Teen Torture Inc. Is the Latest Documentary to Explore Abuses at Youth Treatment Centers

Teen Torture Inc. Is the Latest Documentary to Explore Abuses at Youth Treatment Centers

For decades, troubled teens have been sent by their parents or the state to residential rehabilitation programs, where they were subject to physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Now, survivors are speaking out.

One of the most popular documentaries on Netflix is The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping, which debuted March 5. In it, director Katherine Kubler brought together fellow survivors of a remote upstate New York facility called Ivy Ridge to talk about the verbal and physical abuses they endured there.

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In a Congressional hearing June 26, Paris Hilton argued for more oversight over foster care programs. She opened up about her own traumatizing experience as a teen at Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she says she was stripped naked and kept in solitary confinement.

Now, two weeks after Hilton’s testimony, Teen Torture, Inc. begins streaming on Max starting today (July 11). In the three-part docuseries directed by Tara Malone, former Provo Canyon School residents and patients in similar facilities nationwide speak out about their experiences.

Advocates believe that there are about 100,000 teens in such residential programs each year, but the exact number is unclear because they aren’t tracked by the U.S. government. They are often a last resort for parents struggling with children with behavioral problems, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse issues. Depending on the state, these rehab centers—a multi-billion-dollar industry—have few regulations, and there are no overarching federal standards governing them. Many are faith-based facilities designed to convert teens into born-again Christians and are therefore exempt from regulation in some states. Licensed medical professionals can be scarce in these facilities, and some accused of abuse have closed and reopened under new names with some of the same staffers.

Jen Robison, who spent a harrowing year at Provo Canyon School, says staffers shaved her head without her consent and nicknamed her “Auschwitz,” after the Holocaust death camp. One day, when she was scared to get out of bed, she described two staffers grabbing her by the arms and ankles and pulling her out of the top bunk of a bunk bed, slamming her body on the floor. She recalls being dragged down the hallway by her ankles to an observation cell, a form of solitary confinement. Fast-forwarding to the present day, the series shows how Robison has overcome that traumatic experience. Cameras follow her and her partner playing with their young daughter at their home in southern Oregon. “The kid that I was at PCS could never ever have imagined that she would get to have the life that I have,” she says.

In a statement to the series, Provo Canyon School denied using solitary confinement and says it’s licensed by Utah’s Department of Health and Human Services. It also said that the program came under new ownership in 2000, so it can’t comment on the operations or student experience before that time—though Robison was first admitted in 2003.

Read more: Teen girls are facing a mental health epidemic

Many of the survivors in Teen Torture Inc. say their misbehavior as young people was actually a cry for help. Allen Knoll, who spent ages 10 to 15 in two different therapeutic boarding schools in Mississippi and Missouri, said a family friend molested him when he was 9. “I didn’t know how to talk about it, and I acted out,” he says in Troubled Teen Inc. He describes being waterboarded at Bethel Boys Academy in Mississippi, and says one staffer held him down to the floor with a foot on his chest while another dumped buckets of water on him. The film includes an interview with Esther Fountain, the daughter of Herman Fountain, a founder of the Bethel Boys Academy, who speaks out for the first time about watching her father beat the boys.

The documentary lists Fountain as one of the individuals who did not comment for Teen Torture, Inc. and Fountain did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Knoll got a form of justice in 2021, when Missouri governor Mike Parson signed a bill into law that Knoll lobbied for, requiring background checks for staffers and volunteers at child residential homes.

One of the most influential promoters of these programs has been the talk show host Phillip “Dr. Phil” McGraw. Parents would send their kids to Turn-About Ranch in Utah because they heard him talking it up on his show. Teen Torture Inc. focuses on one episode of Dr. Phil that went viral because of the defiant behavior of 13-year-old Danielle Bregoli who was learning she would be sent to Turn-About Ranch for six months. In fact, she says she felt ambushed. “The whole time I’m looking at him, like, this isn’t therapy,” Bregoli—now a rapper known as Bhad Bhabie who boasts 16-million followers on Instagram—says in the docuseries. The series says McGraw declined a request for comment.

Through documentaries like Teen Torture, Inc., survivors say they hope they can reach the general public directly and motivate them to support legislation to regulate residential treatment facilities for troubled teens or support reforms that help teens get access to psychiatrists and therapists closer to their homes. While these programs are designed to treat mental health issues, survivors say they came out of these facilities more troubled than when they entered. As Bregoli put it, patients “will come back with depression. They will come back with anxiety. I have to live like this for the rest of my f***ing life.”

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