The Admission of Students into Boarding Schools, Wilderness and Adventure Programs: Are Parent References Useful?

Wilderness Therapy Treatment Programs

More Information: www.WildernessPrograms.Org

"... the loyalty of most parents toward a program is higher if their child is enrolled, cannot come home and the child is in the middle of their program. This loyalty can become even more powerful if another parent's child is injured (or dies) in the program under allegations of neglect or abuse."

By: Michael Conner, Psy.D
Mentor Research Institute
Revised:  May 21, 2014

More and more parents are searching for schools and intervention programs to help their children. They are doing this because public schools, community mental health, law enforcement and psychiatric services have failed their child. Out of shear desperation many parents search across the country and are investigating programs based on advertisements in magazines, television specials, the internet, newspaper articles and the recommendation of consultants.

"Intervention programs, schools and therapeutic communities are a growing, viable and effective solution for troubled youth. Parents are no longer limited to traditional and often inadequate interventions such as residential treatment, day treatment and psychiatric hospitalization. The problems that can be effectively addressed include substance abuse, developmental delays, psychological disorders, antisocial behavior and failure of a child to achieve their potential. The success stories associated with these new interventions are supported by a growing body of research. " [ Except from Programs For Troubled Youth That Profit From Failure: Warning Signs ]

The stories of many parents are invariably the same. They contact programs where a kind and confident person answers the phone. This person identifies their self as a counselor or possibly the Director of Admissions. The qualifications of this person can range from a qualified licensed professional to someone who is unqualified with no training. In some cases the admissions counselor may have worked in other programs but not this one. In any case, parents talk about their child, the problems they are facing and their feelings. The kind empathic counselor listens until the parent begins to feel better.

After a thoughtful and caring conversation, many parents will begin to feel there is hope. The program claims that it can help. At this point the structure and philosophy of the program has been discussed with someone who seems to care more about the parent's problems than police, school officials and even the child's counselor. Eventually the admission's counselor offers to send materials about their program as well as a list of parent references. These are of course parents who have had children or currently have children in the program. Parents are then encouraged to call these parent references.

Should parents contact parent references? What is the value of this information? In truth, there is some value in contacting former and current parents of children in a program. But it appears that the value is quite limited and probably misleading to most consumers. 

The Value of Parent References

Bad References are Usually True. It is extremely rare that a program would refer prospective customers to a dissatisfied parent. But it does happen. This seems to occur because the program has lost touch with what parents are saying about the program. On the other hand, not all bad references are entirely bad. In fact they can give more credibility to a favorable comment that is also given about the program. Sometimes a bad reference is not so bad because it points out a limitation of the program while highlighting more important strengths.

Good References are Usually Incomplete. It is fair to say that programs do not give parent references that would speak poorly of a program. Programs usually put parents on reference lists based on a screening and discussion within the program about what parents to include. Programs also monitor what the parents are telling people by checking back with people who are given parent references. All programs give parent references that are enthusiastic about a program. This would include parents who are not in touch or do not have a complete understanding of recent or past problems in a program.

Some References are Corrupt. Believe it or not, there are many programs that pay parents or give parents a tuition discount for the recommendations provided it results in a new admission. There are parents who actively market their child's program as a means to pay for the program. Some of these people are self-proclaimed "educational consultants." You might be shocked to know that parents who are also professionals such a physicians may be given even higher financial incentives.

Some References are in Denial. Some parents are so grateful for the help they have received that they will ignore concerns based on facts surrounding serious events.  Parents can ignore the fact that too many children in the program are being treated badly and are not benefiting. Moreover, the loyalty of most parents toward a program is higher if their child is enrolled, cannot come home and the child is in the middle of their program. This loyalty can become even more powerful if another parent's child is injured (or dies) in the program under allegations of neglect or abuse. Parents in these cases report that they are afraid the program will be closed or that they made a mistake sending their child there. Some parents sympathize with a program and even report feeling as though they are being held "hostage" by the program under investigation. This identification is known as the "Stockholm Syndrome" where by hostages become supportive toward the very people holding them hostage. Under pressure of guilt, fear and no other option, some parents are ready and willing to accept the operators promise and assurance that the program really cares and that the program is the real victim of the authorities. In dramatic cases, programs and parents have actually joined forces against authorities and other parents based on the death of a child. Such programs claim that that authorities don't really care about helping children, that parents are misguided or that the media is causing problems.

What Parents Don't Say Matters Most

It is not what parents tell you that matters. What parents don't tell you or don't know is what really matters most. Here are some cases examples. Some of the information has been changed because of the sensitive nature of these issues as well as the potential for on-going litigation and criminal investigations in a program that we are not aware of.

  • The program has been successfully sued in civil court for inappropriate billing practices by a business or other parent.

  • The program has settled a civil law suit out of court in connection to child abuse or the death of a child.

  • A majority of the critical staff in the program resigned because of practices in the program that abused, neglected or placed children at risk.

  • The program is under investigation for allegations of child neglect or abuse.

  • The program has numerous criminal charges filed by a District Attorney or  Attorney General of the State.

  • The program has an high number of student runaways per month.

  • The program contract is written more to protect the program and not parents and their children.

  • The key staff person who made the program safe and effective in the past has recently left.

  • The program has filled bankruptcy and does not have adequate funding to pay expenses or salaries.

  • The program admits children with problems that are not appropriate for the program.

  • There is a high staff turnover and that to many new staff leave the program once they discover how the program really works.


Parent references are worth calling but they really don't mean much. In fact they can be misleading, biased, corrupt and outright distortions of reality. Parent references are not reliable sources of information. The only solution is seek an independent and qualified recommendation. It is best to rely on professionals who have direct experience working with a program who are also not paid or affiliated with that program. 

Copyright 2002 to 2011, Michael G. Conner