Review: ‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare,’ starring Debbie Cartisano, Lance Jaggar, Chris Smith, Sharon Fuqua and Charles Brofman

December 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

An archival Challenger Foundation photo from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare”

Directed by Liza Williams

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Asian person) talking about their experiences with controversial entrepreneur Steve Cartisano and the high-priced “wilderness therapy” camps that he founded for troubled juveniles.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

An archival photo of Debbie Cartisano and Steve Cartisano from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” succeeds in being a cautionary documentary about the dangers of boot camps that claim to be “tough love” rehab for juvenile delinquents. But the movie needed better investigative journalism about the sexual abuse allegations mentioned near the end. Sensitive viewers, be warned: This documentary is disturbing in its details of child abuse. It’s also the type of documentary that will be infuriating to anyone who thinks the perpetrators exploited the system to get away with horrible acts of violence and other crimes.

Directed by Liza Williams, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” begins with an awkward mention of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton going public in 2020 about experiencing physical and emotional abuse at various group facilities that she was sent to when she was a “wild child” teenager. At the beginning and end of the documentary, there’s archival footage of a 2021 press conference where Hilton and Ro Khanna (a U.S. Representative from California) made statements, after a congressional hearing to introduce a bill to protect children from abuse in group facilities. After showing this footage in the beginning, the documentary mentions that the documentary actually isn’t about Hilton’s experiences but about the “wilderness therapy” camps founded by Steve Cartisano, who is considered to be the “godfather” of this controversial way of dealing with troubled kids. (In 2019, when he was 63, Cartisano died of a heart attack while he had cancer.)

The mention of Hilton is the documentary’s way of saying that if this abuse could happen to a wealthy heiress, it can happen to anyone. However, it comes across as just using a celebrity name to hook people into watching the movie. The fact of the matter is that “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is about the types of experiences where children were isolated and deprived of food and bathroom facilities for long periods of time and forced to do strenuous physical activities outdoors in extreme weather conditions. This not the same type of abuse that Hilton said she experienced at a boarding school such as Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she says she was treated like an indoor prisoner and deprived of sunlight for long periods of time.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” places much of the blame for “wildnerness therapy” camps on Cartisano, who is considered to be the first person to take this concept and market it into a business that can generate millions of revenue every year. These camps do not operate like juvenile detention facilities, where kids are sent by the court system. These camps have the kids’ parents or legal guardians sign over the right for the kids to be forcibly taken to these camps, with the intent of punishing the kids enough to scare them out of their troublemaking ways.

Cartisano was a former U.S. Air Force instructor and military special forces officer who had a troubled childhood himself. As mentioned in the documentary, his biological parents gave him up for adoption, and then took him back when he was 2 years old. His biological mother was a heroin addict who died when he was 17. His biological father was reportedly physically abusive.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” has horrific stories from survivors of programs founded by Cartisano, who was mostly based in Utah. And even though he was sued and faced numerous allegations of child abuse in these programs, he would just shut down a program when it had too many legal problems and then start a new business under a different name and in a different location. According to the documentary, rather than toning down the extreme methods used in each program, Cartisano made each subsequent program worse than its predecessor.

First, there was the Challenger Foundation, which Cartisano founded in 1988. The Challenger Foundation sent kids to an isolated area in Utah and made them go on 500-mile hikes to get food. The children were also deprived of bathroom facilities and indoor sleeping quarters. The Challenger Foundation’s biggest controversy was the death of Kristen Chase, a 16-year-old who died in 1990, after she hiked a long distance in extreme heat while enrolled in the Challenger Foundation. Chase’s tragic passing resulted in a wrongful-death lawsuit, whose outcome is detailed in the documentary.

Legal and financial problems led to the demise of the Challenger Foundation, but that didn’t stop Cartisano from being in the “child reform” business. In the early 1990s, he moved on to founding HealthCare America, based in St. Thomas and later in Costa Rica. Instead of making the kids hike in a Utah desert, the kids had to live in harsh conditions on sailboats that went to various places in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Pacific Coast Academy, based in Samoa, was Cartisano’s business in the 2000s. He often used the alias Steve Michaels during his Pacific Coast Academy years. Pacific Coast Academy had plans to build a massive facility and used many of the kids in the program as unpaid and untrained workers to do the construction. Critics of Cartisano say that he intentionally misled desperate parents into thinking that the kids enrolled in his programs would be in a safe and healthy environment.

The Challenger Foundation had a 63-day program, but people interviewed in the documentary say that it was not unusual for kids enrolled in the program to stay longer than 63 days if they were being “punished” for not complying with the rules. Other kids stayed longer than 63 days, simply because their parents didn’t want them to come home after the 63 days. Of course, there was an obvious incentive for the camps to extend the enrollment: more money could be made from the people paying to have the kids at the camp.

The documentary makes it clear that it’s not a coincidence that after the scandals that Cartisano had in the United States, he took his operations to countries or territories that had less restrictive laws about the type of business that he was doing. “Hell Camp” also has stories of how Cartisano’s employees would dodge authorities who would investigate complaints about Cartisano’s businesses. A disclaimer at the end of the documentary mentions that any businesses that currently have the names Challenger Foundation, HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy have nothing to do with companies founded by Cartisano.

Several survivors of Cartisano’s “hell camps” are interviewed in the documentary. The survivors are identified by their first names only, but their faces and voices are undisguised. The survivors who are interviewed were sent to Cartisano’s camps as teenagers, usually ages 13 to 16. Almost all of them say that the reasons they were sent to the camp were because they had drug problems. Some enrollees had other issues too, such as committing petty crimes, skipping school, or running away from home.

