An Illinois freelance journalist was inspired by his personal experience at CEDU — widely recognized as the flagship enterprise of the "troubled teen boarding school" industry — to undertake an investigation of that facility. In 2018, he published an in-depth 16,000-word history of CEDU and its offshoots on Medium.com.
He grew up in a North Shore suburb, and was sent to CEDU by his own parents for adolescent depression (a diagnosis the family now disputes). In 2000, after 16 months at CEDU, his parents withdrew him from the California facility to return to public high school in Illinois. Although he is fully identified to NPRIllinois, he has never discussed CEDU publicly and wishes to remain anonymous, but agreed to answer written questions:
Q: What was your goal when you published your CEDU memoir in Medium?
A: It's not a memoir; it's an investigative article. I don’t want to tell my story at CEDU, and I can’t recall most of my confinement anyway. Instead, my goal was to understand the life story of CEDU — one of the country's oldest and most influential residential treatment facilities. CEDU helped launch what's horribly called the "Troubled Teen Industry." (Survivors largely think of it as the TPI — “Troubled Parent Industry.”) And yet I couldn’t find any long-form investigation into it. I started working on a legacy piece in 2015, the 10-year anniversary of CEDU's supposed closure. (Spoiler: it's still open.) I pitched or sent drafts on spec to more than 30 publications, but it was rejected absolutely everywhere. In 2018, I realized my inbox had three years’ worth of editors telling me a survivor of institutional abuse couldn’t accurately investigate his own institution. Sick of seeing that rubbish, I posted a draft on Medium.
Q: Since it's been out, how many TPI survivors have contacted you?
A: I haven't counted. I’d say at least a few hundred. Frankly, I’m amazed this work found a readership at all. Self-publishing anonymously meant basically zero promotion. And a 16,000 word article plus three complicated updates and a dizzying interview with a longtime CEDU counselor is a lot to ask of readers — both civilians and survivors.
Q: What's the range of their responses?
A: Before I answer the range of responses, let me mention the range of ages. Even though I’m also a survivor, it’s astonishing to receive messages from 60-somethings and 20-somethings detailing the exact same counter-therapeutic techniques they endured. But back to responses. Mostly they have been appreciative, profoundly kind, and encouraging. That said, there's a good deal of vigorous CEDU defenders, and I’ve dealt with some threats and several doxxing attempts. Since June, 2018 (when the story was published), I’ve been in a sort of perpetual half-doxx state.
Weirder, I've received messages that both show appreciation and attempt to out me. Something like: "Great work here. You got everything right. I think I know you and I'm going share your name on Facebook." So far, the most difficult "negative" responses have come from CEDU survivors bitter that I was pulled from the program. They seem to think, because I didn't endure the full two-year term, I'm not qualified to expose it. I'm not totally against their belief.
Q: What patterns do you notice shared by TPI facilities?
A: The biggest pattern is the very successful, decades-long spread of disinformation to the outside world.
Q: What has changed since the 1960s?
A: Language. I mean, it's almost 2020 and we are still incorrectly describing private residential treatment facilities as "schools" (or "academies") and the residents as "students.” In the 1960s and early ’70s, CEDU was more commonly called a “drug rehab” and a “self-help communal home” and a “self-help center” and an “alternative community” and a “foundation” and a “family.” And instead of “students,” you read about its “members” and “guests” and “residents.”
Another change, connected to this language problem, is better deceptive marketing. For example, an early CEDU brochure mentions “ritualistic” large-group awareness training and includes shadowy black-and-white photos of screaming teens. By the late 1990s, however, brochures make CEDU look like a summer camp with an “emotional growth curriculum” and a baseball team.
CEDU never changed; it always remained a secluded, hysterically violent facility with its own language, a hodgepodge of dated and dangerous substandard therapies and interventions, and antisocial, authoritarian staffers. But for marketing purposes, later CEDU emphasized images of a baseball team.
Q: What has remained unchanged since the 1960s?
A: 1) Extremism. 2) Attempting to modify the behavior of individuals who don't need behavior modification. 3) A general mistrust and dislike of outsiders, specifically state agencies, local law enforcement, reporters, and parents. 4) A general mistrust and dislike of adolescents — you know, the population they’re hired to treat.
Q: There have been a lot of stories exposing horrible scandals at these schools, but nothing ever changes. Why?
A: This is a question with a thousand unsatisfactory answers. Institutional abuse is never about one institution. Of course, you have the endless failures of school districts, educational consultants, and law enforcement. Also, inadequate oversight and state licensing agencies unable, or unwilling, to suspend or revoke a program's license. Adding to this, there's little public outrage. A "scandal" at a "school" for "troubled teens" sets up a forgettable narrative. And, besides, isn't a "troubled teen" someone who drowns kittens?
Just as problematic, media often portrays teens at private residential programs as affluent. For example, "When Rich Kids Go Bad" is the hideous and false title to an old Forbes profile on CEDU. That language was grossly inaccurate, but stuck nonetheless. Isn’t it easy to dismiss a scandal at a school for rich baddies?
But the best answer to your question can be found in a 1969 San Bernardino Sun piece. It quotes one of several anti-CEDU councilmen as saying “many people don’t care about their children." This councilman added, “and they’re mighty happy that Cedu is boarding them.” In the end, nothing changes because parents keep sending their children away.
Q: In your opinion, is there any circumstance or any child for which "therapeutic boarding school" is beneficial?
A: Yes. The day that child walks out of one.
Q: What's your message to parents contemplating "therapeutic" placement?
A: I'll leave the messages and sloganeering to people working within this industry. But my opinion? Parents should strongly contemplate keeping their children in public school. Also, they should contemplate kindly nudging their children into finding soul-fulfilling high-school jobs. Oh, and they should get their kids a dog.