Troubled teens were banished to the Monarch Center wilderness program. Then their troubles really started

He was one of the smartest dumbasses you'll ever meet," Harry Haney says of his son.

Chris Haney was an honors student who took all advanced placement classes at his Texas high school and was the lead-off hitter on the 5A varsity baseball team his freshman year. "Then he hooked up with a kid who was into some other things," Harry drawls, "and all of a sudden he's ditching practice, his grades went from the high 90s to the 50s. Down here, you're allowed to have nine unexcused absences; his junior year he had 148."

Chris's first other thing was weed, but he quickly got hooked on cocaine. He became addicted to gambling, too.

The Haneys sent Chris to counselor after counselor to try to break him of his new habits. Once Chris found a therapist he liked, he started visiting him regularly — but the Haneys were already working on a backup plan. The therapist had recommended a wilderness-therapy program in Georgetown, Colorado, called Monarch Center for Family Healing, a unique program that sent troubled teenagers off on lengthy wilderness excursions but also treated them therapeutically to get to the root of their problems. The Haneys decided it was the right place for Chris, and they waited for an opening.

"It's one of those things where as a family and a parent you're at your wits' end," Harry says. "'What am I going to do for my kid? I want my kid to be safe, I want him to be back on track as much as he possibly can.' We pretty much were at the mercy of the professionals, and that's what they recommended."

While some teenagers wake up to find a Monarch staffer by their bedside, ready to rip them from the life they know and whisk them to the mountains of Colorado — an extreme, boot-camp tactic that enforces the seriousness of what the student is about to go through — Chris went to Monarch voluntarily, escorted by his parents.

Right away, Harry noticed a few things that worried him. He found it odd that his son was going to be in a coed group camping in the woods. He also wondered if the cheap, plastic fishing-tackle box stuffed to the brim with the different medications of Monarch students was sufficiently secure. But he'd heard that Monarch was such an amazing place, he let those concerns go.

Out in the field, though, Chris found his daily routine a far cry from the glitzy, biking/white-water rafting/mountain-climbing Colorado experience that Monarch had advertised.

"Basically we'd wake up early, eat breakfast that consisted of powdered milk and cereal, and then we'd hike for miles," Chris remembers. "We'd stop for lunch, then keep hiking for a few more hours, and then we'd camp. We'd sit around the fire and shoot the shit for a little bit at night, but it wasn't therapy; it was just talking. Then the next day we'd do it again. It got to be really, really boring."

And worse. Early on, Chris lost the spoon he'd been assigned for his meals, so he had to consume his meager rations with a stick. An informational pamphlet handed out at orientation had informed students that they were to practice a leave-no-trace style of mountaineering, with each camper issued six squares of toilet paper, but Chris didn't even get that. "They made me wipe my ass with rocks and pinecones," he says. "They never had toilet paper. That six squares thing? That was just bullshit. The girls were made to drip dry."

Each camper carried a thermos. At streams, they'd fill up — and then counselors would purify each thermos with a few drops from an eye-dropper full of chlorine bleach. Sometimes, Chris says, they would just drop the bleach directly into the stream and then tell the kids to fill up. Chris was soon suffering from severe diarrhea.

Monarch typically takes students out into the field for two weeks at a time, then brings them back to Georgetown for a week of family therapy. When the Haneys arrived from Fort Worth, where Harry owns a company that manufactures highway safety equipment, Chris smelled so bad that he had to shower twice before they could take him out for a meal, Harry remembers.

At their first family session, Chris complained about conditions at Monarch. But his parents figured it was just normal bitching about "bad kids' camp," and they sent him back into the field.

The second time Harry came up for family week, he could see in his son's eyes that something wasn't right.

"He said, 'Dad, you have to get me out of here; they just want me for the money,'" Harry remembers.

Harry asked Chris if he'd been getting all the sports pages he'd been sending to keep his son abreast of his beloved Dallas Mavericks, along with many letters. Chris said he hadn't. Nor had Harry gotten any of the individual therapy reports or treatment plans he'd been promised. Although he again left Chris at Monarch, once he got back home, he started investigating the program.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Adam Cayton-Holland