"Domestic terrorism" — Inside the troubled teen industry, detailed by "Survivor993"

A survivor recounts how the troubled teen industry operates for-profit "torture camps"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 2, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Campers hiking in a foggy field (Getty Images/rbkomar)
Campers hiking in a foggy field (Getty Images/rbkomar)

"This is your trigger warning," Liz Ianelli writes early on in her memoir. "What you will read here is upsetting, especially if you have suffered abuse." But then she adds, "Don't worry. Keep going." Because that, incredibly, is just what she did.

For years, Ianelli shared online about her experiences inside the Family Foundation School under the user name Survivor993 — a reference to the number of days of her brutal adolescence she spent there. After struggling with depression and the aftermath of abuse at the hands of a relative, Ianelli's parents had sent to the school at the age of 15. There, she says she endured persistent physical, sexual and emotional abuse, claims later echoed in multiple lawsuits filed by fellow former students.

But what Ianelli wants you to understand now, as she writes in "I See You, Survivor: Life Inside (and Outside) the Totally F*cked-Up Troubled Teen Industry," (written with Bret Witter) is that the system that left her with physical and emotional scars — the one that several of her peers did not survive — is still thriving today. While Ianelli's school shut down in 2014, plenty of other similar residential facilities carry on, operating within a system the American Bar Association describes as a "largely unregulated… big business."

"It's insane what happened," Ianelli told me during a recent Zoom conversation from the undisclosed location where she currently lives, "and it's happening right now." With equal measures of vulnerability and fury, Ianelli opened up about the toll of her time inside "the Family" and why she's fighting so hard to end an industry she describes as "domestic terrorism." 

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Having talked to Paris Hilton and to other people who've survived these kinds of places, it's astonishing to me that it continues to go on.

Oh, it's in in full force. Nothing much has changed. 

Your book begins almost 30 years ago, but this is about what's happening now. Bring me up to date, because you are still on the front lines. What does the state of the troubled teen industry look like today? 

Money. It looks like money. For me, the troubled teen industry is really a financial institution. If you follow the money, it's extremely lucrative. And because it's so unregulated, they're making even more money now than they were in 1994 and onward. Not much has changed. These programs are still up and running. Right now, someone's making a phone call to a program for their child or talking to an educational consultant or having their child dropped off or planning it for tonight at 2am. It's perpetual. I cannot compete with the level of media and internet presence that these places have. 

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"A well-balanced parent does not do this to their child."

It's controversial, but I feel if the parent or parents are unhealthy, those are the children that ultimately will be placed. If they're in an unhealthy home environment or the parent isn't healthy enough in what they're dealing with, then sending the child away makes total sense.

A well-balanced parent does not do this to their child or accept these rules and regulations that cut communication. I have sons right now, 16 and 17. They've done some really dumb s**t. Like, really dumb. And it never crossed my mind that they need to be sent away. 

I want to understand how someone could get duped by this system, how someone who is feeling at their wit's end with their kid might be fooled — especially now as these systems have become more sophisticated in their pitches.

That's a two-pronged answer for me. A parent today, all they have to do is Google or go on the internet. There's the information for you. There are more warnings available than there are anything else. You really at this point would have to be actively ignoring the warning signs of the industry. That's something new. 

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Parents pride themselves on what resources they can bring to give their children the best chance that they need going forward. It's very easy to dupe these parents into thinking this is the place. When you show up, it's like synchronized swimming. These places operate differently when there's a parent around on the property. They know that if another pair of parents or my parents had walked by me wrapped up in a blanket, nobody would be like, "Oh, okay, cool." They hide those things diligently. There's nothing that says they have to fully disclose and be open and transparent. People would drive up to where I was, and see that pond and the rolling fields and the Catskills and all that. But really, it was like a torture camp. They didn't see that part. They just would see what was put right in front of them. 

"It was like a torture camp. They didn't see that part. They just would see what was put right in front of them. "

I don't think a parent's mind could comprehend the dark side of what they're looking at. They're looking for safety. They're looking for, "Where will my child sleep, eat, all their basic needs be met?" and then the therapeutic side to it. But it's all propaganda and none of it is evidence-based. There's no science involved. It's just money, money, money, money.

