IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I spent 16 months trapped in a troubled teen program. Now I help kids recover from them

It took me decades to make sense of what happened to me, and I want parents to know there are better ways to help their kids. 
The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping
A scene from "The Program," a Netflix documentary about the troubled teen institute.Courtesy Netflix

My childhood torture stayed buried for decades. I entered a troubled teen program in 1985. I got let out in 1987. It was good to see the sun. I was 15 years old.

My time in Straight Inc., an infamously cruel drug rehabilitation program whose methods were popularized at multiple facilities in the 1980s and 1990s, started in a Springfield, Virginia, warehouse. That’s where they kept us: in a windowless warehouse. My days were filled with abuse — physical, verbal, psychological, sexual — from both the staff and my peers. There was a mantra we repeated over and over, something we’d heard the kids who’d been there longer say to make the people in charge of the program happy: “I’m a druggie scumbag. I would be dead right now if my parents hadn’t put me in Straight.”

I can’t tell you how many people had to scream and spit in my face that I was a druggie wh--- before I believed it. Probably hundreds. I can tell you how many times I smoked weed before I was locked up for being a “drug addict.” Three.

Cyndy Etler yearbook photo
My yearbook photo from 1990, three years after I was released from Straight Inc. Courtesy Cyndy Etler

I was released from the program after 16 months, but my experience there haunted me for decades, even without fully understanding what had happened to me. What was Straight Inc.? Throughout my silent decades, I had no answer. How do you describe a bottomless pit? When I was finally in a secure relationship with my now-husband, my lizard brain felt safe enough to seek answers. I typed the words into a search bar and read an American Civil Liberties Union director’s description of Straight Inc.: “a concentration camp for throwaway kids.”

That sounded right to me.

Straight Inc. was the granddaddy of the troubled teen industry, or TTI, which you’ve probably been hearing about, from Paris Hilton’s YouTube documentary, “This is Paris,” or the TikTok videos from young people sharing their stories, or Netflix’s hit documentary, “The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping.” 

Meg Appelgate, CEO of Unsilenced, a nonprofit serving survivors of the TTI, described it this way in an email to me: “The troubled teen industry is a network of under-regulated, powerful and punitive residential facilities that claim to ‘fix’ youth using ‘tough love’ and other non-evidence based practices.”

“The Program” documents the experiences of kids sent to a facility called The Academy at Ivy Ridge in upstate New York. Watching it, I considered how so many young people locked up in these programs share some version of the same story. My father died when I was one. After my stepfather entered the picture, I ran away. I was labeled a troublemaker and got sent to Straight Inc. “The Program” director Katherine Kubler’s mother died when she was two. She describes her stepmother screaming at her when she was in fourth grade: “Thank God your mom is not alive to see the person you’ve become.” She drank a Mike’s Hard Lemonade and was sent to Ivy Ridge. Cornelius Frederick’s mother died when he was a child; he found her body. He became a ward of the state, got sent to a program, threw a sandwich at another kid and died after he was violently restrained by staff. He’s one of many kids who have died, and continue to die, in residential programs.

There’s a photo in “The Program” of TTI survivors at a protest. One holds up a sign that says it all: “What I needed: love. What I got: torture.”

My friend Phil Elberg, an attorney who recovered more than $15 million in cases brought against the TTI, appears throughout the Netflix documentary. The dialogue he’s most proud of is this: “People ask me, ‘What should parents do instead?’ and most of the time I say, ‘I’m not that smart, I just know they shouldn’t do this. This is absolutely, clearly wrong.’”

Parents struggle to find other options, though. Many don’t understand the normal adolescent changes in mood and behavior, so there’s often a sense of fear and alarm. Forty percent of psychologists have a wait list, with those serving children among the most in demand, but there are thousands of TTI programs, many with glossy, SEO-driven websites. It’s easy to see why desperate parents fall prey. 

In my experience, a better option exists: evidence-based teen life coaching.

I knew at age 13 that my life’s mission was to support “bad” kids with respect, curiosity, and an offer of autonomy, because that’s what I needed when I was young. When I began training to be a youth coach, I learned that a whole body of research proves that’s exactly what struggling teens need to create change. Today, as a master’s degree-holding, dual-certified teen life coach, I help kids build their own ladder up and out of the issues that I believe Katherine, Cornelius, and myself were locked up for.

Critical accounts of the TTI highlight a dichotomy. While programs claim to treat a broad host of perceived issues and diagnoses, most don’t use evidence-based methods. Dr. Leah Mazzola, founder of Youth Coaching Institute, explains why that matters. “Studies show that adolescent interventions developed from a strong research base strongly enhance self-perceptions, engagement, positive social behaviors and reduce problem behaviors,” she tells TODAY.com. “Those lacking a research base show minimal effects.” 

Many of the teens I coach are would-be candidates for a troubled teen program. Others have recently been released from one. The strategies I use with every kid are antithetical to those employed by most in the TTI. Where programs are top-down and authoritarian, evidence-based coaching is self-directed. Teens identify the areas in their lives that they, personally, are dissatisfied with. With the help of neutral, curious coaching questions, they build and execute their own roadmap from where they are to where they want to be.

Many TTI programs force kids to confess to negative behaviors in the past; my coaching focuses on the future. Once teens are clear on what they’d like to change, they envision how they’d like those parts of their life to be in a month, a year, in adulthood. This clarity unlocks a sense of positivity, possibility and motivation.

Troubled teen programs like the one I was in fixate on deficits, often pathologizing normal adolescent behaviors to convince parents that long-term, costly residential treatment is required. Evidence-based coaching is resolutely strengths-focused, helping teens tap into their talents, abilities and interests to build confidence and self-efficacy, and from there, to reach their goals.

There is a humane alternative to these abusive programs that works for young people. And it feels good. It feels as good as the sun after 16 months locked in a warehouse.