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Netflix docuseries shines light on troubled teen industry

Critics say some troubled teen programs can cost up to $30,000 a month.
Kristin Schwab with her parents
Posted at 7:49 PM, Apr 26, 2024

Kristin Schwab was 17 years old the night two strangers appeared at her home to take her away.

“They told me they had to handcuff me, so I was handcuffed to the female and then walked out of my house in the driveway,” Schwab remembers.

She was driven from her home in Syracuse, New York, through the darkness to a place her parents thought would help her deal with personal traumas that were causing her to harm herself and develop eating disorders. But instead of help, Schwab found herself in a nightmare.

“It was insane. And if my parents knew where I was, there was no way they would want me there,” she says.

Schwab found herself a captive resident of the Academy At Ivy Ridge near Ogdensburg, New York, which sold itself as a "tough love" boarding school for troubled teens. She and her fellow students were under the strictest rules, not allowed to talk or even make eye contact. Punishment could be severe.

“You would see girls literally dragged out of the classroom by their hair down a flight of stairs after being restrained,” says Schwab.

She says kids were often locked in solitary confinement.

“It’s a closet. There was no window, there was no furniture,” she says. “We had to sit on the floor and they would keep you in there for days.”

Nothing was private. Schwab says she was watched when using the bathroom, and even when taking a shower.

Her education, she says, was a joke.

Schwab says she had no way to tell her parents what was going on. The letters she wrote them were heavily censored.

“If we said anything that even suggested that we were being abused or made the program look bad, we would be punished instead,” she says.

Desperate to get out, one day Schwab took extreme measures.

“I ended up cutting my wrists, hoping that it would get me sent to a mental hospital instead,” she remembers. “Because I wanted to be able to see my family for Christmas. It did not work.”

The story of Ivy Ridge is told in a Netflix docuseries called "The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping."

The series is shining new light on the so-called troubled teen industry: thousands of behavior modification facilities, treatment centers and outdoor wilderness programs across the country that critics say are largely unregulated, deceptively marketed and even deadly.

In 2020, Cornelius Fredericks was just 16 when he got in trouble for throwing a sandwich at one facility. He was restrained by school staffers and later died.

Two employees were sentenced to probation and the school shut down.

In 2022, 17-year-old Taylor Goodrich died after a medical emergency at a boarding school in Utah, home to more troubled teen programs than any other state.

“We've had a long history of problems in the state of Utah,” says state Senator Mike McKell.

Legislation McKell sponsored in 2021 is now law in Utah. It limits use of restraints and drugs, requiring facilities to submit reports when kids are put in solitary confinement, and submit to four surprise inspections every year.

“There are there are a lot of facilities that years ago I would have been really concerned with that are improving. But it's a big industry with a lot of a lot of money. The financial incentive is still there,” says Sen. McKell.

Critics say some troubled teen programs can cost up to $30,000 a month and the industry overall takes in millions of dollars in public money from Medicaid and local and state governments.

“The whole thing was a big scam to get money from parents and keep kids there as long as they possibly could,” says Kristin Schwab.

Ivy Ridge closed in 2009. The organization that ran it is out of business. Efforts to reach the owners and former staff at Ivy Ridge were unsuccessful.

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programsis the largest non-profit membership group for residential treatment centers. It was not associated with Ivy Ridge.

The groups says programs that incorporate clinical evidence and research can do some good. In a statement after the Netflix series the groups said, "The Association will continue to work tirelessly to eliminate systems of abuse and champion genuine, safe solutions for youth in need of authentic therapy."

Kristin Schwab wants Congress to pass a national law with more stringent oversight.

“There are multiple programs that are just like the ones still open around the country are run by a lot of the same people, that they'll shut one down and they'll just reopen in the same location or down the street with a different name and it's the exact same thing,” Schwab says.

The district attorney in Saint Lawrence County New York is now investigating dozens of new complaints against former Ivy Ridge staff members. Kristin's mother wants to see criminal charges and has many questions for the former Ivy Ridge employees.

“How dare you abuse my daughter and treat her like any animal? It's like, and how can you lie to me? And why did you not tell us everything that was going on? Why, if you're professional people, how could you do this to somebody?” Barbara Schwab asked.

Kristin is now doing her best to move forward, and says she is committed to speaking out for other teens who cannot.

“It's bad enough what they did to myself and all of the people I know 18 years ago,” she says, “But to know that there's still people that it's happening to today, it's terrible.”