Where's Daniel Yuen? "The Lost Kids" podcast probes ties between "troubled teen" camp and '60s cult

Podcast host Josh Bloch spoke to Salon about these "therapeutic" schools and how they've gotten away with abuse

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published June 10, 2020 6:06PM (EDT)

Daniel Yuens (Patrick McCarthy/NBCUniversal)
Daniel Yuens (Patrick McCarthy/NBCUniversal)

In 2004, Daniel Yuen's parents sent their teenage son to CEDU Running Springs, a therapeutic boarding for troubled teens in California. Yuen had fallen into a deep depression and this seemed like the New Jersey family's last option. 

Less than a week after his arrival, Daniel called home (CEDU allowed students a 15-minute phone call home every two weeks); when he did, he would whisper — quietly, like someone was listening in — that "This is a bad school, a bad school." 

Then on February 8, 2004, Daniel escaped the school grounds and never returned. He took no belongings or identification with him when he left, and hasn't been seen since. 

But Daniel wasn't the only student to run away, and in the nearly two decades since, information about CEDU Running Springs and similar therapeutic schools for teenagers has emerged to corroborate his claim that it was "a bad school." 

Josh Bloch, a radio and podcast producer, has a new podcast, "The Lost Kids," that dives into the billion dollar industry of behavioral transformation programs for teens, how they thrive despite decades of scandal, and the surprising ties they have to one of America's most dangerous cults. 

He spoke with Salon about the thematic overlap between "The Lost Kids" and his last project, "Escaping NXIVM" — about the alleged sexual slavery cult run by Keith Raniere — how these schools marketed themselves to parents, and the shocking details of CEDU's curriculum. 

So, you also co-produced a podcast that I really enjoyed, "Escaping NXIVM." I know that came about because you personally knew Sarah Edmondson who left the cult. I was curious if there was anything personal that drew you to the stories told in "The Lost Kids"? 

I didn't have the same kind of personal connection, but I had been really immersed in how these kinds of organizations operated. So when I was approached by UCP Audio, they were aware of the work I had done on "Escaping NXIVM." And they were aware that this whole so-called "troubled teen industry" links back to what some experts call the most dangerous cult in America, an organization called Synanon. 

My awareness of the industry really came from daytime talk shows. I feel like there was at least an episode once a week in the '80s and '90s, where you'd see these kids shipped off to these "tough love boot camps." But I had no idea that this was a billion dollar industry, and that these programs weren't just military-style boot camps and wilderness programs. There were more programs like CEDU, that were called "therapeutic boarding schools." 

Well, and you mention the daytime television programs. Early into the first episode of the podcast, we hear a kind of quick-cut of clips from those programs. I was really interested in how these television shows framed the behavioral boot camps, how they spoke about them. Could you talk about that a bit — like, what was the general pitch to the audience? 

You know, I think it really reflected so much of what was happening at that time in terms of the mainstream political and media reaction to a drug epidemic, a war on drugs and youth culture in general — the idea of kids and teens being out of control. but that was a particular era of the Nancy Reagan's "just say no" stance on drugs and how that fit into the war on drugs.  

These talk shows fit very much into that idea. The audience were all aghast at this teen who's acting out. They were seen as just a wild teen, a rebellious teen, a drug addict. There was this idea that there wasn't going to be an easy solution to bring these kids back in line, and the story was always the same. 

These teens would act out against the parents and they get shipped off. Then they get yelled at, at a tough love program.

A few months later, they come back to the show and they're completely transformed and completely different. That is very much the promise of these programs. The pitch these programs make is to parents who are struggling with teens, and are desperately trying to figure out what to do about it. 

And they say, "We will give you your kid back if you give them to us for just a short while." 

I feel like there is an overlap between "Escaping NXIVM" and "The Lost Kids." In "Escaping NXIVM," you dive into how these otherwise intelligent women with support systems at home were targeted by the cult. I think it's really easy as an outsider to wonder how someone could fall prey to recruitment tactics — both the women who fell into NXIVM and the parents who sent their kids to these programs. Did the similarities between the two stories occur to you? 