What do you want people to know about the state of this industry right now, that would wake them up or make them realize how insidious and big this problem remains right now? 

I would like them to understand there are consequences for our society. I want people to care and pay attention. America has an opportunity to rage against this machine and obliterate it and and do something different. It's not working. It's hurting people and it is terrorism. They are recruiting. I want American to know we have an emergency. This is not a drill. We have a state of emergency that should be declared are on on this industry and they're destroying our children and society. Kids are still dying.

When you describe being dropped off, you knew immediately that this was not normal. Your brother knew — he used the word "creepy" despite the the very clever and very sophisticated pretense. Do you feel there was a moment you could reach your parents, you could tell them, and might have been able to get out of there? 

No. I, in my wishful thinking thought that it would be effective at some point to wait for that one touchpoint when my father finally showed up. But it was really known between me and my parents that there'd be no communication for a certain amount of time. I had zero access to a phone. 

"I was a hostage in front of my own parents. That's how it works."

Kids are different. We can sense fear. We're still innocent enough, we're not hardened by the world. My brother was young; he felt things differently. But it was an instant feeling of, no one's coming. You look around, and you don't know where you are. My letters were censored. Even if I did get a private phone call, it would have lasted five minutes, because my parents were already told, "Look, she's acting out. Of course, she's going to tell you that she's being abused. Of course, she's going to say we're mean. She doesn't want to get help. We have to really work with her to get her to accept this way of life."

My parents were coached that no matter what I said, I was going to be lying. There was so much fear about even trying to tell them. You just know that your dad's going to leave, your mom's going to leave, and you're going to have to stay with these people. And they're going to do whatever they want to you anyway. Essentially, I was a hostage in front of my own parents. That's how it works.

A lot of people don't understand that these teenagers have no legal rights.

We don't even have human rights. I refer to the industry as domestic terrorism, because I feel that it's a terrorist organization. They are not here for the betterment of society. They're taking American children, international children, they're transporting us across state lines. It's now being called the teen trafficking industry. We're a product. I was worth a certain amount of money to the industry. We're all worth a certain amount of money. It wasn't about helping us. It wasn't even about hurting us. It was just about everybody making money on the expense of us.

And these were sick people. They weren't professionals. These were loosely recovered addicts, maybe. Some of them were still active. These were sociopaths, psychopaths. No wonder they couldn't get a job anywhere else. And this was a job that made nobodies feel like they were somebody and gave them a lot of power over children. 

"Nobody was coming. Ever. And we knew it. "

It's like they were trained to shock the monkeys. We were the monkeys, and they got to shock us whenever they wanted. Nobody was coming. Ever. And we knew it. 

You tie what goes on here with cult tactics. It is systematically designed to break you, to isolate you and then to make you psychologically dependent. And there's a financial incentive. 

That's why I'm so scared of the industry. When I was writing with Bret, I didn't want to tell everybody all this stuff. I didn't want to tell everybody all the desperate measures that I had gone to, or in any kind of detail intimately describe what's happened to my body by people over the years. But I knew that it's like a kaleidoscope, one little click and everything changes. 

The industry has perfected morphing into what society trends at the time are responding to. The worse we look, the better. They can get more money and move us through the system and traffic us across state lines. It's insane what happened, and it's happening right now. It's like a movie set parents are walking on to. But the underbelly is so dark that no parent in crisis could see it in that moment.

There's so much we've learned about the the psychological after effects of abuse, but you also really get into the physical side of it, in ways that are really intimate. Tell me about the toll that these places take on the bodies of these young people.

The first thing, it interrupts that how much rest we're getting. Science shows that teenagers need developmentally more sleep. It's part of the growing process. Our sleep process is completely interrupted and doesn't really exist. So our bodies and our minds don't ever enter a period of rest. I cannot identify, to this day, whenever I really feel like I can just rest. 

