That is one of the biggest problems in assessing such programs: How do you verify information from troubled kids? At New Mexico's Tierra Blanca ranch, for instance, some students allege they were beaten, starved and denied medical care. Others, like Hall's son Bryce, deny any abuse or neglect.
"There is not a teenager alive that wants to be in one of those programs," said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a nonprofit in Fairfax, Va., that helps families find the right programs for their troubled children. "You take a kid playing video games all day doing drugs with his buddies. You ship him off to one of these programs, they are going to say anything to get home."
Further exacerbating the problem is that many of the homes, like Tierra Blanca, are unlicensed and operate in remote Western states. They can prey on anxious parents in desperate situations, some facing court deadlines to place their child in a residential treatment program or have them sent to juvenile detention, he said.
Sklarow says the programs vary widely. Some are staffed by doctors and psychologists, others hire people with no training and who have their own past behavioral and addiction issues.
Although the NATSP says roughly 40 states have some sort of regulation over the programs, oversight and licensing procedures vary widely. For instance, its website lists New Mexico as having regulations, but state officials say there is no law requiring that programs be licensed or otherwise supervised. State officials say they will seek a new law to change that next year.
Scott Chandler's Tierra Blanca ranch has been operating in New Mexico for some 20 years, charging parents roughly $100 a day. Earlier this month, authorities raided the ranch to take possession of nine minors.
State police have identified Chandler as a person of interest in their investigation, but he has not been arrested or charged. Chandler continues to operate his program with a few 18 year olds.