SALT LAKE CITY — Ashley Astle left Spring Creek Lodge, a residential facility for troubled youths in Montana, over a decade ago. She has never been back. “I'm not sure how deeply you want me to go into my experience of the program, but I will give you the short version. Basically, it was terrible,” she said.
Last winter she started to hear disturbing rumors that reopened old wounds. Spring Creek Lodge closed in 2009 after a wrongful death suit after a student hanged herself, and the school sat derelict in a Montana forest. According to another alum who allegedly returned to the facility, the abandoned school was still filled with fragments of past students’ lives — journals, progress notes, letters and medical and mental health records.
The facility, part tough love and part behavior modification, had left a community of traumatized students connected through social media. So Astle organized a Facebook group she called Operation Spring Creek Lodge to galvanize former students in an attempt to retrieve their records or at least make sure they were properly disposed of. Many of those who heard about their efforts were disgusted that the school, which took so much from them emotionally, might retain a physical component as well.
“The problem … is that we have all been through so much trauma in and out of the program, and that’s a very private thing for most of us,” said Astle. “So for them not to properly dispose of these records is an incredibly low blow.”
The for-profit residential youth treatment industry, often criticized for having lax regulation, has left former students seeking answers after dozens of programs have closed over the years. Schools that once operated under the umbrella of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP), with leadership and strong ties to the state of the Utah but with campuses around the world, have left a trail of shuttered programs and, for many students, unknown fates for academic and medical records.
Former students seeking records for colleges, disability claims, lawsuits regarding past abuse or simply a sense of closure have had little recourse.
Astle recalled spending time at Spring Creek in isolation in a room known as the hobbit hole, which was often covered in feces, urine and blood. She described the therapy seminars she was required to attend as brainwashing. She is now an active member of the online survivor community — which includes Facebook groups like WWASP Survivors, Stop WWASP and Spring Creek Lodge Survivors Community — made up of mostly former WWASP program participants critical of the industry.
In July a member of another group, Cross Creek Survivors, posted a picture of a dumpster outside the Cross Creek Manor facility, another former WWASP school in southern Utah. The bin appeared to be filled with former students’ documents. Former students ignited the thread with requests for people to visit the area and confirm the documents — whatever they might be — were properly disposed of.
Chaffin Pullan, a former administrator at Cross Creek, denied it was possible for students’ sensitive documents to end up in a dumpster. Recent academic records are stored off-site, and older records have been destroyed, he said. He acknowledged that hundreds of students have contacted him asking for their records, but he has been able to help only those who recently attended the school. Medical records, he said, including those for therapy sessions, are kept by the individual doctors.
When asked about student concerns regarding records and documents left over from programs, former WWASP president Ken Kay said that what individual schools did with their records was not his organization’s responsibility. “I didn’t have any control over the schools,” he said, “how they stored their records or anything.”
Academic records should have been forwarded to the Browning Academy, an online distance learning center, Kay said.
A representative of Browning confirmed the academy sends out records when it has them. “There are many I do not have. It may take up to one month to process the request,” the person wrote in an email.
The problem, according to Kay, is that some schools never forwarded their transcripts to Browning. “We weren’t responsible for [the schools], but we failed the responsibility to try to coach them,” he said.
Lilly Speerdecker spent three months at the troubled-youth facility Casa by the Sea, in Ensenada, Mexico, until it was closed by Mexican authorities in 2004. Now she runs the Safe Teen Schools website, which provides information on abuse at tough-love facilities like Casa by the Sea. She said former students from WWASP schools regularly contact her for advice on how to locate their transcripts in order to apply for college.
“I don’t know how,” Speerdecker said. “I feel bad because there is nothing I can do.”
In 2005, 34 states reported to the Health and Human Services Department’s National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System 1,503 incidents of abuse by government and private residential facility staffers — the majority alleging neglect or deprivation of necessities (44 percent), with physical abuse second (24 percent).
Two years later, the Alliance for the Safe, Therapeutic and Appropriate Use of Residential Treatment (ASTART) testified on its findings of an online survey of hundreds of former students of residential youth programs. Forty-five percent of the surveyed students reported being emotionally, physically or sexually abused by staff. Over 90 percent had mail and phone calls monitored, and over 80 percent had letters or conversations restricted. More than half had experience in seclusion. The majority described feeling “a lot” of sadness, stress, anger, confusion, hopelessness and fear at their programs.
In 2007 and 2008 there were several U.S. Government Accountability Office reports as well as hearings before Congress on abuse at youth residential treatment facilities.
While there is no data on the exact number of children in residential programs, ASTART estimated there are hundreds of such facilities, with as many as 14,000 children in a peak year, with annual revenue of up to $1 billion.
However, there is no federal regulation of for-profit troubled-youth programs (other than federal HIPAA regulations regarding medical files), leaving oversight of the programs up to individual states.
The Department of Licensing in Utah, for example, has no rules regarding facilities’ keeping documentation, said licensing director Diane Moore.
The Department of Education in New York, tasked with regulating the Academy at Ivy Ridge, another WWASP-affiliated school now closed, requires schools to store student records for 50 years and “take precautions to ensure the security of student academic records.”