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Abuse by Proxy

Dawn Post and Michael J. McFarland


  • The "troubled teen" industry, including private equity-funded and unlicensed faith-based institutions, often engages in abusive practices and is poorly regulated, exploiting desperate parents and state systems.
  • Educational consultants, youth transportation companies, and adoptive parents benefit financially from placing children in abusive facilities, with many teens being sent to international programs with little oversight.
  • Legislative and policy changes are needed to regulate the industry, ensure proper post-adoption support, and hold parents accountable for child abandonment, with advocacy efforts underway to address these issues.
Abuse by Proxy
Aaron McCoy via Getty Images

“My son needs a strict regime with strong men running the show.” That was the position of one parent who refused to plan for the return of his son to the United States after he was removed, along with 7 other boys, from Atlantis Leadership Academy (ALA) in Jamaica due to severe abuse and neglect allegations. The “strict regime” included allegations such as the following incidents:

“[They] took the belts, tied “C” around the neck to the railing (of the staircase), tied his arms behind his back & tied his legs together to a stool. C was screaming, so [they] instructed me to put my dirty socks in C’s mouth, then tied a shirt to secure it in place. I then put clothespins on his ears, his cheeks, & he was hit repeatedly with hands and sticks.”

“After “A” complained that he was not getting enough water & asked for a glass, [they] forced A to drink 6 glasses of water directly before bed, then prevented him from using the bathroom. He ended up trying to go, only to be stopped by a staff, beat, then forced up on the stool for the whole night while still in excruciating pain. He peed himself at like 2am, and other times, and was beat again. The staff made him stay in the peed in clothes for 7 days, while rashes, hives, etc, developed.”

“Mr. [C] puts the salt into my open (deep) cut . . . then, after 5 minutes, takes the bleach and puts it into MY OPEN FRICKING WOUND.”

The behavioral health industry in the United States is massive and preys on parents and state systems that are suffering severe shortages of community-based therapeutic placements as well as adequate mental health providers and treatment strategies. Too often staff are paid minimum wage, lack relevant experience, and are poorly trained. Many of these institutions have been the subject of criminal and licensure investigations. A recent report concluded:

Private equity’s track record for investing in youth behavioral services is troubling. A pattern of harmful conditions, often related to insufficient staffing and other cuts to expenses, suggests that private equity firms’ focus on maximizing profit over short periods of time may come at the cost of children’s and teens’ safety and well-being. Despite horrific conditions at some youth behavioral health companies, their private equity owners have in some cases reaped massive profits. Firms often aim to double or triple their investment over 4–7 years.

But a far greater threat is unlicensed and unregulated institutions that are often faith-based, as well as ones opened overseas posing arguably a greater risk to the children in their care given the lack of U.S. government oversight. This became readily apparent when Jamaica’s Child Protection and Family Services Agency removed the teens from ALA in February after they visited the facility and observed signs of abuse and neglect. The agency then placed the teens into foster care. Afterwards—whether due to misinformation they received from ALA, its administrators, or the program’s attorney, or simply because they didn’t want their teen home —some parents did not immediately respond to authorities or cooperate to plan for their child’s return to the United States. As a result, the boys languished. Against this backdrop, we arrived in Jamaica to advocate for them.

Ultimately, five of the eight boys made it back to the United States. Three returned to their parents or another relative, one was sent unwillingly to another program, and the last to a non-kinship guardian who put themselves forward as a resource to get them out of Jamaica when their parents refused to cooperate. But three remain in Jamaica's “permanent custody.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, they were the only youth who were adopted and of color. Shockingly, the Administration of Children and Families’ Children’s Bureau was incapable of planning for their return, suggesting at one point that we contact the Office of Refugee and Resettlement. State systems—which may have been implicitly if not explicitly supportive of sending these teens out of the country as all the boys were connected to child welfare, juvenile justice, or special education—were similarly absent.         

ALA is but one example of dozens of such institutions throughout the United States and other countries that comprise what is often called the "troubled teen" industry. Whether or not these facilities are actually connected—and there are plenty of connections between them—they all seemingly use the same playbook when it comes to marketing, gaining custody over children, hiring staff, (failing to) train and supervise staff, and using draconian policies and practices to “care” for children, which invariably includes or results in beatings, isolation, torture, malnourishment, starvation, and in some instances, sexual abuse. 

These institutions largely market themselves as boarding schools for desperate parents who have run out of alternative options or, often, are made to feel like they have run out of alternative options by other actors who benefit from referring children to these programs.

These other actors include "educational consultants," “youth transportation specialists,” and sometimes even the child’s own mental health providers—all of whom benefit from the placement of teenagers in facilities that are, at a minimum, ill-equipped, and unable to care for these children and their needs and, more often than not, are actually designed to systematically abuse children. Educational consultants often get referral fees for every child they can sign up for a particular program, all the while knowing or having more than sufficient reason to know that these programs are not as advertised.

Youth transportation companies are glorified human traffickers who oftentimes handcuff children to fulfill their duties to these programs. For international programs like ALA, youth transporters help children obtain passports for entry into foreign countries—passports that then “go missing” when children are set to return home to their parents or another institutional setting state-side.