All of them describe experiencing physical abuse from Cartisano’s employees, including assaults, lack of medical care for injuries, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and basic hygiene deprivation. And they say there was constant verbal and emotional abuse. All of them also say that they’ve had long-term trauma from these terrible experiences.

Challenger Foundation survivors interviewed in the documentary are Nadine, who was in the program in 1989, at the age of 15; a woman named Kinney, who was in the program in 1988, at the age of 13; and Matthew, who was in the program in 1990, at age 15. HealthCare America survivors interviewed are Adam, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 13; and Ashley, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 15.

The Pacific Coast Academy survivors who are interviewed are Kurt, who was in the program in 2000, at age 15; and Amber, who was in the program in 2000, at the age of 14. Kurt and Amber knew each other as friendly acquaintances before being in the program, but that all changed when Kurt and other teens in the program were ordered to torture some of the enrollees, including Amber. Kurt admits to it in the documentary, but he says he was just following orders and was too afraid to say no.

Adam’s stoic father Larry is also interviewed and doesn’t seem to have much regret about sending Adam to the HealthCare America program, although he does get a little emotional when he watches an old video of him making a surprise visit to a sobbing Adam in Costa Rica. Larry also says he didn’t know how brutally Adam was treated until it was too late. Larry is one of two parents of a camp survivor to be interviewed in the documentary.

By contrast, Matthew’s mother Kari expresses regret about putting him in the Challenger Foundation program. She remembers thinking at the time about the Challenger Foundation: “I didn’t know what else to do, but this sounds good.” Sharon Fuqua, who sued Cartisano for the wrongful death of her daughter Kristen Chase, is also interviewed, along with Fuqua’s son David, who is Kristen’s younger brother.

Cartisano’s family members and close associates who are interviewed in the documentary don’t really deny the abuse, but they go out of their way to downplay his responsibility in being the leader of a business that enabled or encouraged the abuse. His ex-wife Debbie Cartisano is the one who does the most to push the narrative that Steve was a “good guy” who “meant well” with these programs, but the way his employees behaved was “beyond his control” when he wasn’t at the camps. She also seems more interested in talking about the financial hardships that she had to go through every time Steve had shut down another one of his businesses, rather than Debbie acknowledging any suffering that any child victims experienced because of those businesses.

Also interviewed are Debbie and Steve’s daughter Catie, who openly talks about her troubled teen years of drug addiction and how she recovered from it. Her brother Dave also had the same problems and was sent to Pacific Coast Academy. (He is not interviewed in the documentary, which mentions what happened to Dave.)

Catie says in the documentary: “My dad was brilliant.” But she admits that the scandals and controversies took a toll on the family, and she wanted him to change careers: “I wanted him to do something different. I wanted our family to be normal.” Debbie also says that she wanted Steve to get out of the “child reform” business, but he refused.

The only former Cartisano camp employee interviewed in the documentary is Lance “Horsehair” Jaggar, who says that he immediately bonded with Steve because they were both veterans of the U.S. Air Force. Jaggar is unapologetic about the harsh tactics that were used on the children at these camps. Jaggar says that he doesn’t believe in beatings as punishment, but he thinks spankings are perfectly acceptable. The documentary has archival footage of Jaggar yelling insults at some of the Challenger Foundation kids. You get the feeling that whatever was on camera was very tame compared to what wasn’t on camera.

Jaggar makes this not-very-believable comment about how the kids were treated in these camps: “We broke them down, but we didn’t break them down to hurt them. We didn’t break them down to punish them. We broke them down to get rid of the old crap and help them be a better and more positive person.”

He adds with a sadistic smirk, “Some of the kids were so scared, they’d almost pass out. And that was fine by me. I wanted them to have a little fear. [For] a lot of these kids, this was it, or they were going to jail.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are reporter Chris Smith, who investigated and did news reports of Cartisano camp operations and scandals; attorney Charles Brofman, who represented Steve in several lawsuits; Max Jackson, former sheriff of Utah’s Kane County; and a former U.S. Embassy worker who is only identified by her first name: Mary Lou. The documentary includes a lot of archival footage, such as news reports, interviews that Steve did, and grainy-looking video recordings that were taken at the camps.

Although there is a variety of people interviewed for the documentary, what’s missing is more investigation into the sexual abuse allegations that aren’t mentioned until the last 20 minutes of the movie. Amber says she was sexually abused by a “chief of the village” during her time at Pacific Coast Academy, but the documentary doesn’t mention if the filmmakers followed up on this allegation to try to find this accused abuser to get his side of the story.

And there’s another sexual abuse allegation against someone else that isn’t too surprising, but this allegation is shown so late in the film, it seems like it was mainly put there for shock purposes. The documentary does not give any indication if this allegation is isolated or possibly the tip of the iceberg. If the allegation against this person is true, it’s highly likely that there are many more victims of the same type of sexual abuse, but the “Hell Camp” filmmakers didn’t seem to want to do more investigating.

Even with some noticeable flaws, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is a searing look at this unsettling fact: Even when so many people speak their truths about being abused, there are still others who deny or excuse the abuse. This documentary is also a wake-up call about why these types of programs are thriving in a society that should have better ways of dealing with child delinquency. Of course, there are no easy answers, but it should be easy to know when discipline crosses the line into unacceptable and illegal abuse.

Netflix premiered “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” on December 27, 2023.

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