It’s not a term we hear a lot in the UK, but say the word ‘gooning’ to most teens in America and it will strike fear into their heart.
That’s because every year, thousands of youngsters in the States are ‘gooned’; forcibly taken from their home and sent to facilities known as boot camps, behaviour modification facilities, or wilderness therapy as part of the Troubled Teen Industry.
Known as ‘brat camps’, these initiatives promise to iron out kids who are violent, lawbreaking or or abusing drugs and alcohol – among other behavioural problems.
However, understandably, they are also huge controversial – not to mention unpopular with teens.
Paris Hilton says she was traumatised after she was woken by strangers in her bedroom in the middle of the night as a teenager. The star was taken from her home in LA across the country to Provo Canyon School in Utah where she stayed for nearly a year.
‘A thick hand grabbed my ankle and dragged me off the mattress. I was instantly awake – hyperawake – in a state of panic. I’m about to be raped. I’m about to be murdered. One man clamped a sweaty palm over my mouth, wrenching my head back. The other held up a pair of handcuffs,’ she wrote in her biography, Paris: the Memoir. She also documented how her parents tearfully watched as she screamed at them for help.
Paris Hilton has spoken out about her trauma after being manhandled and taken in the night to a facility for troubled teens (Picture: Ken McKay/ITV/Shutterstock)
Some victims claim it can cause lifelong emotional damage. One former attendee tells Metro.co.uk that even now, a decade after being sent to a therapeutic boarding school, he struggles with his mental health as a result of his time. Still reluctant to talk of his ordeal, all he can say is: ‘I still get nightmares. It’s hard for me to move on with my life.’
Meanwhile, a Reddit threat, ‘PTSD from getting gooned’ lists posts from young people who have struggled to get over the experience.
One writes: ‘Over a decade on and I still don’t feel safe in bed. I still keep a baseball bat under my bed. Gooning is child abuse and has lasting consequences.’
Another says: ‘More than ten years later, after several years of therapy, I still have nightmares about waking up to a stranger in my room. My parents acknowledged once that they made a mistake. Meanwhile, I live with night terrors, panic attacks and sleep paralysis, and never feel safe at night.’
It’s a deeply complicated and emotive subject – however, Casie Fariello believes her son Jon would no longer be alive if she hadn’t had him gooned and sent away.
Jon (pictured with his parents) was taken by two strangers to Wilderness Therapy in a bid to save his life (Picture: Owner supplied)
The 54-year-old mother-of-three tells Metro.co.uk she knew she her boy was in trouble when he tried to smuggle cocaine through the airport while they were on a family holiday in Paris in 2018.
Jon, who had been smoking weed since he was 14, moved onto harder drugs, and mixed them with prescription pills like opioids.
By the time he was 16, he was suicidal and violent. He tried to run away multiple times, skipped school and had punched holes in the walls of his family home in New Jersey. Jon was erratic, Casie recalls. He burgled a liquor store, broke into a church and stole a cart from a golf course.
The family had tried every local therapy option available by the time he took an overdose on prescription medicine aged 17, she adds.
‘He lost five days of his life and was in hospital for a week and a half,’ Casie tearfully remembers. ‘Afterwards we knew he couldn’t come home. He was getting worse and worse.’
The doctor issued a stark warning to the family: ‘He told us “this is the kid that is going to die, you need to do something extreme”. And we were terrified.’
He then suggested wilderness therapy as potential solution, so after picking Jon up from yet another rehabilitation attempt, the family had decided that with all other options exhausted he would have to be gooned.
‘Jon was so angry and I was worried he would run away or get himself into a spot that he would be arrested – as we had so many run away attempts prior to that,’ admits Casie. ‘I was worried he would refuse to get on the plane – or that he would hurt himself.’
Casie belived that if the family didn’t take drastic action her son wouldn’t survive (Picture: BryanChatlien.com)
They drove Jon towards the airport, with the story that Casie, a flight attendant at the time, had to pick up something from work. Stopping at a nearby hotel, two men got into the back of the car with the teenager. They introduced themselves, told him they were from a transport company, and that they were taking him to wilderness therapy in Utah.
‘It was Christmas Eve. He just deflated,’ says Casie. ‘It was one of the hardest thing I’ve ever done. He just said: “I get it”. He was mad, but he just got on with it. I thought – this might be the only way he would start talking to us again. I finally had hope. But I was also terrified that it wouldn’t work. It felt like the last resort.’
Jon had no choice but to go peacefully. He was put on the plane and flown more than 2,000 miles to his new home. He didn’t come home until the following July.
‘The men were lovely. They called us constantly kept us up to date,’ explains Casie. ‘They had asked for lots of information about him so they could talk to him on the journey. He got all the food he wanted – they spared no expense. If he wanted a McDonalds, he got a McDonalds.’
Casie says this picture of Jon in the wilderness shows how clear his eyes were after years of substance abuse (Picture: Owner supplied)
That first week the family were sent daily notifications about what Jon was doing.
Casie remembers the first photograph they received: ‘He looked mad. His eyes were cloudy and his hair was super long. And just so dirty. My son has like this amazing wavy blond hair. But for two years he had barely showered.’
