Op ed submitted to The Portland Oregonian
September 27, 2000
By Scott Bandoroff, Ph.D.
1407 NW Quincy Ave.
Bend, OR 97701
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.