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 Posted Sept 28, 2000 

Op ed submitted to The Portland Oregonian
September 27, 2000

By Scott Bandoroff, Ph.D.
Peak Experience
1407 NW Quincy Ave.
Bend, OR 97701

Dear Editor:

I was incensed to discover that your article on the death of the Obsidian Trails' student (9/21) was inaccurate and misinformed and made no attempt to provide balanced information about Obsidian Trails or the field of wilderness therapy. Headlines like: "Agency banishes group from Central Oregon land" (when in reality, the permit was not revoked but merely suspended) clearly reveals the bias of the reporter and the image he wished to create. Such journalism has the power to ruin careers and discredit professions. In an attempt to repair some of the damage, let me provide a balanced view of a program and a field that has saved countless teens' lives and reunited many shattered families.

The Wilderness Research Center at the University of Idaho estimated that over 12,000 youth were served in 1998 by 38 wilderness treatment programs. These programs do not simply truck teens out to the woods to learn self-reliance. Rather the programs are based upon sound theoretical models that rely upon established theories of human development, personality theory, and psychotherapy techniques. There is a substantial body of research literature that demonstrates that wilderness therapy is an effective short-term intervention for troubled youth, evidenced by its positive effect on self-perceptions, social attitudes, interpersonal relations, and delinquent behavior.

Obsidian Trails accepts some of the most difficult and challenging youth. The parents of these teens often describe their children as "out of control" and many express a fear for their own safety. The ability of Obsidian Trails to successfully treat such youth is borne out by the fact that over ninety percent of the students return home (in contrast, many other programs refer students to long term treatment programs). Moreover, Obsidian Trails offers a two year guarantee in a field (mental health) where guarantees simply do not exist. Over the past seven months, Obsidian Trails has built an organization that ranks among the best in the field. The management staff is seasoned by many years of experience in wilderness treatment. The clinical team includes four masters' level therapists (for 25 students) and is overseen by a licensed clinical psychologist. The outpouring of support from program graduates and their parents in the wake of this tragedy is the strongest testament to the caliber of programming offered by Obsidian Trails.

I am intimately familiar with the details surrounding the tragic death of this student and based on this knowledge, I believe that the instructors acted appropriately, in good faith, and within the standards of the field. The fact that a life was lost in the process has been devastating to all involved. Let me assure you that every youth care worker feels the pain of this loss because they know that this tragedy could have just as easily happened to them. Restraint is not limited to the wilderness but is part of every youth care worker's reality. It should be noted that the safety record of the field of wilderness therapy is beyond reproach. More teens in the U.S. suffer life-threatening injuries on any given Friday night during football season than in the history of wilderness therapy. Naturally, risk is inherent in wilderness treatment programs due to the simple fact that we deal with very challenging youth in an unpredictable environment. Although it may seem harsh to those families who have lost children, I strongly believe that the risk is worthwhile. For it is precisely this environment that enables us to reunite the vast majority of families and return to them a young person who is responsible and loving, and prepared to be a productive member of society.

Scott Bandoroff, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and provides clinical oversight to Obsidian Trails. Dr. Bandoroff has worked in the field of wilderness therapy for 15 years and has authored over 25 articles and presentations on the subject.

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