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‘The Program’ takes a deeply personal look at the ‘troubled teen’ industry

A deeply personal advocacy piece, “The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping” becomes messy at times over its three chapters, although in a way, that’s part of its power. Director Katherine Kubler spent 15 months housed at a facility that’s part of the “troubled-teen industry,” enlisting other alumni in a Netflix exposé that seeks to drive a nail into the coffin of the practice.

Kubler assembles a group of others who were sent away, mostly at the age of 15 or 16, to The Academy at Ivy Ridge, a disciplinary facility in New York state near the Canadian border. Once taken there, the youths were cut off from the outside world, forced to adhere to strange guidelines and in some instances, allegedly, physically abused, beginning with the strip search to which they were subjected on arrival.

Now adults, Kubler’s peers talk about a “no camera” room, where staff could manhandle those perceived as acting up without fear of being videotaped, while showing jarring recorded evidence from other rooms equipped with cameras. Some of the former Ivy Ridge classmates (although calling this a “campus” feels like a stretch) say they lied about their drug use – admitting to things they hadn’t done – to avoid punishment, essentially telling their captors what they wanted to hear.

“They were being treated like prisoners,” one former staff member, who didn’t last long in the job, tells Kubler, though the investigation finds that the staff were basically told these were bad kids, justifying the harsh techniques.

According to those who endured the program, which operated under a system that deducted and added points toward securing their release, there were penalties for trying to write parents and family alerting them to what was really happening.

The Academy at Ivy Ridge survivors in "The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping." - Netflix
The Academy at Ivy Ridge survivors in "The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping." - Netflix

The fact that parents not only sent their children away but forced them to stay there is only one of the troubling aspects of this story. The grown-up youths’ testimony consistently reveals lingering feelings of betrayal, a point Kubler drives home by discussing her strained relationship, years later, with her father, who is among those interviewed.

“They sold it as tough love,” says attorney Phil Elberg, one of the outside voices that Kubler enlists to dissect the market for “troubled teen” care, before devoting the final hour to who was behind the Academy as well as similar facilities and profiting from them.

Kubler stresses throughout that she’s not a journalist, but rather someone seeking answers to what happened then, shining a light on the emotional scars suffered by Ivy Ridge survivors. While that venue has closed, her crusade includes advocating to put such programs elsewhere out of business today.

There’s also, unexpectedly, a fair amount of laughter as Kubler and her contemporaries reminisce, swapping stories and anecdotes now about the absurdity of it all in a way they couldn’t do then because of the “no talking” rule.

As noted, “The Program” careens about almost drunkenly from topic to topic, but in its totality the three hours paint a harrowing portrait of parents casting about for a way to help their kids and instead subjecting them to pain and trauma.

Netflix has invested heavily in “true crime” docuseries, which charitably pay the bills to allow for this sort of outside-the-box project. From that perspective Kubler might not be an accomplished documentarian, but she and the others sharing their memories get their points across loud and clear.

“The Program: Cons, Cults and Kidnapping” premieres March 5 on Netflix.

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