Researching Therapeutic Boarding Schools

One online search for “therapeutic boarding schools” yields over 3 million results. We offer helpful research tips as you begin your search for the “right” help for your troubled teen.


When considering a therapeutic boarding school (TBS), residential treatment centers (RTC), wilderness therapy or any school for troubled teens –  keep these thoughts in mind (including questions to ask parent references).


Since 2001 we have been investigating, interviewing and involved in the troubled teen industry. From the courtroom to the programs themselves, we have firsthand experiences to pass on to you as you start your journey.


-Internet deception



Be cautious of the internet: Today we turn to the internet for almost everything we do, but how do we know what is internet fact, fiction, or somewhere in between –maybe misinformation? Therefore doing your due diligence, especially in this big business of teen help programs, is imperative.


Is there one or more therapeutic boarding schools or schools for troubled teens that continues to show up as paid advertising repeatedly, no matter what keyword you put in your search engine?  This can be a red flag. It is a lot of money being spent on marketing. Many programs with a longevity of success typically rely on their good reputation.


There are also third-party websites that lists schools and programs (typically they are listing/selling them by states) that you may be interested in, however they want you contact their toll-free number first for information. STOP. Open a new browser and find the school on your own.


These are typically marketing arms that are not interested in your child’s best interest, but rather in placing children into where they can receive their commission through affiliated links. (See placement specialists below).


Be cautious of the “Top 20 Best Therapeutic Boarding Schools” or “Top 10 Boarding Schools” or “Best Boarding Schools” lists you may find online.


There is no research to validate these schools and programs — they list some facilities that are now closed and some that have substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect. These lists could be paid directories. Again, the internet can be full of misinformation. 


Click here for more tips about searching for schools online.


 -Fear-mongering sites


You will find some websites and forums that will criticize families for seeking outside help for their teens. They may lead you to believe that all programs and schools are bad or abusive. Not all schools and programs are who they say they are– which is why are you here, doing your research.


You are taking your time to investigate what will be best for your individual child’s needs and learning from the mistakes I made so you don’t have to. It is exactly why I created P.U.R.E.™


If you find negative complaints about a school/program you are considering – take the time to ask us about it. We never diminish a person’s experience; however we have also realized that some people are there to make it harder for parents to get help. Again, we have walked your shoes and have taken time to dig deep into this industry.


-Beware of the Placement Specialist


Are you talking to a placement specialist? What exactly is this? Today these are people that are paid to place your troubled teen in a program. This is not in the best interest of your child. In some cases, these are programs that have less than desirable reputations – however the placement specialist is making a commission. Typically, what they are good at – is marketing. You may have just become bait and will become inundated with emails from different programs. They will be sending your name and email to many programs without qualifying your child as an appropriate fit for their school.


If you are a parent at your wit’s end, be sure you’re always speaking to an owner or director of a program. Someone that has a vested interest in your child’s recovery. These marketing arms aka placement specialists can be deceptive. Read A Parent’s True Story.”


-Placing Abroad


Be cautious if sending your child out of the country. Laws are different and cannot protect your child out of the country. Many parents are misled by the lower tuition--do not be one of them. We recommend keeping your child in the United States. If you are a resident outside of the United States, this may not affect you.


ParentsConfused5-Behind the Screen


Do not allow fancy websites, emotional online videos determine your decision for your child. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If a program is advertising an extremely high success rate, ask them what third party organization did their statistical studies.


In-house surveys are prejudiced and not always a good source of reliability. Keep in mind, this a major emotional and financial decision you will be making.


Do not judge a program by their website. You never know what is behind a screen. We have visited programs that have less than attractive websites with amazing facilities and staff. On the contrary – you will find polished websites with some programs that you would not leave your pets at.


-Myths of Wilderness


Your teen does not need to complete a wilderness program before they attend a residential treatment program (RTC or TBS). In many cases families today cannot afford that extra step of a wilderness program; however, we hear over and over that parents are talked into breaking a child down before sending them to a therapeutic boarding program. Isn’t your teen already broken down? Isn’t that why you are reaching out for help?


Therefore you are looking for programs that will help stimulate your teen back on to a positive road– making good choices and creating a bright future that you had planned for them.


-Finding the right program


You are not choosing a program to “teach your child a lesson.” This is a common mistake many parents make. Many times, these are good children making bad choices. Harsh treatment and environment can add to their anger as well as build resentment.


Learn more about the differences between a residential treatment center and therapeutic boarding school.


-Accredited programs


Don’t accept a program that is not accredited to educate your child, provides scant food and/or clothing, and has unsanitary living conditions. A visit to the program prior enrollment, if possible, is recommended.


