Residential Treatment Program Questions to Consider

Residential Treatment Programs are helping Troubled Teens Achieve Success


The challenge in teen healing lies in finding a reputable residential treatment program for your troubled teen. 


If you are the parent of a troubled teen you are faced with an extremely difficult decision when seeking a Residential Treatment Program. The Federal Trade commission urges caution when considering Residential Treatment Programs for helping troubled teens. When a parent or guardian has exhausted intervention alternatives for a troubled teen they may consider a private residential program. These programs go by a variety of names including “therapeutic boarding schools,” “emotional growth academies,” “teen boot camps,” “behavior modification facilities,” and “wilderness therapy programs.”


Before you enroll a youngster in such a program, check it out, ask the right questions, and ask for proof or support for claims about staff credentials, program accreditation, and endorsements. It may also be well worth your time to do a site visit.


If you are considering a Residential Treatment Program for helping a troubled teen, these questions may help you determine if the program is appropriate for your child.


Questions to Ask


1. Is the Residential Treatment Program Licensed by the State?


If the answer is yes, find out what aspects of the program the license covers: educational, mental health, behavioral health, residential?


If the program claims to be licensed, get the name of the state agency that issued the license and contact the agency to verify that the license is current. Often, the licensing will be through a state Department of Health and Human Services or its equivalent. If the program’s representative can’t provide the name of the licensing agency, consider it a red flag.


If the program is unlicensed and you still want to consider it, contact the state Attorney General (, the Better Business Bureau (, and the local consumer protection office ( where the program is located.


Regardless of whether a program is licensed, when contacting any of these groups:


  • Ask for copies of all publicly available information, including any complaints or actions filed against the program, site visit evaluations, violations, and corrective actions.


  • Pay particular attention to any reports of unsanitary or unsafe living conditions, nutritionally compromised diets, exposure to extreme environmental conditions, exposure to extreme physical exertion, inadequate staff supervision or a low ratio of staff to residents, medical neglect, physical abuse of youth by program staff or other residents, sexual abuse of youth by program staff or other residents, violation of youth rights, or violation of family rights. 


2. Does the Residential Treatment Center Provide an Academic Curriculum? 


If so, is it available to all program participants? Do you have teachers who are certified or licensed by your state? 

Some programs may offer only self-study or distance education. Sometimes, educational options are not made available until a resident has reached an advanced phase of the program. In addition, some programs may claim that academic credits will transfer to the resident’s home school and count toward a high school diploma. Check with the board of education in the state where the program operates – and with your state board if you live out-of-state – to verify that academic credits will transfer.


3. What about the Residential Treatment Center’s Accreditation? 


Several independent nonprofit organizations, like the Joint Commission (JACHO), the Council on Accreditation (COA), and the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities (CARF), accredit mental health programs and providers.


  • JACHO accredits and certifies more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the U.S. (


  • COA is an international child- and family-service and behavioral healthcare organization that accredits 38 different service areas, including substance abuse treatment, and more than 60 types of programs. (


  • CARF International is an independent accreditor of human services providers in areas including behavioral health, child and youth services, and employment and community services. (


Ask whether all components or just parts of the program are accredited, for example, the base program, the drug and alcohol component, and the wilderness program. Then contact the accrediting organization for confirmation.


The GAO’s Report noted that one program claimed to be accredited by the JACHO, but in fact, only the base program was accredited. Neither the wilderness program nor the drug and alcohol component was accredited.


The organizations above grant accreditation and certification after evaluating the quality of services provided by a treatment program. Parents and guardians should be aware that some other organizations that claim to accredit schools may serve merely as membership organizations, and may not conduct site inspections or otherwise evaluate the quality of the programs they certify. If a treatment program claims to be certified or accredited, parents and guardians should contact the accrediting organization and ask about the standards the organization uses when issuing a certification.


4. Does the Residential Treatment Center have a Clinical Director? What are his/her Credentials?


Typically, a clinical director is responsible for overseeing, supporting, and maintaining the quality of care for the program. A clinical director may have an advanced degree in a related field, like clinical psychology, and may be involved in providing individual therapy, assessment and consultation, staff training and development, and managing or supervising the components of the program.


5. What are the Credentials of the Residential Treatment Center’s Staff? 


Look at the credentials of the Residential Treatment Center’s staff, especially the counselors and therapists, taking concern with finding out exactly who will be working with your child. 


Do they have appropriate and relevant advanced degrees like a Masters in Social Work, a license to do clinical social work (LCSW), a Ph.D., or an M.D.? Are they certified or licensed within the state? If they are, by what agency or organization?


Ask to see copies of relevant documents, and consider contacting the certifying or licensing organization to confirm the staff credentials. The GAO found that some program leaders falsely claimed to have credentials in therapy or medicine, which led some parents to trust them with teens who had serious mental or physical disabilities requiring different levels of treatment.


6. How experienced is your staff? Have they worked at other residential treatment programs? If yes, where and for how long?


Ask to see current certifications in CPR and other emergency medicine. For wilderness programs, also ask for proof of relevant training and expertise.


7. Does the Residential Treatment Center Conduct Background Checks on their Employees? 


If the answer is yes, find out who does the background check and how extensive it is. Call the company to confirm that it provides background check services for the treatment program. If the answer is no, or the program does not conduct background checks, consider it a red flag.


8. What is the Criteria for Admission? 

  • Do you conduct pre-admission assessments? 
  • Are they in person, by phone, or over the Internet? 
  • Who conducts them?


If your child has serious addiction problems or psychological issues, take special care to ensure that the program is equipped to deal with them. Discuss the appropriateness of the program with your child’s psychologist, psychiatrist, or other healthcare provider.


9. Will They Provide an Individualized Program with a Detailed Explanation of the Therapies, Interventions, and supports that will address my child’s needs? 

  • When is this done? 
  • How often will my child be reassessed? 


Ask whether your child will have group or individual therapy sessions. If the answer is yes, ask how often the sessions will take place and who will conduct them. Once enrolled, confirm with your child that the promised level of care is being received.


10. How do they handle medical issues like illness or injury?

  • Is there a nurse or doctor on staff? On the premises? 
  • Will they contact you? 
  • Will you be notified or consulted if there’s a change in treatment or medication?


Ask for copies of procedures the program follows on dealing with medical emergencies.


11. How does the Residential Treatment Center Define Success? 

  • What is their success rate? 
  • How is it measured?


Some programs make specific success claims in their advertising materials. To date, there is no systematic, independently collected, descriptive, or outcome data on these programs.


12. How do you discipline program participants?

Ask about policies and procedures for discipline.


13. Can I contact/speak with my child when I want? 

Can my child contact me when he wants?


Some programs prohibit, monitor, or otherwise restrict verbal or written communication between you and your child. Find out what is allowed and prohibited before you enroll your child.


14. What are the Costs? 

  • What do they cover?
  • What is the refund policy if the program doesn’t work out?


Private residential treatment programs often charge hundreds of dollars per day. While health insurance companies sometimes may pay a limited amount, for the most part, the youngster’s family is responsible for paying the fees and bills.


15. Do they have relationships with companies and individuals that provide educational and referral services?


Some companies may provide services, claiming to match troubled kids with an appropriate treatment program. Be aware that although some of these services represent themselves as independent, they may not be. They may actually be operated or paid by one or more of the treatment programs. Ask the service if it receives commissions from the treatment programs.


Asking the right questions can ensure you make the right decision for helping troubled teens in their quest for recovery.