true crime

Troubled teens, wilderness camps and the legal kidnapping that's happening in the United States.

As a mum and stepmum of four teens and tweens - all with varying levels of attitude - I sometimes fantasise that someone will take my children away and teach them how to pull their weight, take care of their own sh*t, and behave like civilised humans. 

But that's all it is: a fantasy. 

I love them all dearly, and really see it as my responsibility that they grow up feeling loved, nurtured, and - to the best of my ability - as untraumatised as possible. 

But something sinister has been going on in the US for decades now, and it's starting to garner some serious attention online. Kids who have been 'kidnapped' and taken to wilderness camps are telling their stories on TikTok, and they're not only wild, they're downright disturbing.

Watch: What Happened in So-Called 'Gone Girl' Kidnapping Case. Post continues below.

Video via ABC. 

Teens are telling of being woken in the middle of the night, having their hands handcuffed or tied with cable ties, and being bundled into a vehicle with strangers and taken away against their will.

And the craziest thing about all of this is that this is being done with the express written permission of their parents, who have signed over parental rights to an organisation that promises to straighten them out and return them to their families after their camp with a renewed appreciation for their family, their school, and the law.


It kind of sounds like the modern version of a lobotomy, but you can understand why it might appeal to some parents, who are at their wit's end. Kids who are being sent to these camps are often taking drugs, doing poorly at school (if they're turning up at all), refusing to help at home, and getting into trouble with the police.

The idea is that these organisations take 'troubled teens' and put them into a wilderness camp, where they receive 'tough love', learn the value of being a good citizen, and then go home not wanting to smoke weed behind the bike sheds at school anymore.

There are reportedly dozens of state-run camps still operating across the US, as well as around the same amount of private programs, and the 'troubled teen' rehabilitation industry is worth an estimated $1.2 billion every year in the States.

If you take a Machiavellian approach to life, you might think the ends justify the means, but the stories that are being shared go well beyond being told to do 100 burpees or having to make your bed with hospital corners every morning. Those stories include kids who went to camp and never came back. 

Kristen Chase was 16 when she died of heatstroke in 1990. 


Michelle Sutton was 15 when she died from dehydration in the same year. 

Aaron Bacon was 16 when he died a slow, agonising death from a perforated ulcer in 1994, which went untreated because counsellors thought he was faking it. 

In 2000, 15-year-old William "Eddie" Lee was killed at an Oregon wilderness camp when a camp counsellor pinned him to the ground and injured an artery in his neck. 

In 2005, Anthony Haynes was 14 when he died during a punishment at a wilderness camp. 

Caleb Johnson's body was found bundled in a faeces and urine-soaked sleeping bag at a wilderness camp. He was 15. 

And in 2016, 19-year-old Lane Lesko died while trying to escape from a wilderness retreat. 

These stories are shocking, but even if you think of them as the extreme outliers, let's talk for a moment about the concept of sending your child away for a few weeks of 'tough love' to pull them into line. 

Katelyn Haruko Schmisseur told USA Today just last year about her 'dehumanising' experience, after being sent away to a camp at the age of 16 because she had an eating disorder. The first thing she was ordered to do when she arrived was a three-mile (4.8km) hike in the Utah desert. 

Katelyn also said that a staff member was with her at all times, and that her toilet was a bucket within a tarp tied between two trees, which was shared among 10 people, with one roll of toilet paper and a whole lot of flies. Katelyn had to make eye contact with a staff member while she was using the toilet, as part of her 'therapy'. 


"I was terrified," said Katelyn. "They make it very clear to you that you are a patient. You have no freedom. You have no choice."

In an article for The Guardian, Ciara Fanlo wrote that she was 17 when escorts drove her to a warehouse, strip-searched her, and told her to put all her belongings into a shoebox. She spent 12 weeks in a Colorado wilderness camp, with no tent, no shower, and no toilet. 

"I had to stay within an arm's reach of a guide at all times," she wrote. "I could not even go to the bathroom alone. I slept sandwiched between two guides, with a tarp over my sleeping bag to prevent me from running away."

She wrote of being forced to drink laxatives until she soiled her pants, drinking water from cow ponds, and having to carry a bag of her own vomit for five days. 

I'm no child psychologist, but I haven't read a parenting book yet that recommends this type of approach with any sort of behaviour. And while the more ethically run camps might have some success in changing the behaviour of the children being sent there, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University John Weisz told High Country News that their reported benefits are unproven.

"It's hard to make a case for spending a lot of money on a program for which there is no strong evidence," he said. "From the state of the evidence that I've seen, we really don't know whether wilderness therapy has beneficial effects or not."


Further to that, the trauma of being 'yanked' out of their home and taken somewhere they're highly resistant to can cause added trauma that can last for years, psychologist Carla Marie Manly told USA Today.

That trauma is evident in the stories that are being shared on TikTok - which are shocking not only in their detail, but in the sheer volume of them.

Deborah Vargas, a former policy analyst for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, told HealthDay that parents should explore all other avenues before resorting to boot camps and, if they must send their children to a camp, to do some thorough research first.

"These programs promise parents who are at their wit's end a quick fix, but there is no quick fix," she said. "If you think that a four-month program in the desert is the solution, you're fooling yourself."

Aaron Bacon summed it well in one of his final diary entries before he died:

"It's my 21st day here, and I'm in terrible condition," he wrote. "I feel like I'm losing control of my body.... I'm so scared of everything here - staff, slick rocks, nights, the cold, everything. I couldn't tell at all that I would be doing this sort of thing from the catalog. I describe it as legal child abuse."

Feature Image: TikTok/@gallaghersquirellfund

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