10/29/2013 08:06 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Parents with few options turn to troubled-youth ranches, despite continuing abuse allegations

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - David Hall was afraid of his own son. They were getting into violent, physical fights requiring police intervention. Fearing the teen would end up in juvenile detention, Hall had his son hauled away in handcuffs and shackles to a southern New Mexico ranch for troubled youths.

He didn't see him again for 11 months, when police raided the Tierra Blanca ranch amid allegations of abuse.

There are few options for parents like Hall, and in that vacuum, a relatively unregulated, off-the-grid industry of reform youth camps has flourished, despite a decade of high-profile cases alleging beatings and other abuse at some camps.

Proponents of such programs — which can cost upward of $100,000 a year — say they are an effective, last-ditch solution to save troubled youth from the criminal justice system.

"My feeling is that I would rather have my 17-year-old son in shackles than go to visit him at 18 in shackles in state prison," Hall said. "He really is a changed young man. He laughs, he smiles and he is trying to make up for all of the bad things in the past."

Others insist stronger regulation and oversight is needed.

A 2007 Government Accountability Office found thousands of allegations of abuse at such facilities from 1990 to 2007, including 1,619 reports against residential program staff members in 33 states in 2005. The GAO said it could not identify a more comprehensive number because it could not locate a single website, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, a trade association that represents about 150 programs, estimates there are about 400 programs operating in the country. But executive director Cliff Brownstein admits that is just a rough guess based on a recruitment list, and he adds that many programs wouldn't qualify to belong to his association because it requires members to be licensed by the state or otherwise certified by one of several independent bodies.

That is one of the biggest problems in assessing such programs: How do you verify information from troubled kids? At New Mexico's Tierra Blanca ranch, for instance, some students allege they were beaten, starved and denied medical care. Others, like Hall's son Bryce, deny any abuse or neglect.

"There is not a teenager alive that wants to be in one of those programs," said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a non-profit in Fairfax, Va., that helps families find the right programs for their troubled children. "You take a kid playing video games all day doing drugs with his buddies. You ship him off to one of these programs, they are going to say anything to get home."

Further exacerbating the problem is that many of the homes, like Tierra Blanca, are unlicensed and operate in remote Western states. They can prey on anxious parents in desperate situations, some facing court deadlines to place their child in a residential treatment program or have them sent to juvenile detention, he said.

Sklarow says the programs vary widely. Some are staffed by doctors and psychologists, others hire people with no training and who have their own past behavioural and addiction issues.

Although the NATSP says roughly 40 states have some sort of regulation over the programs, oversight and licensing procedures vary widely. For instance, its website lists New Mexico as having regulations, but state officials say there is no law requiring that programs be licensed or otherwise supervised. State officials say they will seek a new law to change that next year.

Scott Chandler's Tierra Blanca ranch has been operating in New Mexico for some 20 years, charging parents roughly $100 a day. Earlier this month, authorities raided the ranch to take possession of nine minors.

State police have identified Chandler as a person of interest in their investigation, but he has not been arrested or charged. Chandler continues to operate his program with a few 18 year olds.

Chandler said teens were sometimes shackled and that parents were aware of the practice. He denies children were abused.

Hall said he chose Chandler's program on the recommendations of a Tucson police officer and an Air Force officer.

Bryce said he was in chains for the first three to four months of his stay at Tierra Blanca. And while he admits he would have said or done anything to get out during those months, he now thinks of Chandler as his second father. Both he and his dad credit Chandler's program with saving Bryce.

"I am so proud of him," Hall said, breaking down as he described how his son has been helping him at his Tucson real estate business and calling him "sir" rather than spewing profanities.