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Hell Camp: Netflix Documentary Raises Questions About Child Abuse

Netflix is renowned for releasing binge-worthy documentaries, and one of their latest Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare is no exception. Released on December 27, 2023, the documentary film has ignited conversations surrounding teenage behavioural camps in the United States. 

Directed by Liza Williams, Hell Camp follows The Challenger Foundation formed by Steve Cartisano in 1989. The Foundation sought to reform ‘badly’ behaved teenagers. Parents pay around $16,000 for their children to be kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to a desert in Utah for a 63-day “wilderness therapy” camp. The people interviewed for the documentary consisted of the children who endured the camp, parents, law enforcement, and even Cartisano’s wife and daughter. 

Teens sent to the camp were expected to hike around 500 miles in an allotted amount of time in horrendous conditions. Some staff were emotionally and sometimes physically abusive to the teenagers, crossing the fine line between authority and abuse. 

Steve Cartisano was an Air Force veteran, which seemed to give him the upper hand when it came to convincing parents of Challenger’s authenticity. After success rates soared, he eventually extended his ‘expertise’ to boating camps in the Caribbean and Samoa as well as founding HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy. 

The business took a hit when 16-year-old Kristen Chase died as a result of heatstroke during her time at the Utah camp. Her father sued both Cartisano and the Challenger Foundation with negligent homicide as well as child abuse, to which Steve was eventually found not guilty, paying the Chase family over a quarter of a million dollars in settlement. 

HealthCare America was shut down after the teenagers in the programme were found tied to cars by their necks. Pacific Coast Academy was shut down shortly after a video showcasing the conditions the teens were forced to endure was leaked. 

Hell Camp uncovers the horrific ways in which the kids in the camp were treated and audience's reactions seem to say it all. Viewers say that the parents who willingly sent their children to these camps should be charged with abuse. 

Towards the end of the documentary, it is revealed that Cartisano allegedly sexually assaulted a young teenage girl. The disgraced Cartisano died in 2019 at the age of 63 from a heart attack brought on by his colon cancer, his widow tearfully revealed in the documentary. 

Those who have watched Hell Camp were seemingly horrified by what occured at these places and are angry about Cartisano’s acquittal in the Kristen Chase case. The documentary also revealed the truth about the ‘troubled’ teens in the Cartisano household - including heroin use and jail time, which viewers find extremely ironic. 

Perhaps what’s more horrifying is that these types of teen reformation camps still exist across the US to this day. At the start of the film Paris Hilton is seen talking about her experience as a teenager in a behavioural camp which she initially revealed to the public during her own documentary This is Paris, which came out in 2020. Since then, she has endlessly campaigned to abolish institutional child abuse and camps of this kind. 

Director, Liza Williams, stated in an interview that these teens, “really weren’t that badly behaved [...]  It was often kids that were depressed,” she also discusses how mental health was not treated with the same understanding then that it does now, hence the formation of these camps. This Netflix documentary has generated reactions that will hopefully lead to some sort of change regarding the treatment of kids in behavioural camps.

Edited by Chloe Mansola

Image Desert scenes driving through Utah by Murray Foubister licenced by CC BY-SA 2.0

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