As people who regularly read this blog probably know, I recently co-wrote a book (The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook) with Dr. Bruce Perry -- a leading child trauma expert whom you may have heard on CNN, CBS or NPR over the last few days.
Because of his expertise, Oprah asked my co-author to lead the mental health response to the abuse crisis at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa -- to help her make the school into as she put it at a press conference yesterday, "a model for the world."
As readers may also know, coincidentally, I have also written a book about institutional abuse of children in settings like boot camps, wilderness programs, "emotional growth boarding schools" and residential treatment centers for "troubled teens." (Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids)
I was not expecting these two interests to collide -- but although Oprah did not intend for this to happen, her school unfortunately developed into what could be seen as a tough "program" and as a result, some girls were abused.
As she put it at the press conference, "I feel that the girls were placed in an atmosphere where they were taught to be fearful and they were taught to literally be silenced. And so when you remove the systems and put in a different kind of leadership, all of that will change."
Oprah got to the heart of the matter: institutions in which children are fearful and silenced are institutions that will sooner or later, inevitably, become abusive.
Apparently, for months the girls had been complaining that the school was more like a prison than boarding school -- and for months they had been ignored. Although one dorm matron has been charged with sexual and physical abuse, the problem wasn't -- as residential facilities often claim -- "one bad apple."
It was the tough love system. Any institution that isolates vulnerable children from the outside world, any school that severely limits contact with their parents, that silences complaints by calling those who speak up "liars", "whiners" and "manipulators" will become abusive. Without fail. And any such institution will attract predators -- because they know that where kids are unable to speak up, they can prey at will.
As Dr. Perry put it on NPR:
"Unfortunately, there isn't a place on the planet that has really done all that it could do to ensure that the internal systems and the adults in charge of children are as healthy as can be. I know that there are little pockets of excellence here and there, but one of the goals that we have for this school is to try to create training, staff selection, staff support and education for the girls, models of accountability, models of security that will all work to decrease the probability that any predatory person can be hired or can act out on the girls in the school."
Policies that limit access between children and parents, policies that allow untrained workers to have total control over kids with no government oversight, policies that lock kids down and keep them incommunicado, policies that encourage staff to be treat kids harshly "for their own good" -- every single one of these practices increases the odds that children will be abused.
Add in the idea that the kids are all liars and any complaints should be dismissed as "manipulation" and you have a predator's dream: a program in which victims cannot speak out or escape and monsters can actually get paid to carry out the abuse they enjoy with impunity.
Frighteningly, every single one of these policies is standard practice in the largely unregulated "troubled teen" industry. And every day, predators get fresh prey.
As Oprah said, from all bad experiences, "There's always much to be gained and I think there's a lot to be learned."
I hope that America and the world can learn right here, right now that any program that follows such policies is not acceptable -- whether it's a boarding school for talented African girls or an "academy," "wilderness program," "boot camp," "therapeutic boarding school," or "emotional growth school" for troubled American teens.