Joe Sheldrick was 16 when he was escorted into a large truck by two men dressed as cowboys. They could have been in fancy dress, but Sheldrick knew better. These were not his friends: these were his guards.
Hustled from the airport into a 4×4, Sheldrick, along with six other UK teens, watched as the Utah desert expanded out in front of him. The group drove for seven hours across the US, unsure exactly of where they were being taken. Sheldrick had an inkling of what was coming, but some of his fellow passengers were oblivious. “They thought they were going on holiday,” Sheldrick remembers. “Some of the girls had packed bikinis.”
The teenagers, ranging from 15 to 17 years old, had been flown out to the US to be part of the Channel 4 series Brat Camp, which aired from 2005 to 2007. “I actually suggested to my mum that I go on the show,” says Sheldrick. “I thought it would be funny.”
The premise was simple: badly behaved kids were sent to be disciplined in one of the many camps in the US’s Troubled Teen Industry. This cohort of British ‘brats’ were on their way to be turned around in the Turn About ranch in Utah.
For the first few days, the group was banned from talking to each other. In silence they were given sleeping bags and a hard wooden frame to sleep on. The teens were given zero privileges: all of their items were taken from them, including their phones. If they followed orders obediently enough, they would be able to earn back the right to talk or be allowed to move to more comfortable sleeping huts.
Every morning, the teens were woken up at six to work on the camp farm. The teenagers didn’t know how long they were going to be at the camp. They were told it could be weeks, but for Sheldrick, weeks turned into three months. Every day, the camp leaders would make the teenagers write a letter home to their parents. Every day, Sheldrick’s letters would read the same: “Get me out of here.”
Sheldrick is just one of the thousands of children that have experienced the severe, sometimes cult-like, realities of Troubled Teen camps. As a teenager, Sheldrick argued frequently with his mother, but that was about as bad as his behaviour got. “The US kids that were at these camps were much more hardcore. They had addiction problems or brought guns into school,” he says.
From camps to wilderness treks to boarding schools, controlling angry and often upset children was, and still is, a big industry. It is estimated that in the US between 120,000 and 200,000 young people reside in a private behavioural facility: 50,000 were sent there by their parents. The industry is worth a lot of money, too. One facility, Sequel, has an annual revenue that is reported to regularly top $200m (£163m), according to APM Reports.
But now these schools and camps are facing a reckoning. Activists in the US are fighting to shut down the Troubled Teen camps, which they argue abuse their power and traumatise vulnerable young people. At the forefront of this movement is Paris Hilton, who’s recent memoir Paris details the abuse she experienced at the hands of Utah’s Provo Canyon School in the early Noughties.
Hilton recalls being kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to the school: “It was 3.40am and these grown men said ‘do you want to go the hard way or the easy way… I was mentally, physically, psychologically and sexually abused. [My parents] had no idea about what was happening there,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
Hilton recalls being forced by male staff to undergo cervical examinations whilst being drugged and sedated. Provo Canyon School said in a statement that the facility was sold in 2000 and it could not comment on the past owners.
Sheldrick heard whispers of exploitation during his own time at the Turn About Ranch, although he didn’t see any himself. “There was so much opportunity for the abuse of power,” says Sheldrick. In 2021, Hannah Archuleta filed a lawsuit against Turn About Ranch, reporting allegations of sexual abuse during her time there in 2019. Archuleta alleges that she was assaulted by a staff members twice and was ignored and called a liar when she reported the incident.
In response to the lawsuit, Turn About Ranch offered a statement denying that her allegations were ignored.
The thing Sheldrick remembers the most about Brat Camp was the cult-like atmosphere once the film cameras were turned off. “I was worried that the camp leaders were going to try and brainwash us,” he says. “They were very religious.”
In the US, a majority of the Troubled Teen camps follow a specific philosophy. Meg Applegate, founder of Unsilenced, a campaign group lobbying for the tighter regulation of behavioural modification facilities in the US, says that “a lot of them were set up by the infamous cult the Church of Synanon, which was originally a branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1950s”.
Ciara Fanlo, 26, from the US, remembers this ideology well. “I was sent to a wilderness camp in 2013. Some escorts came in the middle of the night and essentially kidnapped me,” she says. Fanlo was strip-searched and banned from speaking for the first four days. The teenagers were only allowed to drink from dirty ponds. Their cups were treated with chlorine dioxide but the taste of pond water remained.
On one of the 84 nights she spent at the camp, she was fed a laxative and banned from going to the toilet in an attempt to humiliate her. “They want to completely break you down so that you’re just a shell of who you once were, so that they can rebuild you afterwards,” she says. “That’s their philosophy.”
As a teenager, Fanlo had struggled with self-harm, truancy and depression. She had attempted suicide several times. As a last resort, Fanlo’s parents sent her to the camp. “There were elements of the wilderness camp that felt very healing for me like just backpacking and being in nature but parts of it were very disturbing looking back,” she says. “Sometimes I have nightmares that send me back there.”
Things are different in the UK. The Troubled Teen industry isn’t as widespread or extreme, although wilderness therapy camps do exist. Damon Bachegalup set up his own rural camp in 2008, inspired by the Brat Camp TV series. Over a decade on, his therapy camps are still as popular as ever, with clients ranging from Saudi royalty to children whose foster families have saved up for months to pay the fees. “The American camps are much more motivated by money or giving kids medication, that’s not what I do,” says Bachegalup.
His wilderness camp lasts for a few weeks and doesn’t involve punishment or chores. The group of teenagers are limited to a maximum of three, and they spend a week or so hiking the Welsh countryside, with Bachegalup as a guide.
It wasn’t always like this. “When I first started the camp, I didn’t listen enough to the kids, but it’s different now,” he says. In the years since he set up his first camping trip, attitudes towards mental health have radically changed. Extreme behaviour is now seen as a symptom of a deeper problem, rather than simply an inherent selfishness that must be broken.
Damon used to work as a security guard for nightclubs in Manchester and was used to violence. As a teenager, he shot his stepfather in the head with an air rifle and fought his sister. After the death of his father, though, he decided to change. He began volunteering as a youth worker and trained as a mental health professional, hoping to help other children who struggle with anger.
“Wilderness therapy is mainly about therapeutic work. We don’t stick to a timetable or a strict regime because every kid has different needs,” says Bachegalup. “I will stay up until 1am with a teenager, listening and talking with them if that’s what they need.”
Now aged 35, Sheldrick has had 20 years to make sense of his experience at Turn About Ranch. He occasionally rewatches the episodes but he is still conflicted. “The camp is just a weird, weird concept but I actually did have some fun once the shock wore off. I definitely found the space to mature a bit while I was there.”
Still, Sheldrick wouldn’t send a child of his to a camp, or anything even remotely similar. “There are too many risks involved. The experience could be sold one way, but you don’t know how they might be treated in reality.”
He adds: “I hope it won’t come to that anyway. I hope I’ll be a better parent.”