Family Healing: From Transport to Treatment

Following Paris Hilton’s documentary, This is Paris, there has been an increase in media related to “The Troubled Teen Industry.” In the film, Hilton describes her traumatic experiences at a Utah boarding school, where she was subjected to punitive behavior, verbal abuse, and deceptive marketing practices. After her negative experiences, she vowed to not “give up until she sees a real change in the adolescent industry.[1]

Many providers have worked tirelessly on the front lines to advocate for and uphold ethical practices within the adolescent and adult treatment industry. It would be remiss to group all adolescent treatment facilities into the type that Paris experienced because there are many reputable trauma-informed/responsive adolescent facilities. The awareness of disreputable facilities brought by this media attention, however, highlights the continued need for regulation in the treatment industry and for ethical trauma-informed/responsive healing.  Working in a trauma-responsive manner entails first understanding that the majority of teens that facilities treat have experienced trauma and then creating a safe space for healing that seamlessly integrates their family systems.

The healing journey for a family and their loved one, whether from substance abuse, mental health, or a behavioral disorder, begins before their child leaves for a facility, often with a professional transport.  Because too many teens recall their transport to treatment (or being “gooned” as teens call it) as traumatic, we have developed the Respectful Adolescent Transport Protocol™. Our trauma-responsive transport protocol aims to reduce anxiety, provide safety, and engage the entire family system for this crucial first step towards care.

In traditional methods of adolescent transport to treatment, the family is often asked to leave the home while the team members go in to retrieve the young person.  In this model, the implication is that the facility takes the child, fixes them, and then brings them back cured. As many studies have now shown, our best outcomes occur when the entire family system is treated[2]. When an individual is given the tools for a successful recovery but the family has not been taught how to integrate recovery/healing and new tools into their own lives, it limits the possibility of a sustained recovery. In a trauma-informed transport protocol, the family begins the process with love, accountability, and assurance that the family will also work on themselves. Transporters who are trained in trauma-responsive transport work with the teens to help keep them safe while easing anxiety, minimizing trauma, and working towards motivation for the next step, treatment.

A trauma-informed/responsive transport helps prepare a teen for treatment as effectively as possible. The most seamless transition is for a teen to enter a facility where there is a multidisciplinary, trauma trained team. Teens need safety and understanding from the moment they arrive. A facility whose team is trained in theories of attachment, developmental trauma, and family systems will communicate to the teen how frightening it can be to leave home and enter into a wilderness or residential facility for help. It can be terrifying for families to watch their teen’s suffering, and this can leave families feeling powerless and traumatized from the experience. A paradigm shift needs to be explained to families as well. The ways in which families rally together for a medical emergency looks much different from the way we ask the families to participate in mental health and behavioral and substance abuse treatment for teens. For instance, families are often advised to have limited or supervised contact with their loved one in treatment. Without the correct context, this can be terrifying and infuriating for parents. Families are often unsure what treatment entails because the only ideas many people have of mental health or drug and alcohol treatment come from dramatized movies and TV shows.  It is important that parents are offered support and that they are informed about the treatment process. Family members need assurance and education about the rationale behind this disconnection and separation from their teens. Family systems often need to disconnect from non-beneficial and often hurtful ways of connecting in order to effectively re-connect. For these reasons, time is often needed for each family member to build a solid base for recovery and healing[3].

Trauma-informed/responsive treatment will design a treatment plan for the teen that incorporates the family system. Conjoint therapy and visits with their loved one will be provided as well as therapy and support independently of their teen. It is not uncommon for a program to provide four or five weekly sessions for the family members with and without their teen. This may include psychoeducational information, family therapy, multi-family support groups, and therapy for family members to focus on themselves and gain new tools and understanding of their own histories or trauma.

Our role as treatment professionals is to help shift the focus for the entire family system while ensuring that the family has a treatment plan to support them while their child is in treatment. Once the teen returns home, our role is to support them and their families as they practice their newly-acquired methods of connection and continue to support their teens as they launch into a functional adult life.

To learn more about the transport and adolescent services offered by Heather R. Hayes & Associates and/or to become trained as a trauma-informed transporter, please call 800-335-0316 or email


[1] accessed 11/12/2020

[2] Spencer Bradshaw, Sterling T. Shumway, Eugene W. Wang, Kitty S. Harris, Douglas B. Smith & Heather Austin-Robillard (2015) Hope, Readiness, and Coping in Family Recovery From Addiction, Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 10:4, 313-336, DOI: 10.1080/1556035X.2015.1099125

[3] William White MA & Bob Savage MA (2005) All in the Family, Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 23:4, 3-37, DOI: 10.1300/J020v23n04_02

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