The Troubled-Teen Industry Has Been a Disaster For Decades. And It's Still Not Fixed.

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Emily Graeber sat on a plane, her long hair falling over her face, and pressed her nose against the window. Then she leaned back in her seat, trying not to cry.

It was October 2007. Graeber, a 15-year-old from Clayton, Missouri, had just spent a happy week with her family. Now she was headed back to Island View, a residential treatment center in Syracuse, Utah, that prided itself on its therapeutic approach to helping teens with behavioral problems.

Graeber hated Island View. Staff and other kids yelled at her for sins as small as making eye contact with other students. They gave her medication that made her gain weight and feel like a zombie. When she broke even minor rules, they isolated her for days, forbade her from speaking and forced her to sleep on a mattress in a hallway. At night, the bright fluorescent lights would keep her awake for hours until, crying, she fell into an exhausted, restless slumber.

She didn't want to go back. So when the plane landed in Utah, the teenager didn’t move. She stayed in her seat and waited to see what would happen. Eventually, the aircraft rumbled to life again. It was heading on to California. She was free.

But when Graeber arrived in San Francisco, she realized her baggage was probably drifting around an airport carousel in Utah, and the clothes on her back wouldn’t be enough to keep her warm. With no idea what to do next, she headed for the one place in the Bay Area she had heard of: the San Francisco piers. Hours passed. The sun set. She fell asleep curled up on a bench and woke up the next morning to find other homeless people had bunked down with her.


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