ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - For some teens, being sent to a program for at-risk youth is the stuff of nightmares, and it's now the basis for at least one thriller movie.
Some former residents at Tierra Blanca Ranch said they were caught up in a real-life nightmare with allegations of shackles and forced fights at the $100-a-night wilderness ranch program.
The program flew under the radar for years because New Mexico is one of the few states that doesn't license these types of facilities.
"Currently there's a loophole in the state law which doesn't allow an agency such as CYFD to oversee programs such as Tierra Blanca Ranch," said Henry Varela, spokesperson for the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Tierra Blanca currently is involved in a legal fight with the state following allegations of abuse, a State Police raid earlier this month and an Amber Alert for nine boys police said were abducted when the ranch owner was returning them to their parents.
CYFD says it's pushing for a law to give the state oversight with these homes for troubled teens.
To add to the problem, New Mexico doesn't have a lot of facilities parents can turn for help for at-risk teens before they wind up in jail.
"People get in the position where they feel they're at the end of their rope. They don't know what to do with their kids," said Dr. Sarah Feldstein Ewing, child psychologist and associate professor in the University of New Mexico Psychiatry Department. "It's really hard to find treatment, and they'll do whatever they can find."
Feldstein Ewing is working to create an outpatient adolescent addiction program at UNM.
There are an estimated 400 wilderness-type programs in the country. CYFD says they don't believe there are any other programs like Tierra Blanca currently operating, but if there are, they don't have to register with the state.
Proponents of therapeutic schools and programs say they can be effective at helping troubled teens turn their lives around, even more reason they should be regulated.
"We think that it's important to have oversight responsibility of these programs, to make sure they make unscheduled visits to these programs to make sure they operate the way they're supposed to be operating," said Executive Director Cliff Brownstein of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs.
CYFD says it can only investigate a program if there are current allegations of abuse, a big problem if students don't have access to phones.
The wilderness programs around the country are expensive - some of them cost more than $300 a night with an average stay of more than a year.
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