I am a survivor of a faith-based residential treatment center called Julian Youth Academy, located in the mountains of San Diego, CA. Although the extent of my abuse was psychological and emotional, I consider the damage to me as harmful as any other form of abuse, such as physical abuse. Broken bones may heal in 6-8 weeks, but hearts sometimes never heal.
My goal has been to legally support the regulation of private institutions. I want private institutions that house children (minors) to be held accountable to the same basic civil laws that public institutions are, such as access to advocacy. There lies a problem with regulation and accountability in private institutions.
The scars that “programs” inflict are not seen on the outside or on one's skin. They go much deeper. With respect to what daughters and children go through at home and in life--I believe that those experiences are necessary in order to reach maturity, which is the ability for a young adult to make decisions on their own. I believe that programs not only prolong this important part of social development, but that they cause sometimes irreversible damage to a person with the isolation and lack of trust or belief which programs like Julian Youth Academy’s staff encourages: thinks is "helping."
I believe children should be seen, heard, and most importantly, believed.
Here is the exact truth about my personal experience. Nothing is falsified or exaggerated. I am a real person who feels obligated to share my experience in effort to expose the truth about this program. I support Senator Miller’s bill H.R. 6358, Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008.
At 14 years old, I was awakened on a cold August morning at 5am to strangers who forced me to either dress in front of them or remain in the scant pajamas I was in. I chose the latter for obvious privacy reasons. I was not granted permission to use the restroom, or any other personal hygiene habits before what I was told would be "a long trip." My younger brother was asleep, and I would not get to see, write to, or talk to him until a year later. My older sister, I will never forget, stared into my eyes with such sadness and intensity that I was stricken to muteness and shock for the entirety of the 6 hour car ride to Julian, CA. I knew not that I would also not have contact with her, nor family other than my mother and father, for about a year.
As the escorts asked me if I knew or wanted to know where they were taking me, I remained in shock and was unable to speak or express needs to these strangers.
Upon arrival, I remained in “intake” status for almost nine hours, refusing to dress and demanding that I should get one phone call, “Even criminals get a phone call.” I was not a criminal, nor was I ever involved in using drugs or alcohol, promiscuity, or otherwise physically harmful behavior. I was a victim of a statutory rape crime, and the perpetrator is now walking the streets! Due to the emotional trauma that caused and the abandonment I felt from my parents not seeking understanding from me, retrospectively I hold to the fact that I “rebelled” as mildly as any “normal,” healthy teenager would.
During my imprisonment at Julian Youth Academy (aka JYA), which was a period of fifteen months and sixteen days, I was treated like property through lack of sympathy, lack of care for emotional needs, lack of care for health needs, constant disbelief from staff and directors and punishment for expressing my human and health needs, lack of anyone to trust, zero advocacy, and lack of experienced and trained staff.
When taken down from 4,000 ft elevation to 3,000 ft to attend mandatory church services every Sunday for fifteen plus months, I would suffer from debilitating and extremely painful migraines. The first two Sundays, I was given no more than 400mg of Tylenol each instance, which was 200-400mg less than the recommended dosage for my weight and age at the time. The third time I was suffering from these migraines, I was denied medicinal relief of any kind, was told I was manipulating staff for merely requesting medicine, and was verbally forced to stop crying or making any noises or movements in attempts to relieve or take my mind off the excruciating pain. I was never granted medicinal relief for the remaining fifteen months, and was forced to suffer in silence with the threat of punishment if I ever asked for medicine for my headaches again. I know that had I had access to an object that could puncture, I surely would have punctured my brain just to relieve the blood from my head. Seeing and reading about the sufferings and numerous deaths of children under the “care” of treatment facilities, my suffering seems humble, but valid nonetheless.
The other regulation I’d like to emphasize is the need for one or more neutral, medically or otherwise qualified third-party evaluation(s) prior to admittance of a child (US resident under the age of 18) into a residential or non-residential private treatment center. The reasoning behind this is that parents do not always know how to approach their children when a problem is suspected or have the courage or rapport with their children to do so anyway. A neutral and qualified third party evaluation can significantly bridge the gap of communication between parent and child, and can positively influence the parents’ ultimate decision to be an appropriate one.
