This article was published today and appears to be due for publication in the “Experience” slot in the Weekend supplement of tomorrow’s Guardian. It allows a woman, using a pseudonym, to tell how she hired two ‘escorts’ to take her daughter to Utah to go on a seven-week “boot camp” course after she decided she wanted to be a hairdresser rather than do whatever high-end career her mother wanted her to do, and after her 14-year-old brother got caught with drugs. The camp appears to be one run by the so-called World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS), an organisation that runs (or ran) a chain of boot camp type institutions in parts of the USA as well as Jamaica and Mexico:
I had paid $16,000 (£11,380) for seven weeks of gruelling physical and mental challenges. The other kids were in desperate situations: young offenders, drug addicts, some were suicidal. I was aware my daughter didn’t share their circumstances. They lived like cavemen: they didn’t see a roof the whole time, took care of their sanitary waste, learned survival skills and did physical labour; some cut off their hair because they couldn’t bathe.
They had daily therapy and wrote letters to their parents. My daughter’s were full of apology: how she had made mistakes, wanted to be forgiven, how she loved me. Sure, she was angry at first when she didn’t know what was going on, but she soon understood why I’d sent her there and was embarrassed.
The woman goes on to describe how her daughter finished high school with straight A’s, got a degree and then a master’s, and now works “in the legal system”. Readers may remember that the BBC (among other British media outlets) promoted this organisation in 2003 and 2004 by running a series of features (, , ) on Susie el Madawi from Halifax, who was tricked into going to “Casa by the Sea” in Mexico. The features made much of the improvement in Susie’s behaviour while at the facility, and ironically given today’s story, at the time of writing she was attending a beauty therapy course at a local college. However, CBTS was shut down by Mexican child protectiion services in September 2004, just months after these stories aired, for among other reasons that the school’s employees lacked the relevant qualifications and that out-of-date medications were in use.
Parents and young people interviewed by the NY Times in 2003 tell of outright abuse, including being held in solitary confinement for days for trivial infractions of harsh rules. One girl was ‘demoted’ for giving another girl a hug; more advanced ‘pupils’ were allowed to punish junior ones. The victims were often kidnapped and shackled in order to take them there, and some were guilty of nothing more than skipping school or listening to ‘dark’ music. The camps were promoted as fostering educational achievement and that students supposedly graduated with high-school diplomas, but in fact ‘students’ were just expected to study by themselves from textbooks and many have been unable to access their records as adults. Actual teaching, as well as stationery and the therapy boasted of in the brochures, cost the parents extra.
It’s shocking that the BBC and others who picked up this story did not bother to do basic research about the abuses perpetrated by WWASPS institutions in the Americas before publishing uncritical stories that portrayed it as harsh but effective. The fact is that the ends do not justify the means — the improvements in behaviour of some of the victims do not justify the abuses, particularly when the behaviour that led to them being sent there was not even close to being a crime. These abuses would be a scandal in a detention centre that took genuine convicted criminals; almost none of the individuals sent to WWASPS institutions were sent under court order, rather they were forced there by their families. Of course, abuses do happen in state-run or state-authorised institutions, but we don’t see these places, and their methods, openly promoted. The tearful phonecalls (when they were even able to make any) from victims to their parents apologising for their past mistakes do not prove that the institutions had lasting positive effects on their behaviour; they prove that they were traumatised. If there were underlying problems, this will if anything make them worse.
Kidnapping and false imprisonment are crimes, and they are crimes for a reason. That these things happen reflects a contempt for young people’s rights and a lack of the rule of law in the places where they are tolerated. There is no excuse for ‘respectable’ media organisations like the BBC and the Guardian to be promoting this outfit or its institutions or the criminal parents who fed them victims. I know the Guardian sources a lot of their ‘Experience’ columns from the USA and they’re usually secondhand, but a bit of research would have shown that the camp where this woman sent her daughter was run by an organisation with a long history of proven incidents of abuse and may well have been one of the camps implicated; most of them were shut down by the late 2000s. It’s utter, inexcusable negligence.
Image source: Al-Jazeera, which sourced it from a former resident of the WWASP Ivy Ridge institution in New York.
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