It is understandable that not every family has the finances or the time for the extra trip. With this, please be sure your research is thorough. Below – the importance of calling parent references can be helpful with this and helpful questions to ask parents.


As far as education, ask the program for a copy of their accreditation for their academics. With that you can contact your local school to be sure the transcripts will be transferable.


-Basic human rights


It is normal for parents to want their child to appreciate what they have at home; however, deprivation of food, sanitation, and clothing should not be accepted. These are basic human rights.


Many of these teens are suffering from low self-esteem, depression, peer pressure, etc. Taking away their basic needs may escalate these negative feelings.




Asking the program about their communication with parents and visitation schedule is imperative. Another helpful tip – is to verify it through asking parent references when you call them.


Do not enroll any child in a program that refuses to allow parents to speak with their child within a reasonable amount of time, usually no longer than 30 days.


Visitation in many programs begins at three months. This is your child, and family counseling is just as important as your child’s recovery.


PexelsMomonphone-Ask questions


If you feel you have valid concerns and do not understand something, do not allow the program director to overlook your questions. Keep asking until you receive an appropriate response. This is your right as a parent. You are your child’s advocate.


Ask for the staff’s education, training, and experience. Credentials of those working with your child are vital. Ask if they have background checks for all employees.


-Age of consent


Know what the age of majority (consent) is in the state of the program. Be sure children cannot sign themselves out of the program at their current age. You will see that many programs are in the western part of the U.S. (especially Utah) due to the age of majority of 18. This ensures your child cannot leave without your consent.


-Choosing a program in the best interest of your teen


Do not limit your decision on geographical location. The fact is this is the most important 6-9-12 months of your child’s life to date, it must be the best placement/program/school that fits their emotional needs — not your travel plans.


Family visits are never more than every 4-6 weeks (depending on the program) after your teen has completely the initial ninety days.


We remind parents – this is only a snapshot of their entire life – yet will have such an impact on their future. Let’s not limit it for geographical reasons.


You will not be making daily or weekend visits. This is about your teen’s healing, recovery and what is best for him/her. If it means you need to take an extra plane ride or few hours by car, remember — it is only several months out of their entire life.


Most programs are similar in tuition fees, using credit cards as tuition can build frequent flyer miles. (If you can do this – paying it off either with your funds or a loan you have received, can be a good option).


There are many excellent programs in our country, find the one that is best fitted for your child, not your airport. The other important fact is – if you have a teen that is a flight risk, they are more likely (or tempted) to leave a program (runaway) and call one of their new less-than-desirable friends to pick them up.


If your child is not a flight risk, by choosing a program outside of their familiar area helps remove your teen’s temptation to runaway since they are less familiar with the area. We have seen parents choose local programs or places their family is familiar with — the teen will run when they become frustrated or simply don’t want to be there, and this only sets their progress back. When this happens, it prolongs their stay at the school, and you have to hit the reset button again. There are no winners.


Choosing a program that is in an unfamiliar area is in the best interest of your teenager. Remember this is about your teen’s emotional wellness and recovery, not about geographically convenience.


As a side-note, since the pandemic, it’s understandable that some parents don’t want to travel to the other side of the country, however you can be more reasonable when it comes to choosing residential treatment. It is always wise to find a program outside of your state — without going to the other side of the country.


-Background check


Check with the local sheriff department or the state office of the Attorney General or Department of Social Services (DSS) or Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) – for reports of neglect or abuse as well as their current licensing.


With this, understand that there are no perfect programs. Some may have had issues which have since been rectified or are not related to the students. However, others, with constant complaints, should be crossed off you list. Investigating helps you choose the right program for your family.


When you contact the local sheriff department, ask them how many times a month they are called out to the program – how many runaways they have – and your final question should be, is if it were their child, would they send them there?


With licensing, you want to be sure they are licensed as a residential treatment center and not a daycare center or foster care home.  You will be paying a significant amount of tuition, be an educated parent.





Find out what the program’s use of restraints is. If they have “isolation,” inquire about the length of time that is normally spent there and what this entails. Ask what the program does if your child runs away.




Ask if the person who is marketing the information receives any kind of direct, or indirect referral fee or compensation (i.e., A month’s free tuition, gifts, certificates, dinners, etc.).


-Ask for and call parent references


If a school/program will not give you *parents references, it’s a red flag. It might be time to consider another program.


Hopefully, you have time to ask for at least 3-5 parent references. In some situations, you can also speak with the teen that graduated the program too. This should be a call for information, guidance, and support. Did their child have the same issues as yours?


If you are considering transport and apprehensive about it, ask the parent reference how they got their teen to the program. It is a great way to gain more insights on residential therapy and especially on transportation.


