Thursday, February 24, 2011

Why I Wrote Boot Camp

Some of the research for Can’t Get There From Here involved speaking to homeless teens on New York’s lower east side. During one interview, a young woman mentioned that she’d run away from home when her parents had threatened to send her to a boot camp.

A short time later I read an article about “transporters,” professional kidnappers who parents hire to “grab” their children and “escort” them to boot camps. It sounded shockingly excessive, but I knew from my own experience as a teen that sometimes a young person can be so angry, rebellious, and out of control that it is impossible for a parent to force him (or her) into a car to take him somewhere he doesn't want to go. And probably impossible to keep him in that car/plane/train long enough to get him there.

But there was another aspect of boot camps that I found equally disturbing – the idea that until a child reaches the age of 18 he or she has no legal right to prevent parents from sending him or her away.

I do believe that in the vast majority of cases, sending a child to a boot camp is an act of utter parental desperation. Parents do it because they absolutely believe that it is the only avenue left to prevent a child from self-destructing, either from drug use or some other unlawful and dangerous activity. I have heard a number of stories about young people whose lives were turned around for the better after being sent to a boot camp. But, as I point out in the book, I have also read about young people who have died in such camps.

Among the many problems with boot camps is that most are run on a for-profit basis. In other words, their purpose is dual-fold: 1) To save young people from themselves and 2) To make money for their owners. Like a hotel, a boot camp has a certain number of beds it needs to fill to make this money. And also like a hotel, it can’t make money by turning people away.

So who can really judge who should be sent to a boot camp and who shouldn’t? Should a young woman be sent away because she insists on making “an unacceptable choice of boyfriends”? Should a young man be sent because he refuses to accept his parents’ choice of religions?

One thing I discovered during your research: there are plenty of boot camps that would accept both.


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