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Losing Erica: Cynthia Clark Harvey Doesn't Want Anyone Else's Child to Die in a Wilderness-Therapy Program

By Amy Silverman

Cynthia Clark Harvey climbs the stairs to the second floor of her north Phoenix home, pausing in a small bedroom. It’s the kind of room empty-nesters tend to keep, and this one is packed with artifacts from her daughters’ childhoods. Briana’s Beanie Babies hang on the wall in an organizer with her name on it; there’s a needlepoint of a panda and some balloons, marking Erica’s birth.

In that same room there’s a framed self-portrait of Erica. Drawn in 2001, just after her 15th birthday, it looks like it took days to complete. Cynthia doesn’t recall whether the drawing was done in pencil or soft charcoal, but she does remember that Erica finished it for a school assignment in just a couple of hours. She turned it in so she wouldn’t fail her art class, but Erica didn’t like the portrait, Cynthia recalls, adding, “She said she looked like she was scared shitless.”The image is haunting. Erica’s eyes are enormous, framed by two braids, and the pain on her face is so exquisite it’s hard to look at it for long. It’s the portrait of a young girl losing her mind.

What happened to Erica Harvey and her family is the stuff of young adult novels and after-school specials — except this story is true. Cynthia Clark Harvey and Michael Harvey’s sweet, straight-A, firstborn child hit puberty and fell into a downward spiral of mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and self-destructive behavior.

She was dead before her 16th birthday.

But Erica didn’t take her own life. On Memorial Day weekend in 2002, she flew to Nevada with her parents and sister. Erica thought she was going on a family vacation to Lake Tahoe. The truth was that Michael and Cynthia had signed her up for a wilderness-therapy program — their last-ditch attempt to get Erica off street drugs, which formed a dangerous combination with the anti-depression and anti-psychotic medications she was on. The three-week camp was supposed to be a more palatable alternative to a hospital. An adventure. Something fun.

The camp officials had told her parents to lie to Erica. She was angry. She hugged her sister goodbye, but not her mother.

“I told Erica, ‘I love you,’” Cynthia recalls, standing in tears at her kitchen island on a recent fall afternoon, replaying the scene in her head as she has so many times over the past seven years. “And she said, ‘Well, I hate you. Don’t touch me.’

“And that was the last thing I heard from her.”

What happened next has been documented in hundreds of pages of police and medical reports; Cynthia has testified about it before Congress.

On her first full day at camp, Erica and other kids were taken on a wilderness hike. At first, the reports indicate, she did well — taking off ahead of the others, even though she’d refused most food and drink since arriving at the camp. But by 6 that evening, according to eyewitness accounts, Erica was acting oddly, talking gibberish. Then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fell off the trail, into a deep ravine. She didn’t get up. She had no pulse.

At first, the staff thought she was faking, then began CPR. It was 45 minutes before someone called for a helicopter, and it took hours for the help to arrive; the staff was confused, giving the wrong coordinates to a search-and-rescue team. As it turned out, that staff also didn’t have experience dealing with a kid on psychotropic drugs, like Erica. The EMT on the trip was on his very first trek.

Erica had been down for five hours when hospital staff noted her temperature was still 101.7 degrees. The official cause of death was heatstroke and dehydration.

Erica Harvey is not the only kid who’s died in a wilderness-therapy program.

It took a while for her to get the gumption to go online, but once she did, Cynthia Clark Harvey found others in similar circumstances — middle and upper-middle class families who had paid a lot of money to scare their kids straight with a tough-love adventure, only to see them return abused. Or not at all.

There are no comprehensive statistics because there is almost no regulation of the industry, but in 2007, the United States Government Accountability Office documented reports of thousands of cases of abuse and neglect at “therapeutic” programs all over the country — including 10 deaths that the GAO studied in depth. The GAO investigated at the behest of Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat who introduced legislation in 2007 to regulate the largely unmonitored “troubled-teen industry” and held hearings on the subject.

