Desperation prompted Paula Marsteen and her husband to ship their defiant son, Michael, from their home in Phoenix to Thayer Learning Center, a teen boot camp in a remote Missouri city of Kidder, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. Paying a $4,000 monthly tuition, Marsteen heard from a former school employee who believed Michael was being mistreated. Marsteen came to visit, and found him a small isolation room, where he said he had been kept for 11 days. “For all I knew he could have been dead in that little room,” she said. The boy no longer is at the camp.
Jerry Banks, who operates Thayer, said any controversy is the work of a few disgruntled employees. He said the boot camp had opened its doors to investigators who were following up on the abuse allegations. “If we are abusing children, we want to be investigated,” Banks said. “But what’s the definition of abuse?” Thayer’s success is a sign of the vitality of the teen reform industry in Missouri, where hundreds of young people from across the country are enrolled in at least a half-dozen programs. Like Thayer, those programs have grown despite abuse allegations and, in a few cases, criminal charges. And like Thayer, the programs are almost entirely unregulated by the state. Missouri law contains allows certain programs for teens to run without a state license. The first excludes faith-based programs from state oversight, a provision that has made Missouri a haven for such ministries. Missouri also exempts child residential programs from regulations if they are connected to a school, as is the case with Thayer. Some believe Thayer is the first teen reform operation to make use of the school exemption in Missouri, signaling the entry of a new kind of teen industry to the state.