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Arrested Development

Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. By Maia Szalavitz. Riverhead Books. 320 pages. $25.95.

Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth. By John Hubner. Random House. 277 pages. $25.95

Teenagers: They’re not what they used to be. They’re less violent than they were a decade or so ago and less liable to act up at school or try to harm themselves. They’re also less likely to use drugs, get pregnant, or climb behind the wheel drunk and drive into a tree. But no amount of happy stats can counter the popular image of the teenage superpredator—or the notion that each generation is worse than the one before.

Our determination to distrust our own children shows up on every page of Maia Szalavitz’s Help at Any Cost, a compendium of nightmares drawn from the history of an industry that claims to rehabilitate wayward youth via “tough love” techniques such as forced marches, solitary confinement, food and sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, “stress positions,” and other methods now associated with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Marketed variously as boot camps, behavior-modification programs, and “therapeutic” boarding schools—and scattered across the globe—the troubled-teen industry claims to cure everything from back talk to addiction, despite the complete lack of evidence that it works and the mounting evidence of the harm it inflicts, from post-traumatic stress to more than a dozen deaths.

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The love part of this equation is hard to locate in the individual stories Szalavitz recounts, like that of Aaron Bacon. When the 16-year-old high school sophomore from Phoenix started using drugs and sneaking out at night, his parents had him kidnapped by 280-pound “escorts” and placed in the hands of a wilderness program that forced him to march through the Utah desert for days on end. When he began to flag because of an undiagnosed intestinal ulcer, staffers accused him of malingering, deprived him of food, and forced him to sleep without a sleeping bag in below-freezing temperatures. Aaron died in a truck that was returning him to the beginning of the course; those charged with his care had responded to his collapse by insisting the “faker” start over.

If Help at Any Cost sometimes feels like a turkey shoot—the ludicrous “programs” Szalavitz goes after have been exposed before and are fairly easy to demolish—it’s worth remembering that these fear farms are still around despite repeatedly having been investigated, discredited, and sued. (Remarkably, though, no one knows just how many thousands of kids are sent off to them every year or the untold millions worried parents pump into programs that routinely cost as much as private colleges.) But the horror stories have done little to devalue the cultural currency of the tough-love ideal. The New York Times’ Style section recently ran a mournful column in which a father described having his son dragged from his bed and sent into the wilds, in the hope that the boy would find exile curative. And the boot-camp experience is now being packaged as entertainment: ABC has launched Brat Camp—a reality show set at a wilderness camp, in which defiant teens morph into pliant scouts over the course of a season.

To the obvious questions—How the hell did we allow this to happen? How can it still be happening?—Szalavitz mainly offers hypotheses. The most convincing is that the troubled-teen industry is another toxic side effect of the war on drugs—that too many parents let the drug czar’s PR guys convince them that the kid getting high in the basement is in grave danger and needs extreme intervention if his future is to be salvaged. The idea that things are “different” for kids today—rebellion riskier, the pot more potent—has become part of the common wisdom. In the end, torture at home is justified the same way it is abroad: There’s a war on, and extraordinary times demand extreme measures.

Help at Any Cost winds up with an appendix that helpfully outlines “evidence based” alternatives to the tough-love approach. Szalavitz also might have steered those in search of alternatives to John Hubner’s Last Chance in Texas, an account of a program that is the mirror opposite of the tough-love approach—and one that works.

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