Before that, the spotlight on wilderness-therapy camps had been dim. Maia Szalavitz, author of the 2006 book Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, explains that these programs are really off the radar in a lot of ways.

Child advocates tend to fight for poor kids. Human rights activists champion political causes. But who, Szalavitz asks, fights for middle-class teenagers? After years of research, she’s concluded that many of the tactics employed by wilderness-therapy programs are no different from those used at Guantanamo Bay. No, Szalavitz concedes, there’s no waterboarding at a therapy camp. But she’s documented cases of emotional attacks, intense group pressure, physical abuse, and the withholding of food, water and sleep.

Complain, and you’ll just be accused of faking it.

“It’s all the stuff that people use to break people when they have to break people without leaving marks,” Szalavitz says.

The programs are huge moneymakers, she says, because the overhead is so low. Some don’t even require a high school degree for so-called “therapists.” Because much of the program involves camping, there are no facilities to pay for. The food served isn’t great.

There is no research to show any of what goes on at these camps works, according to Szalavitz. No peer-reviewed journal articles, no controlled studies. Just anecdotal testimony from parents and kids — some of which has been paid for, she says.

That’s why Cynthia Clark Harvey and other families of kids who’ve died are so important to the cause, Szalavitz adds.

When she started her Internet research shortly after Erica died, Clark Harvey found Bob and Sally Bacon. They were also living in Phoenix. In 1994, their son, Aaron, had suffered an excruciating death in a wilderness-therapy camp in Utah.

Cynthia Clark Harvey, Bob Bacon, and others testified before George Miller’s committee in 2007. The GAO reported its findings as well.

Calling abuses in such programs an “open secret,” Miller opened his first hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee by saying, “We have heard stories where program staff members forced children to remain in seclusion for days at a time; to remain in so-called ’stress’ positions for hours at a time; or to undergo extreme physical exertion without sufficient food and water.

“Today, we will hear even more horrifying stories. Of children denied access to bathrooms and forced to defecate on themselves. Of children forced to eat dirt or their own vomit. Of children paired with older children — so-called “buddies” — whose job it is, essentially, to abuse them.

“There is only one word for these behaviors: inhuman.”

Apparently, when it’s not monitored correctly, the “tough love” approach can pretty easily go awry. Particularly when it’s applied to a volatile group, like teenagers with mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

The GAO investigated many deaths in “therapy” programs, including:

• A 16-year-old girl from Virginia who died of a massive head trauma at a camp in Utah. She fell while hiking on Christmas Day. The staff had reportedly not scouted the dangerous area and didn’t have medical equipment. It took paramedics an hour to arrive.

• A 14-year-old boy from Texas who died of hyperthermia (overheating) at a Utah camp. He had difficulty hiking and sat down, then fainted and lay motionless. A staff member hid behind a tree for 10 minutes to see if the boy was faking before discovering he had no pulse. The boy died soon afterward.

• A 15-year-old boy from California who died at a Missouri boot camp/boarding school, probably as a result of complications from a spider bite. Despite showing signs of medical distress for days, the program’s medical staff said the boy was faking — and because he was weak and couldn’t exercise, he was forced to wear a 20-pound sandbag around his neck.

Szalavitz has also documented cases of girls forced to give lap dances as part of their therapy, and another girl told to cover herself in dirt to symbolize the fact that as a rape victim, she was dirty. How is that going to make them better? she asks.

The truth is that no one really knows what to do with mentally ill kids. Most insurance plans will pay for expensive care for only so long. Then, parents are on their own. Community-based treatment, while widely touted as the best option, is tricky to apply and all but unavailable, particularly in a place like Arizona, which has a rich history of under-funded behavioral-health services.

The largely private, often unregulated “troubled-teen industry” fills a void — as long as parents can afford to pay out of pocket, since insurance rarely covers the bills. In 2002, Erica Harvey’s wilderness therapy program cost $8,040 for a 21-day session. Today, a 21-day session at a Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Program costs $11,185.

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Posted in: News by SoulRiser on December 26, 2009 @ 11:21 PM

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