Within a week, the blend of reading, journalling, therapy and wilderness work prompted the teen’s transformation. Jon thrived in the outdoors yomping around in the snow and making fires; the next photo the family received showed his eyes clear and bright blue.
After 76 days, Casie flew to pick him up. ‘He had his smile back. He was back to being completely huggy,’ she remembers. ‘He’s a very affectionate kid. It was amazing, he was happy to see us. It was so powerful and so hopeful and I just knew as a family we were going to make it. We had our son back.
‘I asked if it was a terrible thing for him. And he said: “Was it the best thing that ever happened to me? No. But was it the best thing that ever happened to me? Yes. Both things are true”.’
Jon agrees that if he hadn’t been sent to Wilderness Therapy he wouldn’t be here today (Picture: Owner supplied)
Brian Shepherd, president and owner of Right Direction Crisis Intervention, has transported more than 900 teens over the past 23 years.
He dislikes the term ‘gooning’ and describes forced transport as a ‘last resort’.
‘This isn’t something families do because their teens are failing in school,’ he explains. ‘This notion that we’re there to teach this spoiled teen what to do; that is not the reality. We’re dealing with youths with moderate to heavy autism, addiction, mental health issues, schizophrenia, behavioural issues and criminality. Sometimes we’re used as a sentence alternative so they don’t end up in the juvenile justice system.
‘Isolating a young person with behavioural issues has an enormous negative impact’
Robert Common, founder of The Beekeeper House, a mental health and addiction treatment centre, says forced isolation from family and friends is teens’ ‘greatest mental health enemy’.
‘As a qualified psychologist and an expert in child protection, I strongly oppose these institutional care facilities, essentially ‘corrective’ boarding schools,’ he tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Although they behave in ways we associate with adults, teenagers are still children; their brains and personalities are not fully developed, and they must be treated accordingly.
‘Isolating a young person dealing with behavioural or mental health issues has an enormous negative impact. When adults isolate themselves, this is often a huge red flag that something is wrong, so it’s entirely counterproductive to place a young person facing problems in this state deliberately. Isolation prevents them from resolving the issues that have put them in their current position and impacts the development of the brain.
‘Often, young people face tremendous amounts of judgement and don’t feel heard. You have to meet teenagers where they are for effective treatment outcomes. Creating an enabling environment using interdisciplinary and multi-component approaches, including family-based therapy, is proven to be far more efficacious. The most active ingredient for robust mental health is a caring and supportive family/carer network. This helps build resilient individuals who can lean on those networks in difficult times in their lives.’
‘A lot of people think we storm into the house, put a bag over kid’s head, drag him out, and try to scare the s**t out of them,’ adds Brian. ‘That “scared straight” model. If people do that, I hope they get shut down. I don’t support that at all.’
Brian explains that his teams meet parents first to discuss the teen’s background and carry out a risk assessment. When they enter the kid’s home, the parents introduce the staff, explain what is happening and give the child time to get used to the idea that they are being taken. He says staff try to be empathetic, allow the them to vent and are trained to use ‘caring and supportive tones’. They don’t use handcuffs or other restraints, sedatives or spit hoods, and they try to ensure that the teen travels with at least one transporter of the same gender.
Staff only use control holds in around 6% of cases to prevent the youth ‘creating an unsafe situation for themselves or those around them’, according to Brian.
‘We just want the kids to be focusing on their therapy and their growth.’ (Picture: Getty Images)
He adds: ‘We do hear complaints about – why do you do this in the middle of the night? It’s scary; it’s traumatic. We offer to parents to do things in the daytime. But travel times that rely on flights require early morning starts. Parents don’t want kids registering into outdoor programmes in the dark. It’s not meant to scare kids; it’s very much practicality. Also – the kids are more likely to be at home at night. And you know where they are if they’re in their bedroom; they’re not in the kitchen where knives are.
‘Sometimes they turn inward, some of them might cry. Others get very angry, while some get violent,’ Brian goes on. ‘But we want to keep them safe and be respectful. We communicate with them, tell them where they are going and do our best to limit any trauma.
‘I’ve had some kids punch me that morning and apologise later. Others tell me they know they need help. Some say – “you’re just a bunch of goons but you’re actually pretty cool”. And I’ve heard some kids say they liked their goons. We just like to be as low-impact as possible. We just want the kids to be focussing on their therapy and their growth.’
Looking back, Casie is pleased she took the steps she did. While she wouldn’t have been ready for such a drastic intervention earlier, she now credits the wilderness school with giving Jon a new lease of life.
Jon – who declined to talk about his experience, but is happy for his mother to share it – now lives with his parents and is leading a far happier, healthier life. He has also set himself up as a personal trainer.
Meanwhile, Casie, who is co-founder and CEO of support community Other Parents Like Me, says it’s clear that wilderness therapy saved her son’s life. ‘And he would agree with that,’ she adds.
‘He told us that he wouldn’t have been here if we hadn’t done that.’
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Like Paris Hilton, thousands of US youngsters are forcibly taken from their home every year and sent to specialist facilities as part of the Troubled Teen Industry.