Institutions like ALA are responsible for the alleged abuse of dozens of boys over the last several years but, in reality, the other actors propping up institutions like ALA, and profiting while they do it, are committing abuse by proxy. These entities comprise a cottage industry that dupes desperate parents into entrusting these institutions with the care of their vulnerable children and caters to other parents (biological or adoptive) who simply have no interest in actually parenting their child—i.e. those who seemingly have "buyer's remorse" over their decision to become parents of a particular child. And business is booming. This industry makes billions of dollars every year.

Adoptive parents, especially those with no interest in fulfilling their responsibilities to their children, benefit from this system as well due to gaps and loopholes in many states. They receive subsidies from the state to care for their youth adopted from foster care and then, in turn, pay to have their children housed in facilities. Similarly, parents may be receiving individualized education program money for private boarding school placements. Accordingly, they are being paid—and potentially making a profit—to not care for their children, and worse, have their children abused by others.

One of the “success stories” that ALA shared with prospective parents was one in which ALA warehoused an adopted youth until he was 18, dropped him off in Miami with some money, and told him never to contact his adoptive parents again. This story was also allegedly shared with the boys by staff telling them that this youth had been shot and they could end up just like him.

The three teens abandoned in Jamaica's custody are illustrative of broken adoptions, yet in a previously unrecognized form. Alarmingly, there is another facility in Jamaica that has approximately 170 youth, the majority from the United States and adopted from foster care: Youth of Vision Academy (YOVA). The fact that there are so many adopted teens in Jamaica exposes several gaps in the system, including a lack of post-adoption support and services for those well-meaning parents searching for help to address their teen’s behavioral, emotional, and mental challenges. But for other parents, it is an easy place to warehouse their adopted teen until adulthood.

Three out of the five leaders at YOVA and at least one of the 501 officers allegedly have direct ties to a private school in West Virginia called Miracle Meadows that was forcibly closed for the sadistic torture of the children in their care. To understand the depravity of what occurred, consider the fact that lawsuits against the school led by Guy D’Andrea of Laffey Bucci Kent, Jesse Forbes of Forbes Law Offices, and Scott Long of Hendrickson and Long have settled for over 100 million dollars. In the United States, under religious visas, these leaders fled and then opened boarding schools in St. Lucia before settling in Jamaica. And more of these boarding schools exist in other countries including one in Tijuana, Mexico—Sunset Bay Academy.

When youth are transported out of the United States to countries like Jamaica or Mexico, parents typically do not fully appreciate that their children are then subject to the laws of that country—the embassy cannot simply drop in and rescue these kids, they must operate within the parameters of the jurisdiction’s legal system. Given that the facilities are generally unlicensed and unregulated, they generally act with impunity.

One way to ensure this situation stops repeating itself would be to regulate the actors who enable this abusive industry to persist. Educational consultants need to be registered to do business in whatever state in which they operate and must be made to disclose if they receive referral fees from programs they recommend to parents. Requiring disclosure of the reality of the relationship between these consultants and programs not only increases transparency but would hopefully work to decrease the number of referrals entirely if consultants understood they could be held accountable for their role in this abusive system. Moreover, youth transportation companies should also be registered in the states in which they operate. There must be strict guidelines on those who run and work for these companies, including mandatory background checks and training hour requirements. Most importantly though, youth transportation companies should be prohibited from trafficking youth across international lines, with both civil and criminal penalties for transporters and parents alike supporting such a prohibition. Truly, there is no legitimate reason to send American youth to international programs like ALA.

Post-adoption studies have shown that some of the most frequently identified problems adoptive parents sought services for were related to the child’s behavioral and emotional problems. In addition, families needed help long after the adoptions were finalized, as adoption is a lifelong process with different presenting issues related to ambiguous loss, grief, and anger, and issues of identity at various developmental stages for the child. To effectively serve these children and their families after the adoption finalization, service providers be identified and must understand the developmental impact of neglect, abuse, and interrupted attachment on children and the emotional and mental health needs of children who have been adopted, and state welfare systems must invest in them and make them readily available.  

Finally, our government needs to take swift and decisive action. There are currently three teens in Jamaica's permanent custody, but given what we are learning about YOVA, there will undoubtedly be more who will need safe and appropriate placements back in the United States. We must also consider the other facilities operating in other countries. We urge the federal government to act through legislation, policy, and practice to develop mechanisms to provide for the return of abandoned American children and to hold their parents accountable, including by passing legislation to open parents to criminal liability for child abandonment or even making specific carve-outs within the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act or federal kidnapping statutes where applicable. They should not have to languish in another country's foster care system or, as one American teen from ALA is considering doing, asking for refugee status in Jamaica because, even after he turns 18, he will have no other place to go. Given the gravity and expansiveness of this issue, one of the authors of this article, Dawn, has formed a non-profit law firm, Themis Youth Law & Advocacy, to advocate for discarded and abandoned children and youth domestically and internationally, bring greater awareness to the issues involved, create change in policy and practice, and most importantly, elevate the voices of the youth that broken adoptions and facilities like Atlantis and YOVA have impacted.