I have forgotten, by choice and through determination of self, a lot of what happened at JYA. Happenings were not easy to push out of my mind, and it took years to do so. I do remember as clearly as it was at the time, the cloud of fogginess in my head and in my heart following leaving the program. My brain had fully disassociated with true reality because of the false reality that took place within the walls of the program. I was lost. It would be years before I could be alone in a room or even a public place without having a panic attack. I also suffered from panic attacks when in environments that shouldn't have been socially overwhelming, like a baseball game or the city college. I had to start from scratch, as if the program literally re-programmed me (Its no wonder why they call it that) and none of my software was in yet. I walked like a zombie, not knowing what windows to open to get where I needed or wanted to go. Its like they erased all my drivers (for those of you who don't know about computers, those are what run each program). So I knew where I wanted to go, but was emotionally, mentally, physically unable to connect where I was to where I needed to be. I was always an A student before the program, now I was finding it difficult to take regular college classes that would have been a breeze for me if I hadn't been "dumbed-down" by the lack of trained professionals present at the "school." 90% of my school-related questions (the only questions we were allowed to ask) were unanswerable by the "teachers"--most staff had little more than high school education.
I was emotionally detached. I was unable to feel love for my parents, even when I tried. My younger brother and I grew apart, when previously we were the two playing cars in the dirt together. My sister has always been here for me, and I can truly say that without her love and support, I would not be where I am today. I had much difficulty in relationships, and felt uncomfortable around people in general. Because I was never able to stand up for myself and be assertive in my needs, those needs went unmet in my marriage which of course led to periods of marital separation. I suffered from not only the panic attacks (sometimes total loss of consciousness) I mentioned, but sexual difficulty as well, which had to do with my past abuse (only the statutory rape, no other family or other sexual abuse) but more so the fact that I never received professional help for healing for that trauma.
My physical health covered up the damage inside. I smiled for years after the program while crying on the inside, because that was the only "coping" method I knew how to do. I had carried that same smile for the last 15 and one half months.
These are some conditions of the facility, and some of the rules I can remember:
- No freedom of speech
- Calisthenic punishment for minor infractions, such as forgetting water bottle or looking at other student you were not allowed to talk to ("no talk")
- Forced eating
- Monitored communication in all forms
- letters were to be handed to staff without closure, to allow for strict monitoring and alteration, up to and including having to re-write as many times as necessary to fit the standard of what was allowed to be written to parents NOTHING "considered "negative" against the program was allowed at any time
- phone calls were "earned" and only after four months, to parents only, completely monitored, staff would hang up if anything negative about the program was said
- parent visits on campus were constantly monitored closely by staff (conversations required staff presence), and parents were required to tell staff if daughter spoke negatively in any way about the program.
- Bathroom resrictions, inadequate facilities during school hours (one double bathroom to 30+ girls), only two girls allowed to use restroom at a time, which was a walk to and from the facility 100 ft away, next buddy group unable to ask until the last group came back. (sometimes we'd have to wait 45 or more minutes to use the restroom)
- Continuous student cleaning. we did all maintenace of grounds, including chopping trees, which gave me bloody, blistered hands. Raking each and every single leaf of large forest or endure punishment. Extreme cleaning standards. all cleaning done by students. Staff did for a short time upon my arrival, help with cleaning/chores, but then staff was not permitted to help per superior staff.
- Students were held responsible for other student's failures to follow rules. Low level students were spoken for by higher leveled students. Low level students were not allowed to speak directly to staff unless spoken to or if higher leveled student asked for them to speak with a staff member. Low level students were restricted from speaking to (in any form of communication, including glancing) other students who had not yet attained a certain level of the program.
- No treatment for individual issues. Speaking about issues were not allowed until staff approved (average length of stay before allowed to speak about issues at home or personal issues: 8-9 months). All students were regarded as manipulative, untrustworthy children (all students were over the age of 13) who deserved no respect and were not regarded as individuals.
- Forced attendance of church services.
- I was forced to grate blocks of cheese until I had blisters on my hands.
- Denied proper medication. Medication not dispensed by licensed or qualified medical personnel.
- Forced calisthenics in mountainous terrain, hills so inclined and at such high altitudes (4,000 ft) that I was nauseous, dizzy, and felt like I was going to faint (I'm not sure how I didn't). I believe this was part of the mental breakdown prior to and during brainwashing.
- Not permitted to speak with siblings until a certain level (usually after one year), and only if those siblings supported the program. I never saw my sister, who felt what my parents did to me was wrong, the entire time of being held at the program. I was not allowed to write siblings or grandparents or any other immediate family, only parents.