Parent tip: Ask for families from your same geographical area, as well as parents that have the same gender and age as your child.  You want to try to talk to parents as like your own situation as well as possibly near where you live.  Maybe you could have an opportunity to meet with them in person.  Keep in mind, firsthand experiences are priceless.


One question to ask the reference parent is if they could change one thing about the program, what would it be? Though it may not be a major concern, it may be another question you can ask the owner or director of the program.


Questions to ask parent references (not in any specific order):


-Why did they have to send their teen to a program?
-What other things did they try prior choosing residential therapy?
-What was their trigger moment that made their decision?
-How long did their child attend the program?
-Why did they choose that particular program?
-What was their deciding factor on this program?
-Did they visit the program before placing their teen?
-Did they discuss it with their teen?
-How did they get their teen to the program?
-Did they use a transport company and how was the experience?
-How is their teen doing today?
-How was the communication with the program?
-Did they provide transitional support after their teen graduated?
-Would they recommend the program to a friend or family?
More questions to ask references.


* Programs may have you complete an application or a short version of an application before giving you parent references. This assures them that you are a fit for their school and are considering placement. It does not mean you are going to enroll in the program; however, it provides security for everyone involved when giving out personal information of families.


For programs that will use the excuse that it violates their HIPPAA policy, it is just that, an excuse. With HIPPAA, you can have exception with the parent’s permission to be a reference.  Most all of these programs you are interviewing operate in accordance with HIPPA — again, get parent references and if they don’t want to give them, it might be best to move on.


Question to ask the director:


What is it about your program that changes lives?

If the director (or staff member) can talk for 10-15 minutes about the process in detail, and the values and components involved, you are likely on track for a good program.


PixabayArt-Inside a program


Look for programs that offer an ACE factor:


A=Accredited Academics
C=Clinical with credentialed therapists
E=Enrichment Programs such as music, sports, animal assisted therapy, horticulture, art therapy, fine arts, drama, or whatever your teen may be passionate about. It is about stimulating your teen in a positive direction by encouraging them to build self-confidence and want to be their best.


-Family decision


Most Importantly, placement needs to be a family decision. Trust your gut and your heart. Family decision doesn’t mean with your troubled teenager. This is an adult decision.


If it does not feel right, it probably isn’t. Keep searching. It is time to bring the family back together. If possible – do this research before you are in crisis.


Many parents call us with that gut feeling, then things go well for a while, and they do not do anything. Suddenly they are in crisis-mode and have 24-hours to select a program. Don’t be that parent.


Please do not let any sales rep or marketing arm convince you that you need a program for your teen. Again, you are your child’s advocate. You will know when you have found the best program for your teen’s individual emotional needs.


-Success Rates for Residential Treatment


Many parents ask about success rates in resident treatment. The fact is, there has never been a study done that is independent of this industry. Success depends on many factors — your diligence in finding the right program for your teenager and your participation in the treatment plan.


-Free consultation


we are parents tooParents’ Universal Resource Experts is about helping educate parents about residential therapeutic schools and programs. We offer free consultations.


These tips are not to frighten anyone, it is to make parents aware of an industry that has little to no guidelines or regulations to follow. Even some professionals in the field are motivated to sway parents to believe they need to send their child to wilderness, or they need to select a program in their man-made organization — a group they formed that programs pay to belong to. The teen-help industry can be very troubling on all levels if you are not an educated parent.


It is a fact, some of our kids need help today. Let’s get them the right help with an educated and researched decision.


Many parents contact us about the fear-mongering websites that are up. These sites are usually created by former students, and they have listed just about every program in the country.


Sadly, what they are doing is preventing families from getting the potential help they may need for their child. There is always good and bad in every field/industry — therefore it is imperative you do your due diligence when researching programs.


We have personally visited, researched and spoken with many parents, students and former employees of programs since 2001. Feel free to contact us if you are considering a program and you find it on one of those fear-based websites.


One of their issues is that they do not believe in level systems.  Keep in mind – in life, we all work our way up. Whether you start as janitor and work your way to supervisor or start in the mail room and work your way up to an executive. It is part of the way life is starting as early as kindergarten and moving up grades.  If it is not done in a degrading way.


Understand there are some teen behavioral issues that require more intensive therapy.


Read: Why Residential Treatment Works When Home Therapy Fails.

Read: 5 Benefits of Boarding Schools for troubled Teens.

Read: Questions Parents Ask About Schools for Troubled Teens.

Click here for questions to ask schools and programs.


Contact us for a free consultation about safe residential treatment and therapeutic boarding schools for your troubled teen.

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Many parents are at their wit’s end with the challenges of raising teenagers. If you are considering residential therapy, contact us for a free consultation.

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