The man who takes troubled youths to therapy camp
- 22 April 2014
- From the section Magazine
Families who send their troubled children to therapeutic wilderness camps in the US sometimes call on the services of a shadowy figure known as the "escort", writes Trisha Telep.
A phone rings in a nondescript two-storey, brown stucco house in a North Las Vegas suburb.
"First Step Adolescent Services. This is Eddie speaking."
Over spare ribs at Famous Dave's - about seven miles from the Strip - and squeezed into a booth that doesn't look big enough to hold him, international youth escort Eddie Curry talks about the late night phone calls he gets from frantic parents across the globe at the end of their tethers with wayward teens.
"When it's a girl, the dad's an emotional wreck - 'This is my little princess.' When it's a boy, it's the mother who calls."
He spends hours on the phone with parents but it can be weeks, months and even years before they make the final decision to fly Curry in to help. He has spent more than 20 years transporting troubled children to wilderness camps in southern Utah where they spend about two months trekking into the back country for outdoor therapy sessions, trying to break the destructive cycle of their normal lives.
While most of Curry's business comes from the US, Canada and Mexico, 20% comes from other countries. He also picks up children from airports in the US after parents fly them in from places as far away as Iran, Dubai, Israel, Brazil and Hong Kong.
In 1992, he took time out from his job as an airframe mechanic to give "youth transport" a try. Twenty-one years later, and more than 2,500 escorts under his belt, he's been kicked, punched, slashed, bludgeoned, attacked with hockey sticks and baseball bats.
The 45-year-old father knows how out-of-control teenagers tick - he used to be one. More than six feet tall aged 15, there was always plenty of opportunity for trouble. By 17, he was drinking a lot and getting in regular fistfights with his estranged father.
Parents at their wits end find Curry through internet searches, the wilderness programmes he works with or just by word of mouth. And they hire him for all sorts of reasons - drug and alcohol problems, violence and trouble with the police are among them. Often, more conventional treatment like therapy has failed or been refused.
"If you have me there, it's gotten to the point where talking is done. There is no conversation happening or very little. And the little bit the parents are getting is usually yelling and screaming."
Many families take out loans and re-mortgage houses to get their child help - a British parent will pay up to $6,000 (£3,500) to get Curry to come to the UK.
Once hired, he quizzes the parents about the child's hobbies, interests, routines and likes and dislikes. Does he smoke? What time does he go to sleep? Does she have a boyfriend? Is he or she likely to get violent? Are there any weapons in the house?
In Minneapolis, he was faced by a wall of swords and knives, while in Oakland, California, he had to wrestle with a 15-year-old who was his own height for a Glock G42 pistol lying on the bedroom floor.
He holds out his hand to reveal a long, thin scar, now faded with age. "That was a kid that caught me with a straight razor in Orange County, 32 stitches. My first year on the job. Two weeks before I turned 24."
After flying in with his wife Tyna, he'll arrive at a pick up between two and six o'clock in the morning, depending on the time of the return flight.
"Getting in that early in the morning, I know the chances of them being on their way up from a drug are slim. It's more likely they're on their way down," he says.
He spends 10-15 minutes asking the parents questions before heading to the child's bedroom. How were things last night? What kind of mood were they in at bedtime?
Then they all go up the stairs to the child's bedroom, Curry and Tyna following close behind the nervous parents.
"Coming in like a storm trooper, shouting 'get up, get dressed, let's go!' and not explaining things, not talking to the kid and joking around with them, and not doing all these things to get them comfortable with you, that's a bad experience for the child."
After the child is awake and the parents have introduced the visitors, the parents leave the room, and they don't get to say goodbye.
He pulls up a chair and starts to explain everything to them. He doesn't stand over them. He doesn't yell, he doesn't scream.
"Parents always ask: 'What are you going to say? What are you going to tell them?' I don't know. I have no idea. I just react to the kid."
Almost every child says: "You're not going to make me go. I'm not going." Many children get hysterical, many cry. Some go berserk. To Curry, these kinds of reaction are only natural.
"I always put myself in these kids' shoes. If I had some guy come into my room at five o'clock in the morning and break this news to me, I'd be annoyed."
That's not to say that he believes a word they say though.
"Most of the kids I pick up are just liars trying to get out of going. They'll look you straight in the eye and lie. But I listen to their stories. I show them compassion. These are kids, not criminals. They might be doing some illegal stuff but they're just kids that are screwing up, making bad decisions and hanging out with the wrong people. They're not bad kids."
They talk. And talk. And talk some more.
"I just wear them down. I'm not going to lose. I tell them that not going is not an option. How they want to go is where their option lies. I will get them anything they want within reason." That includes food, cigarettes, magazines - anything that is going to make the trip more pleasant for the child.
His record for getting a kid to agree to come with him is five minutes. On average, it takes about an hour. The longest it's ever taken him is two.
One British parent who turned to Curry says: "He's got a very sensible approach - no uniforms, no use of force, no medication. He is just very, very good at talking to kids."
In the car on the way to the airport, he'll brief the child about the programme. Those who know what to expect are the ones most likely to succeed the quickest at camp.
"A lot of these kids have problems with drugs but it's also with patience, working together as a team, communicating with others - that's what their big problems are. A wilderness programme teaches them the basic skills they're going to need to function in society. They have to start fires without matches. That takes a lot of patience because it's hard to do."
Wilderness therapy has existed across the US for decades, and supporters say it results in better communication between the child and parents, increased self-confidence, and even better academic results.
"The key thing is that it disrupts negative patterns of behaviour and allows us to help them learn and establish some new healthy behaviours and ways of interacting with others," says Steve Demille of RedCliff Ascent, one of the companies operating in Utah.
But Nicki Bush, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, warns that camps are not the silver bullet parents are hoping for and pay a "ludicrous" amount of money for.
And though Curry only takes children who agree to go, he says, Prof Bush says many children find being escorted to camps a traumatic experience, and often perceive it as an abduction.
"The children are further estranged from their family because they feel violated and betrayed by the experience and then they're raised with a bunch of strangers out in the wilderness and they don't actually get to repair or bond with their family and build relationships there."
Real change won't come under duress, she believes.
But Curry says his methods are the first step towards recovery. Three months after he picked up a girl, 16, from a crack house in Phoenix, Arizona, she had put on 20lbs and looked well again.
"This is my child back," another grateful parent says. "He's respectful, he's talkative, he's funny again."