding out in the bathtub. To enjoy a family meal without table settings being flung wallward. To know that they did what they had to do to keep their children safe. This so called safety comes at a price, which I get to below.
Once you’ve said goodbye and gone home, and decided that where they are now is better, it’s hard to go back on that. What at first seems like strange communication from the front soon becomes normal. It equalizes. Parents can go on for years in a sort of fog, seduced by this notion of safety, romanticizing their child’s experience because it makes them feel better. All the while they have no idea of what their child is really experiencing.
Keeping Children & Teens “Safe”
It’s true that once I was enrolled at Desisto I never had to be hospitalized again. I never made another earnest attempt to end my life, after the one that landed me there in the first place. I also feel I have, and will forever have, a slightly more nuanced understanding of the way people’s minds work in conjunction with their emotions than do the vast majority of people in our weirdo western civilization, and so in this way, the school did succeed in making me more self sufficient. Many ex students would say fine things about the school. That their experienced helped them become better, more whole, less alienated from reality. These things are true.
I can also say with total clarity, and with no hyperbole, that the Desisto School and its methods had significant deleterious effects on the relationships I would develop for a decade after leaving. The school, my personal relationship with Desisto, and my experience there, continue to have a significant (if less intrusive than before) effect on the relationships I’ll make and maintain for the rest of my life.
Many of the philosophies and guidelines we dealt with at the school were based in shame, humiliation, scapegoating. Some of the consequences we dealt with were physically damaging. Most were mentally taxing, inappropriately applied, and I feel comfortable adding: abusive. Many of the rules and limitations of our very small, very insular world, were born from original philosophies that may have been at least somewhat cogent. However, by the time they were filtered through generations of untrained and inexperienced staff left to their own devices, these rules and practices were draconian and damaging.
I did not attempt to end my life at the Desisto School, but the desire to do so was much more intense while I was a student than it was before I became a student. Had I been left alone, or given an opportunity at the right moment, I probably would have made another attempt. At least early on.
The school devastated me. It destroyed me. For all the safety there, for all the “help” I was receiving, I was a ruined, broken, and alone young girl. This is not the safety my parents sought out, or the safety they were given the impression I was receiving.
Also on the topic of my parents, while we do now have an amicable relationship, I do not forgive them for the decisions they made in my adolescence. I wouldn’t say I hold a grudge, but I do not forgive them. (Yeah, there is a difference.) I say this aloud not to disrespect my parents, whom I love. I say it as another note of caution to parents who are making current considerations to pack their kids up and ship them out. My parents and I get along, and often spend time together, but a certain respect and intimacy we might have had were lost during the years I spent away, and the years following. During my time away, irreparable damage was done to my relationship with my parents. Because of their decisions at the time, to a certain extent, I’m not able to trust them now. I’m 32 years old.
Ask the Administrators About Runaway Rates
Something you might not be considering is whether or not your child might run. Scores of my fellow classmates, myself included, fled the school in secret in the middle of the night. We walked into the nighttime, and faced poverty and homelessness rather than spend another single moment at the school. (It was a school policy that parents not have any contact with their runaway children. Many of us didn’t speak with our parents for years till we, or they, came around. Some returned to school to “finish”, other parents gave up and withdrew – or de enrolled – their kids.)
Diamond Ranch Academy & The Desisto School
It’s true that Diamond Ranch isn’t the same as Desisto. However, I read the testimonials in the article I linked at the beginning of this post, and many of them are eerily familiar. Here are a few that I could have written myself about my experiences more than 15 years ago. Here’s another link to the article on cafety.org.
“No contact [with parents] for a minimum of two weeks, then a therapy phone call carefully monitered every other week. A therapist oversaw the call, and would abruptly end the call and punish you should you describe the place in a negative fashion, or ask to leave.” –DRA Survivor 2010-2011
“Denial of use of bathroom and the use of threats/scare tactics” -DRA Survivors 2005 – 2007, 2011
“They had a punishment in which you were outside from 6:15 am to 8:15 pm, doing manual labor, pulling a heavy cart around for miles, in total silence, and permission had to be asked to do anything. Literally, anything. You were in line of sight of a staff twenty-four seven. One kid said something mildly disrespectful, and ended up out there for a week.” –DRA Survivor 2010-2011
“While outwardly the transition was seamless, I have trouble sleeping and often experience unpleasant flashbacks, and frequent nightmares.” -DRA Survivor 2010-2011
Another similarity: you can look at the Diamond Ranch website, and you see pictures of pretty fields and horses. The Desisto campus was beautiful. The parents who can afford to send their kids to places like this are wooed by things like horses and manicured lawns, yah? But what the place is really about – and the buildings where the students are likely to spend the bulk of their time – won’t likely match the facade.
“What minimal chance might exist for a positive outcome is easily undermined by the high risk of harm and death. Congressional hearings in 2007 and 2008 highlight this risk by offering a detailed account of the many problems associated with programs just like and, arguably, including DRA. The account, based on the findings by the Government Accountability Office’s investigation and report include: the widespread problem of abuse and maltreatment of children, inadequate state regulation, oversight and monitoring, the use of fraudulent marketing by and poor staff training.”
- 2007 Congressional Hearings: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL92FE4010DF42541C
- 2008 Congressional Hearings: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLEE758B17681E3F1F
Call to Action
With regard to Dr. Drew (I had to google him to find out who he is, but maybe others are more in the know?), cafety.org is calling on all concerned citizens to act now. Let Dr. Drew know you would like him to publicly:
- retract his assertions because they have no basis in fact
- acknowledge the potential risks of placement at DRA and programs like it and
- recognize the superiority of community based services (i.e. wrap-around) because they do not perpetuate stigma, they keep families together and children in the community, and the existing evidence demonstrating its efficacy.
** Dr. Drew Show Contact Info:
Dr. Drew promotes Diamond Ranch. Dr. educate yourself and retract. @Drdrewhln @drdrew #OpLiberation #childabuse http://t.co/pI3yFYZV
Thanks for reading. I sincerely hope that this post travels. That it lands in front of parents who are on the brink of some serious decision making. I’m happy to communicate directly with both parents and children for whom the theraputic boarding school experience is imminent. Please feel free to get in touch.
This is all I’d like to say on the topic for now, but it’s not by any means all that I plan to say about my experiences as a kid.