Totally, totally. 

I mean, the major difference here is that in the case of NXIVM, you're recruiting people to voluntarily sign up to become part of the program, and with the CEDU, the recruiting happens with the parents. The program is administered on the kids, so really you're taking advantage of the desperation of the parents and convincing them that you have this successful model. 

But once you get into it, there is a kind of connection between the personal growth and personal development they were offering at CEDU and the kind NXIVM promised, as well. This idea that if you just follow the curriculum and climb up the ladder, you can transform this "thing" that is fundamentally wrong with you. 

They both have this pitch that there is something broken inside of you, and that you have to go through our vigorous program in order to be upgraded. 

But again, in this case, the kids are captive. Once the parents sign up for the program, the teen can't go anywhere. So programs like CEDU can rely much more on punishment and coercion. 

In the third episode of the podcast, you speak with Randolph, who is a former staff member of CEDU Running Springs. I was interested in this because you mention that it was difficult to find people from the staff who were willing to be interviewed, but he was eager — he was more than willing to speak with you. Why do you think that was? 

I was really surprised by the extent to which he felt like his life was transformed. One of the surprising things — and he talks about this — is that it's not just the kids who go through the curriculum. The staff are required to do it too alongside the kids. 

They're participating in the "rap sessions," these epic marathon peer counseling workshops filled with personal attacks from the other residents.

For him, the response to all the criticism always led back to 'How can it be a bad place if it saved my life? Who cares if people are critical because it was so helpful to me." 

I think that was a lot of his motivation, that he felt like he wanted to defend the program and felt like he was a great example of the success even though he was only present there as an adult, not a teen. 

It turned out there were a handful of people that have been willing to speak over the years to the media, but they tended to be people like Randolph, members of the staff who were known to be kind or gentler. Not the more aggressive staff. 

There were people that worked there for a long time that had a reputation of running incredibly aggressive "rap sessions" and just being big figures in that space, who loomed large in the psyche of the residents we talked to. 

That's why I felt particularly fortunate that another staff member agreed to talk, Rudy Bentz, as he hasn't spoken to the media before. I felt that was a really important perspective. He worked there for 15 years and admits that he ran his sessions in an aggressive way, but he really believed that was how to do it properly. 

I don't want to spoil the podcast too much, but I was hoping we could talk some about the CEDU curriculum. It's based on peer pressure, there are elements of running verbal attacks, these lengthy marathon workshops you refer to. I felt my stomach churn at various points listening to how the students were treated. 

I think that is probably what new residents experienced, although obviously in a much more visceral way. It took a while to fully get a picture. It's such an alternate reality that it feels like these kids are dropped into a different dimension. 

It's relentless amounts of peer pressure and attack. The "rap sessions" happen Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for three hours. And when you're not in the sessions, you are incredibly self-conscious that other residents are watching you to collect fodder for the sessions. And you have to watch them.  

It was little things, such as an inadvertent glance towards someone that could be interpreted as some kind of sexual tension or that you might be plotting to escape. You are pushed to participate in those sessions. If you aren't actively attacking people, you will be punished. 

So part of this podcast was coming to understand just how intense an environment it was to live in for two or two and half years. What that does to you is kind of bananas. 

We also heard many accounts from people about what these "rap session"s sounded like. We tried desperately to get our hands on some kind of tape of them. Although, unfortunately, we never did. The closest we came was a similar program that has these attack therapies and we heard some tape from them. 

And once you hear what it's like to have someone screaming at the top of their lungs, and doing it in this almost possessed way, with really bizarre rhythmic breathing and screaming, it's haunting because it's not just pure anger, there is something kind of ritualistic about it. 

Well, and to that end, later in the season, we start establishing some ties between CEDU and Synanon which was a cult that was kind of disbanded in the early '90s. I was hoping that you could maybe lay out for readers who aren't familiar with Synanon how the group started out and what it transformed into?

