What’s best for troubled teens?

Increasingly, Canadian youth are put in U.S. residential programs

Kristen Schmid/ St. Petersburg Times/ Zuma/ Keystone

Using boot camps or wilderness programs to treat youth suffering from emotional, behavioural or addiction problems is a divisive issue in the mental health profession. So a conference in Toronto this month that will include representatives of more than 100 such residential therapeutic programs—four are Canadian, the rest are U.S.-based—has reignited the debate about their efficacy, and the increasing placement of Canadian youth in these facilities.

The conference, organized by the Fairfax, Va.-based Independent Educational Consultants Association, is an opportunity for these programs, as well as traditional boarding schools and colleges, to market themselves to the IECA’s members, who offer placement advice to parents and youth. Mark Sklarow, the IECA’s executive director, says the gathering is being held in Canada due, in part, to an uptick in interest from Canadian clients.

But Roch Longueépée, founder of Restoring Dignity, a Halifax-based NGO that fights institutional child abuse, says the inclusion of U.S. residential therapeutic programs is “a wake-up call” about Canadian recruitment to largely privately run facilities with “a lack of oversight [or] structure for safeguards.” Some recent high-profile cases of abuse and neglect at therapeutic facilities, he says, are proof that such programs can put vulnerable kids at risk. Sklarow says all of the programs represented at the conference have met national accreditation and state licensure standards. “If we have evidence that any attendee at the conference has ever been convicted of child abuse,” he says, “we would not allow them to attend.”

The conference has also attracted the attention of Ontario’s child advocate, Irwin Elman. More than anything, Elman is concerned these facilities fill a “vacuum” of services in Canada, where, he says, “we are not meeting our commitments to children and youth.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.