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The Troubled Teen Industry: Commodifying Disability and Capitalizing on Fear Open Access

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The “Troubled Teen” behavior reform industry is comprised of financially interconnected wilderness programs, residential treatment centers, and reform schools that incarcerate thousands of minors each year by marketing a supposed cure to non-normativity, and monetizing the discrimination and abuse of children with a myriad of disabilities, including mental illness, substance abuse and dependence, eating disorders, cognitive difference, or who simply exhibit subjectively “negative”- in the parents’ eyes- traits or habits, such as LGBT status or genuinely problematic behaviors that make them difficult to parent. These programs claim to treat or change teenager behavior that parents find troubling via “tough love” behavior modification, which has generated a wide spectrum of existing criticism documenting the abuse and neglect of teenagers that is endemic to its nature and mode of treatment, one predicated on discriminatory principles that stigmatize and condemn facets of non-normativity. Justifying this maltreatment with quasi-psychological terminology and bastardized clinical practices makes a mockery of mental healthcare, and promotes the idea of othering persons who do not conform to normative ideas of “acceptable” behavior and cognition. Congressional hearings, Governmental Accountability Office reports, and prolifically documented individual testimonies and lawsuits related to abuse and wrongful death have culminated in currently proposed federal legislation in Senate Bill 3031. Nonetheless, this industry continues to flourish with massive profit margins. In the meantime, it is crucial to define a system of ethics for staff that work within any institution for legal minors, legitimate or not, that is predicated on cultivating dependency and removing basic autonomy as part of their program or treatment, whether or not the child’s “condition” is one that involves inherent dependency. These institutions render patients disabled due to the very environment in which they are placed, a theory championed by Tom Shakespeare. This thesis aims to use trauma and disability theory, analysis of aesthetic representations of incarcerated “troubled teens,” and objective research to delimit and critique this corporate industry by exposing tits market pitch and corporate culture, the deforming principles on which it functions, and the deliberate treatment model in place that characteristically abuses the people, both parents and children, to whom it caters, tracing the roots of this industry back to American Eugenics, and exposing the obfuscated system of privatized incarceration that has stolen the wellbeing and even the lives of the most vulnerable minors.

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