Yes, Synanon began as a program for drug addicts. It was started by a man named Charles E. Dederich who was a reformed alcoholic. He had been a part of AA, but at that time AA was mostly turning away drug addicts. He really felt like there was a huge drug epidemic that needed to be dealt with. So he created this group that was there to help people. 

And the "therapy" he came up with was this form of attack therapy. Very similar to the "rap sessions," where a bunch of drug addicts would get together in a circle in the middle of the room and just lay into each other, no holds barred. It was using attack as a way to force people to see the truth about themselves they otherwise wouldn't see. 

It was initially kind of a fad. Celebrities would come and hang out and it was part of this whole counterculture movement happening in the '60s. 

But at some point, as tends to happen with these kinds of coercive groups, it's controlled by this bigger-than-life charismatic figure who becomes more and more controlling of the people around him, and more and more violent. One of the big changes was him eventually telling participants they could never graduate, that this was a lifelong endeavor. In order to survive, you have to stay in the community. 

And one of the big red flags of these organizations is that they cut people off from their families. They began going after detractors in really aggressive ways, beating them up; in one case, leaving a rattlesnake in someone's mailbox. 

So it became very dangerous and violent, until it was eventually shut down in the early '90s. But the tough love philosophy they had, it didn't die at all. A few followers went out and created programs for teens based on that philosophical foundation. In the case of CEDU, the founder just hired a bunch of Synanon staff that were there — and a lot of people don't talk about this with any shame. 

Although in the case of Daniel Yuen, the Yuens were never informed they were sending their son off to a program that was based on this super dangerous cult. 

Right, they weren't leading their pitch to parents with that. Which leads me to ask about all the, I guess, scandals and tragic events surrounding these teen programs. We hear about those throughout the series. Parents talked about how the programs injured or in some cases killed their children. I guess I'm surprised that it hasn't dissuaded people, like the Yuens, from sending their kids to these programs. Why do you think that is? 

Right, I mean to that first point, I was also surprised at how resilient the industry is considering the amount of scandal that has surrounded it. Like, you have kids dying or being seriously injured or talking about suffering from PTSD or all kinds of trauma. How is it able to survive? 

I think a large part of it is how these programs are marketed, and knowing that parents desperately looking for a program won't necessarily be able to connect the dots. Also, there is this pattern of programs being scandalized, then shut down and then someone from the staff will go off and basically reopen it under another name.  

So it would be like, "Oh, yeah. That was the previous program. That old thing was terrible and it shut down, thankfully."

Also, this is like a 40-year history. I do think the internet has affected the way parents can research these kinds of programs. Obviously, it was in a different time when the Yuens sent Daniel in late 2004, still in the early days of the internet.

In the case of the Yuens, it really was kind of an act of desperation. They were very involved in Daniel's life. They had a seemingly functional family, and when Daniel took a turn in the teenage years, a few psychologists and psychiatrists, I think four altogether, gave the same diagnosis of an adolescent depression.

Therapy didn't seem to be helping, he couldn't get out of bed, he was failing out of all his classes, he was pretty angry. At one point, Wayne said Daniel talked about not wanting to live. His parents said they felt like the high school didn't offer any real resources or help, and their weekly or twice a week therapy wasn't changing it. 

So it was in that act of desperation that Wayne, Daniel's father, Googled programs for kids with depression and CEDU pops up. They live in New Jersey and it's in the beautiful mountains of California and it seemed like a new environment might be the change that Daniel needed at that point. 

It was a big sacrifice. They Yuens were not super wealthy, but they didn't have another option as far as they knew.

I think it's really touching how this podcast is bookended. We begin with Daniel and we end with the continued search for Daniel. I was just curious what you, as the host and the producer of the podcast, hope people view as the big takeaway there?

That's a good question. My hope is that people are brought along on the journey that I had, which was to open people to this really harmful form of dealing with behavior they find to be problematic. So many kids are pushed into these kinds of programs and the harm is massive.

I think there are bigger questions, too, about the existence of the industry and how its success is wrapped into the way our society views teenagers, pathologizing their behavior instead of recognizing it as a normal part of maturing and becoming adults. 

"The Lost Kids" podcast is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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