The Dark Reason This Teen 'Hell Camp' Was Shut Down In The '90s

There are plenty of ways for parents to go about teaching, incentivizing, and disciplining kids. You want that PS5? Try your best and we'll think about it come the end of July. Or better yet: Pay for it yourself. And also, why don't we hit people? Because inflicting harm is wrong. Also, someone's going to hit you back one day and it won't tickle. But what if a kid is chronically misbehaving in a dangerous, self-injurious, illegal kind of way and causing serious hardships for family, teachers, etc.? We're talking way beyond angsty adolescent foolishness. One thing's for sure: Most parents would not opt for middle-of-the-night kidnappings, heatstroke-inducing desert hikes, and corporal punishment.

But at the 1988-established Challenger Foundation in the deserts of Utah, such things were commonplace. In fact, they were preferable. As sites like the Daily Mail and the U.S. Sun outline, the Challenger Foundation was an intensive, brutal, residential "rehab" program for rebellious, "wayward teens" that intended to "wear kids down until they're good again." Founder and former military operative Steve Cartisano — aka the "godfather of wilderness therapy treatment" — charged parents $15,900 for 63 days of punishing outdoor activities, military-style discipline, and more to set their kids straight. 

A mere two years after its founding, however, the Challenger Foundation collapsed. A 16-year-old died of "exertional heatstroke," and others were tied to trees, dragged around, and bore scar after scar. Cartisano was charged with negligent homicide and multiple misdemeanor counts of child abuse, and his wilderness therapy program was done.

Abuse, negligence, and torment

The new 2023 Netflix documentary "Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare" tells the tale of the Challenger Foundation, complete with testimonials from survivors. One faceless, off-screen individual in the documentary's trailer on Facebook says that Challenger Foundation founder Steve Cartisano "was a genius." Another person says that he was "ahead of his time." The ethos of the program could be boiled down to aphorisms like "The kids are worn down until they're good again" and "We're made better by struggle." In the right context, such statements sound like boilerplate armed forces catchphrases, like the ones Cartisano himself might have once uttered. The reality of everyday life at the Challenger Foundation, however, went far beyond reforming troubled kids and veered hard into cruelty.

From 500-mile desert hikes to strip searches, Cartisano really did want to wear kids down and remold them from the soles up. When other "camp counselors" were taken on board the project, these individuals reportedly turned further toward negligence and abuse. As The Daily Mail and The U.S. Sun state, students were exposed to the elements, including scorching days and freezing nights. They were starved till "emaciated" and, as stated, tied to trees if they didn't comply with authority. During a speech on Capitol Hill in 2021, Paris Hilton — who attended a similar camp — said she was slapped, strangled, and forced to shower while male counselors watched (per Variety).

In 1990, 16-year-old Kristen Chase got a headache while on a hike. She collapsed to the ground, started hallucinating, and eventually died. Thus came the end for the Challenger Foundation.

Found not guilty of all charges

Overall, it's not incorrect to say that "hardship yields resilience." Wilderness programs — as they're called — still exist to this day. Even only a cursory Google search reveals loads of them, like Newport AcademyAspiro Adventure, Second Nature, and many more. Contrary to the Challenger Foundation, they all come across as bit more "kumbaya" than "sir, yes, sir" and focus on helping "young adults struggling with difficult challenges and life circumstances," as Open Sky Wilderness Therapy states. Verywell Mind describes wilderness therapy as a form of intensive psychological therapy focused on overcoming challenges, developing relationships, etc. That being said, loads of outlets question the safety and validity of such programs.

Steve Cartisano was ahead of the curve when he formed the Challenger Foundation back in 1988. His methods left a lot to be desired, however. And yet, families like that of Kristen Chase — who died from heatstroke — didn't blame Cartisano for anything. Chase's mother, Sharon Fuqua, said via The U.S. Sun, "We're not condemning Challenger. I've never met any more dedicated, loving people striving to help children." 

Nonetheless, Cartisano was charged with negligent homicide for Chase's death and nine other misdemeanor counts of child abuse. He was found not guilty, but not before the Challenger Foundation went broke. As Screen Rant says, Cartisano went on to found similar programs HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy, both of which were shut down following evidence of abuse. Cartisano died from a heart attack in 2019.

f you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.