- Never permitted to communicate with friends at home.
- Not allowed to express creativity, such as drawing or musical instruments, until reaching a certain level (usually about 4-6 months after admittance, and only if you attained that level). No "secular" (non-Christian) music, and music was only played in the car in the way to church.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. Most rules were mild, and punishment did not include physical abuse reported in other programs. What is wrong about this and all other programs in this class is the brainwashing tactic. The mental and verbal abuse and conditioning, and monotonous strict schedule conformed us into thinking that everything was okay, and that we would have died if we hadn't been sent there. The threat which stopped me and probably most others was the fact that we'd get sent to the physically abusive programs if we did not comply.
Girls there are not allowed to talk to each other very much. A girl is on what's called "no talk" (no communication whatsoever, including gestures and eye contact) automatically for the first 4-5 days. She can only tell her "up buddy" (a girl who has been there a certain amount of time and has achieved a certain level in the level system they use) if there's a need to use the restroom, or wants to talk to a staff member. Those first 4-5 days is when you're supposed to observe the rules and are expected to know and follow ALL rules after that time is over.
However, this is really difficult because you cannot talk or be spoken to. right after those first days, you get off "no talk." and are allowed to talk to your own up-buddy (everyone is either an up buddy or a down buddy depending on the level achieved) and she is supposed to tell you all the rules. If you have a bad up buddy (isn't helping you at all) then you won't know the rules and will go punished a lot because you are then expected to know and follow them. Another person's up buddy is not allowed to help another person's down buddy with rules.
The level system goes A-L3. A is the first 4-5 days of no talk. after that, girls go to B automatically. C-J are levels where they receive "privileges" (I would call them rights) back. for instance, you cannot draw pictures until you are on D. you get to use stickers on level C. I can't remember what you get on E. plus these might have changed a bit, and can be revoked at any time for an individual (i.e. if staff thinks you're drawing "too much" at their discretion they will take that "privilege" away without notice or reason.), or for the whole group.
Once they get to level G, girls can talk to all the "down buddies." It's very difficult at first because you're not used to being discerning about who you can or can not talk to. in the real world, obviously you have the ability to choose who you want to talk to. You can also become an up buddy, and usually do at some point if staff thinks you're ready, at level G or H or so. Level F is one 15-20 minute phone call to the parent. They're not allowed to keep a journal until E or F, even then staff reads everything and they can't write friend's names and they can't talk about anything in your past unless it's positive. Things may have changed, but knowing the changes that were made shortly after I left, they must be less lenient.
When I was there, they did not have cameras, just speaker boxes in the corner of each room. Just before I left, they added cameras in each hallway and when I went back for "graduation" there were cameras in the rooms. I do not know if there are cameras in the bathrooms. As the place burned down a couple years ago, everything is new and I'm sure the technology has been updated.
The fact that JYA expects uncompromised, unquestioned dedication and commitment from parents is one of the scariest signs to me and is reflective of many cultist organizations. Personally, I question my doctors, my therapists, and any professionals recommending treatment or solutions for me. I believe it is my right to refuse treatment and my right to know the intentions of those professionals. As far as I know, they do not require parents to seek professional opinions regarding their child's mental, emotional, or physical state prior to acceptance of entry into the program. Programs telling parents "your child will die without us" is another very scary statement, and parents who are vulnerable (of course) and at their last ounce of emotional strength will believe them. I probably would, too, if I didn't know better.
This is where I stand, and I am not a professional but I am a mother. I am currently in an early childhood education class where I am learning a tremendous amount about children and humans as the social beings that we are. Because my parents were supportive and truly wanted the best for me, I believe that would have been enough, in addition to professional therapy, to get me through the non-violent trauma I endured as a teenager. I was a victim of a crime, and being sent away couldn’t have been further from the healing I needed. It was isolation at its worst, when all I needed was hugs, comfort, support no matter what mistakes I made, and unconditional love, especially from my parents and especially at times when I was hurt the most. Not receiving that affection due to being isolated at JYA has affected me in every single area of my life.
Tags for this letter
now a parent who will NEVER pay to send my child to be raised by someone else, that is our responsibility as parents.
therapeutic boarding school
behavior mod program
other issues (psychological trauma, rape)
experience in program:
human rights violations
no access to advocates