Feb 16th, 2019, 12:00 PM

A Parent's Last Resort

By Claire Price
Sad girl
Depression is an epidemic among teens. Image Credit: Pixabay/ Free-Photos
When a teen is out of control, who do parents turn to?

Three years ago, Leah Hoffman, at age 16, was sound asleep at her home in Nyack, New York, when her parents woke her up out of the blue at three in the morning. They sat down, told her they loved her, then exited. Suddenly, a man and two women Hoffman had never seen before entered the room. Upon explaining to her that they were transporting her to an adolescent treatment center in Utah, Hoffman promptly punched the man in the face. She was then pinned down on her bed to prevent her from lashing out. For the next two hours, she switched between being restrained to attempting to run and fight every time they let her stand up, “I tried to fight them but it was three on one... they got me every time. They were calm surprisingly, and not mean. But assertive in how they touched me.” said Hoffman.

Eventually, the three transporters picked her up by her arms and legs and carried her to the car headed to the airport. Afterward, her father went into her room and cried into her pillow.

Teens subjected to gooning are more times than not taken in the early hours of the morning from their bedrooms. Image Credit: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Different teenage extraction companies use different approaches to transportation. Tara Anderson*, from New York, New York was transported at the age of 16 at 4 AM while she was too drunk to resist. She does not remember most of the experience. She was taken onto a plane and cuffed, which was “the most humiliating moment of [her] life.”

The Hoffman and Anderson families are just two of many families that turn to “gooning” every year. “Gooning” is a colloquial term that refers to the controversial practice of nonconsensual transportation of adolescents to addiction or behavioral treatment centers. Parents who have lost control of their child and seek help can hire a transport service to help them get their child into treatment if they believe their child would not go willingly.

The long term effects of gooning are unknown. “I can honestly say it was one of the few times I have been truly scared. It was traumatizing; I sleep with the lights on,” Hoffman stated. Hoffman is not the only one who has felt the long term effects of gooning. Hannah Tate was 16 when she was gooned from her home in Houston, Texas. Three years later, she still wakes up at three in the morning “out of fear that someone is in [her] room and going to take [her].”

Similarly, Alex Reed was gooned over a year ago at age fifteen, and still has trouble completely trusting her parents and sleeping. “I would want to stay up until four to make sure they weren’t coming again. I would watch my door and I was hyper-aware of everything at night. it’s been over a year and I was just able to start sleeping through the night again about a month ago. I feel like I can’t trust my parents completely when I think about the fact that I had no idea that was going to happen, that they hired two people to forcibly take me from my bed at 4 am, get on a plane with me and take me to a state I had never been to. I didn’t think I was ever getting sent away again,” She had already been in and out of treatment centers from sixth to eighth grade and was not expecting to return once she got back home.

The night she was gooned, Reed got home around 1 AM after finding a friend’s body when he committed suicide. Her family was gone except for her mom who told her to shower. She then sat Reed down and braided her hair. Reed broke down crying in front of her. “I was so vulnerable and real with her and she knew the whole time that in a few hours I would be taken, and she didn’t tell me. She was keeping what I consider to be a huge secret from me the whole time. She didn’t try and make the conversation last longer, she didn’t hug me as much as I needed her to," she said. This is worsened by the fact that many wilderness therapy programs, frequently the first step of treatment, prohibit physical touch between students as well as between students and staff. “We’ve moved past it all, but whenever something happens with us or just me I freak out and can’t sleep. I don’t know if I can trust them to tell me I’m getting sent away again.”

Teens hiking in a wilderness therapy program. Image Credit: Regargia [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons 

Fortunately, Reed’s gooning experience was a positive one. Since Reed was sleeping naked, the goons allowed her to get dressed while they left the room, which was not allowed. They also gave her forty minutes to say goodbye to her mom, and twenty minutes to pack. “I think a lot about how blessed I was to have the [goons] that I did. I knew that while it was going on too...I don’t think they would’ve treated me like that at all if I tried to resist or if it wasn’t as obvious as it was that I was in shock," Reed said.

However, it does not always damage the relationship between parent and child. “It didn’t really affect my relationship with my parents because I understand why they did it. If I was them I wouldn’t know what to do. But it scarred me for sure,” Tate said.

This transportation technique is controversial for many reasons. Nonconsensual transportation means that the child’s right to choose is taken away. For some cases that is necessary, but there are no legal requirements that need to be met before a parent can choose to goon their child. This leaves the definition of “need” up to the parents.

Reasons for a child to be sent away vary. By the time Hoffman was gooned at sixteen, she had three felony assaults on her record, was traumatized, and addicted to Xanax. She had also previously refused treatment multiple times. Tate and Anderson were sent for substance abuse and trauma, and Reed was sent for emotional issues and trauma.

On the website of a well-regarded wilderness therapy program, Pacific Quest, reasons to be enrolled in a therapeutic program vary. ADHD, entitlement, drug abuse, self-harm, and apathy are among the reasons listed. Picking a treatment center is a difficult decision, and one can only make an educated guess based on research and advice from a professional academic advisor specializing in adolescent treatment.

The long term effects of gooning are still unclear. Image Credit: Unsplash/Sasha Freedman

Academic advisors cannot know everything about a treatment center. In rare cases, the wrong choice can have consequences for parents and children alike. Reed experienced the worst case scenario at her residential treatment center. “I had been physically and sexually abused at the last residential I went to and my parents knew about it and left me there. I mean they thought I was lying but still, you know?” As minors, patients do not have the right to check themselves out of treatment under any circumstances. Patients are also not educated on the laws surrounding involuntary commitment of a minor to a private treatment facility. Most issues minors take with their programs go through their parents who may or may not choose to act.

The decision to involuntarily commit one’s child is a heavy one. “It’s a difficult subject because, on one hand, some people really need help. However, sometimes gooning isn’t the answer. There are times when a child would have gone willingly, and even when someone doesn’t need to be committed at all. I don’t think parents understand how intense and painful the experience can be. It’s a big decision to make for someone, especially since it will affect them for the rest of their lives,” Hoffman said, “If someone with milder issues comes into a program where their peers are much more troubled, it can influence them in the wrong way. For example, I learned a lot about drugs and self-harm in treatment. Sometimes you can witness things that can be traumatizing, like suicide attempts and cutting.”

Gooning is typically considered a last resort after an adolescent has refused treatment or is too unwell to make clear decisions. “There’s no way in hell I would’ve gone on my own.” said Anderson. Professional transportation can also be a safer option for youths who are a risk to themselves or others.

Each treatment experience is unique. Not everybody comes out healthy, and not all of them come out damaged. The outcome depends on the individual, the program, and many outside factors. Parents may choose to goon their child if they have exhausted their local treatment options and are overwhelmed by their child's behavior. The decision to goon or not to goon should be made by parents with the advice of a counselor.

* Some names have been changed for privacy.