I'm not unusual. I'm on the healthier end, believe it or not. A lot of us, females in particular, have developed autoimmune diseases and responses, and that's heavily connected to trauma. Our amygdala on PET scans usually are enlarged because they're overused. A floppy colon for me. A lot of girls and boys have issues voiding because we weren't allowed to just pee whenever we wanted to. Our bladders get distended over time. 

A lot of us have old injuries that turned into new injuries or new ailments. My scars tell the story from running away and slipping on that shale slide. I have a scar from where I had my colonoscopy bag. My sleep pattern has always been disturbed. I've had six spinal surgeries. I have had neck surgery for my spine. I have fibromyalgia, widespread pain. My hips aren't properly aligned, because we were doing such manual labor that my hip joints didn't develop properly. Most of us were given shoes that didn't fit all the time. I wore shoes for years that were just too small.

A lot of us lose our hair during extreme times of stress. The drains were always clogged at school with hair because all of us were shedding. We were just under so much stress. A lot of us have stomach issues, eating disorders. They really poisoned us, in our ears and through our eyes. And then on the inside, they put this grenade in our body that explodes like whenever it wants.

You could have walked away from all of this. You could have not written about this, not talked about this. What made you decide you had to do this? Because it's not been easy. 

"After all the heartache and lost relationships and all the shame and the abuse, and my body betraying me, I was like, 'Someone's going to have to answer for this.'"

The words that come to mind are just steel stone cold defiance. It was never a choice for me. I left and I tried to put it behind me, but it never was. Even though I wasn't talking about it, it didn't mean I wasn't carrying this with me. And I knew someday I was going f**k 'em up. I did. I've always known that. 

I was at the top of my career and I walked away, because I couldn't stand being put in a box anymore. I couldn't stand pretending I had my s**t together. I wanted blood. I wanted people to pay. I thought I was going to put everybody in prison. I was going to set the ocean on fire somehow, some way, over what happened to my friends. And I finally was able to acknowledge that I was still suffering terribly. After all the heartache and lost relationships and all the shame and the abuse, and my body betraying me, I was like, "Someone's going to have to answer for this."

My biggest fear is that I would die an unlived life, that I was going to expire like a date on a milk carton. I just didn't want to go out like that. I need a purpose. And I had a lot of pain. So I figured I would just give my pain a purpose and that was the fuel that I drew from. I'd go to my pain pump and fill up my my tank to go blast through, and I've been relentless. It just came to a point of, I'm not going to suffer in silence. This can't be for nothing. This cannot be my life.

We have these concepts in our very binary culture that you're going to move on and you're going to get closure and all that BS. What does healing look like for you now on your terms, knowing that was messed up, and it's never not going to be messed up?

I'm really excited to answer this particular question, which is unusual because I used to feel like "F**k healing; nobody heals. That's for soft, weak people. I physically can't even do yoga. That's how f**ked up I am." 

"I'm taking bolt cutters to my parents and to my pain. I'm no longer going to chase you for the things I'm never going to get."

I'll never ever say that what happened to me is okay. Never. But now with the book coming out, I can't carry this in me anymore. I'm taking bolt cutters to my parents and to my pain. I've released my parents. I've discharged them from my life, like, you're free to go. I'm no longer going to chase you for the things I'm never going to get. Healing to me looks like looking forward to [publication day], because I feel like that will be the first night in my life, that I'll actually be able to go to bed and not worry anymore, "Is anyone going to know? Did I do it right?"

I'm not going think any more about the things I missed or the things I wish I had or any of it. All of me, inside my body, outside my body, my brain, my thoughts, my life, it's going out instead of it all crashing down on me. I feel that I'm giving survivors of any abuse a receipt for their pain, to be able to show people and give people. This is really like the Great Purge. I'm not angry anymore about what happened to me. I mean, I'll always not like it, but I'm not boiling with rage.

All that time I was there, and most of my life, I felt like no one was coming. Nobody's coming. But in the end, the person that's coming ended up being me. I came back for myself. And I hope no other person reads this and thinks still that no one's coming. I am. We are. I want that to be put out there, that someone is coming. And I've been on my way; I'm just running a little late. But right on time, you know?


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Family Foundation School Interview Liz Ianelli Troubled Teen Industry