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53 JUNE 2003
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from the soapbox

Off-shore schools: sea change needed

Karen vanderVen

I’ve always claimed that the best way to learn about the most current and pressing issues in child and youth work is from the major newspapers. Within the last several weeks there have been two New York Times articles about conditions in “off-shore” (of the United States) “specialty boarding schools” for youth who are so troubled that their parents will send them off – often suddenly taken away in the night – to these settings.

Some years ago there were similar exposes of “psychiatric” facilities in which the physical restraint and emotional constraint described were frightening. I remember the moving and disturbing account of his days spent in one of these (also expressed in a New York Times article) by a young man named Banning Lyon. I was so unsettled by it that I still remember his name and that he described how incredible it was when he was actually able to feel fresh air after a storm following long periods of indoor restriction. In the most recent New York Times article, teenagers in a “ranch” in Costa Rica rebelled and simply walked away, closing the school.

What is ominous, then, is the fact that these scandals continue to surface. One program, chain or “school” closes, and new ones open. As the gruesome stories of abuse emerge, the bottom line seems to be the bottom line. Because the schools are not subject to regulations, they are subject to the less-than-altruistic financial motivations of their owners and administrators. The intent is to appeal to desperate parents, bring in the unruly youth, provide only minimum “care” by untrained staff, and to earn as much money as possible. In these “behavior modification” programs, youth are isolated, broken down with an emphasis on compliance and, in the worst examples, physically abused, bullied, punished for caring behavior towards others, sent to isolation for days on end, and medically neglected.

It is possible to check out the parent-oriented web sites describing these programs. Reading these, the glowing descriptions of the program “model", photographs of smiling, wholesome looking teens engaged in interesting activities, and testimonials as to how participation turned lives around – are easy to believe and hard to resist. They sound as if they offer those elements in youth programs that we might support. A change of scene to enable a fresh start, a separation from the context in which out-of-control or negative behavior occurs; highly-structured programs of expectations and challenge, encourage youth to find strengths and talents they never knew they had and to develop new ways to relate to others. Some parents reportedly enroll their children solely on the basis of viewing the web sites and other promotional materials.

We often claim that we need to improve our marketing efforts in child and youth work – to tell the good stories and not dwell only on the tragedies and inept performance within the system. Seems as if the opposite is true with these off-shore schools. The “marketing” is great – although they've not learned that the crux of marketing is the quality of the product, not just what they say characterizes it. In fact, one program stresses that it is actually not responsible for providing the services that promotional materials or public relations staff might claim are offered.

A recent cartoon of GarfieId ends with the just-fed feline saying “You don’t have to have the answers if you have the right questions”. The cartoon was funny. Abusive and neglectful treatment of youth isn’t. I of course don’t have the answers. But this situation certainly gives us some profound concerns to inspire us to ask, not just right questions, but to recognize that it is right to do so.

What then should we make of these disturbing reports? What connection is there between these programs and the profession of child and youth work? Should we consider them within our purview? Should we speak out and if so to whom? Has anyone on CYC-Net ever worked in one of them? How can we prevent the escalation of such “solutions” for the youth and their families and offer better ones?


Weiner, T. (2003, May 9). Parents, Shopping for Discipline, Turn to Tough Schools Abroad. The New York Times, p. A1, p. A10 Read article here

Weiner, T. (2003, May 27). U.S. Youths Rebel at Harsh School in Costa Rica and Many Head for Home. The New York Times, p. A6

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