Lifetime claims that it drew its latest production, an emotional film titled Cruel Instruction, from ‘the headlines.’ The film chronicles Kayla Adams’ (Kelcey Mawema) journey in a youth residential treatment center, which she’s forced to join following disciplinary issues at her school. On the advice of the school’s counselor, Kayla’s mother enrolls her in the school, believing it to be the best option for Kayla. 

Adams discovers a different reality from the one advertised by the treatment center. The disciplinary measures used by the headmistress Miss Connie and her staff include starvation, solitary confinement, forced medication, and abuse. Kayla teams up with another teen named Amanda to expose the school. 

Cruel Instruction is inspired by the true stories of two girls who experienced torture at a youth treatment center. 

You won’t find a woman named Kayla Adams who experienced inhumane treatment at a youth treatment center. However, the story in Cruel Instruction is inspired by two girls who came forward with horror stories from troubled teen facilities. 

“These two very brave girls came forward and told this story about going to an academy where they were basically tortured,” Camryn Manheim (Miss Connie in Cruel Instruction) told Wendy Williams. “They were sent to solitary confinement, their food was regulated, they were put on medications.”

Camryn said that the story in Cruel Instruction mirrors the experiences of teens in rehabilitation and treatment centers that remain largely unregulated by federal and state law. “When you get there, it’s basically a prison, and it’s not run by full professionals, people who are real therapists,” she said.

After the film aired, Lifetime presented a special dubbed Beyond the Headlines in which treatment program survivors detailed their harrowing experiences. The survivors explained that the treatment facilities left them with mental issues, including PTSD and anxiety. 

Lifetime enlisted the help of Breaking Code Silence, a non-profit representing teens in the troubled teen industry. The non-profit describes the industry as ‘a network of privately-owned, powerfully punitive, and often wilderness-based therapy programs, residential treatment centers, therapeutic boarding schools, group homes, boot camps, and faith-based academies.’

Human rights violations by youth treatment centers have been reported, but lawmakers seem reluctant to regulate the industry

Tales of mistreatment and abuse at youth treatment have been told time and time again, none more famous than Paris Hilton’s narration about her time at Provo Canyon School in Utah. Hilton described verbal and physical abuse, including assault and strangulation. 

“They wanted to instill fear in the kids so we’d be too scared to disobey them,” she told People. Fear is a recurrent theme in the countless media exposés detailing abuse in treatment centers. 

The abusive treatments in such facilities force teens to comply long enough to get out. Therefore, most youth leave without rehabilitation and with the extra burden of diminished mental health. 

“You can teach them to be compliant in an institution because they get the reward of … getting out,” Ira Burnim, a mental health attorney, told Sebastian Murdock of the Huffington Post. “But once they get out, it’s the same old problem, and they haven’t learned how to better manage their condition.”

Past residents of Elevations RTC, formerly Island View, in Utah described the facility as a prison. A former staff member, Vlad Diaz, stated that he ‘wouldn’t treat a dog’ the way his superiors ordered him to treat children. Diaz said that he saw many kids attempt suicide. 

Another resident told Sebastian that upon arriving at the facility, the staff restrained him and tore off piercings from his skin. Teens were forced to humiliate and criticize each other to allegedly promote problem-solving. 

Murdock found that staff used high doses of antipsychotics to sedate students. Perhaps the worst form of punishment described in Sebastian’s report was solitary conferment in a white chamber approximately 4 by 4 feet. 

Solitary confinement on juveniles is outlawed in federal prisons because of its strain on the mind. “I’m still really haunted by the screams,” Emily Graeber, a former resident, described her friends’ experiences in the cell. “Sometimes I have nightmares just from the screaming.”

In late 2021, a federal watchdog found widespread systemic abuse at for-profit treatment programs in 18 states. Despite this finding, lawmakers have put little effort into remedying the situation. 

Some politicians have praised the system: George W. Bush described youth treatment centers as ‘one of the really successful programs in America.’ Hopefully, the publicity generated by Cruel Instruction jolts lawmakers into action; they can either regulate the system or replace it with one that works.

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