When Rich Kids Go Bad

ByErika Brown,

Oct. 10, 2002 -- At age 16 Leigh Horowitz had just about everything a precocious teenager could want.

She was smart and pretty, with cascades of chestnut hair adorning her rapidly maturing body. Her father, Joel Horowitz, was (and still is) chief executive of fashion giant Tommy Hilfiger.

The family lived well in a tony suburb in New Jersey and took ski trips to Lake Tahoe. Leigh attended a top-notch prep school, enjoying the status that came with Dad's generous donations. "She had," Joel says, "the biggest brown eyes you have ever seen."

Leigh also had a drug problem. She had been smoking pot since she was 8 years old. She had snorted cocaine, taken LSD and injected heroin. In her freshman year of high school she started coming home drunk late at night. By her sophomore year Leigh was flunking out.

The principal told her parents he suspected she was on drugs, and they feared as much. But when Joel Horowitz tried to talk to her, she would cry and disappear behind the slam of her bedroom door. When he grounded her, she would sneak out. When he sent her to therapy, she wouldn't talk.

His wife, Ann, suggested sending Leigh to a boarding school and had one picked out, but he refused: He could fix this. "I was in denial. Nobody wants to admit their child has a problem, that they aren't the perfect parent," he says now.

Packed Off to a Wilderness Program for Troubled Teens

His world fell apart the night after Thanksgiving in 1996.

A couple of hours into a family friend's party, he passed his 16-year-old daughter in a hallway and found her stumbling drunkenly, a tumbler of wine in one hand and the bottle in the other. He stormed into a bedroom, ripped open her backpack and found a pouch filled with hashish, marijuana and heroin.

Then he gave in. He told Leigh to pack for a ski trip and chartered a plane for the next morning. In-flight, Leigh was high on opium. When they landed in Sandpoint, Idaho, she learned she would be left with an outfit called Ascent, a wilderness program for troubled children.

She ran off the plane — and into the clutches of two burly escorts. As they drove into the mountains, Leigh rolled down a car window and ditched plastic bags of pot and coke. (Or was it heroin? She can't quite recall.)

When they reached camp, Joel Horowitz eyed the teepees and new-fallen snow and felt strangely serene. "For the first time in years we didn't have to worry where she was or what she was doing," he says. "She was safe."

Twice the Cost of Harvard

After six weeks of detox and snow hikes, Leigh moved to Rocky Mountain Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. (Later, she took a new friend's Ritalin, crushed it up and snorted it.)

Rather than boot-camp-style punishment, the program practices emotional CPR. In rock-climbing, rope courses and group therapy, kids build self-esteem and learn responsibility. Horowitz, meanwhile, wrote fat checks.

He paid $17,000 for Ascent and $5,000 a month in tuition for 30 months. A full course can run $200,000 — almost twice the cost of a Harvard degree.

For the Horowitzes it was worth every penny. They attended workshops and family therapy, learning the unthinkable. Leigh had been molested between the ages of 7 and 9 by a teenage boy; in high school she was raped by another boy who had a crush on her.

Mom and Dad didn't know — Leigh didn't tell them.

'We've Never Been Closer'

She graduated three years ago. Now 22, she is a college senior majoring in fine arts out West. Instead of getting high, Leigh studies sculpture and spends time with her beau.

She hopes to go to grad school and make a living as an artist. She talks to her dad almost every day. "We've never been closer," he says.

Says Leigh: "I hated them for sending me away. I totally love them now." At 16, "I thought my parents were ridiculous. I treated them really badly." She resented her father. "He was always working and traveling, and then when he came home, he'd just lay down the law."

She doesn't blame him but says "you have to be open and honest with your kids early enough to where they want to talk to you about things."

Parents must "be willing to put a lot of effort" into a therapeutic program, "and not just think you're going to put a lot of money in," Leigh says.

Fixing Kids Is Billion-Dollar Business

Outsourcing the problem kids of the wealthy is a booming business.

Each year 10,000 kids attend residential programs to get off drugs and deal with emotional and psychological problems. Fixing bad kids is a $2 billion-a-year industry in the private sector, growing enough to attract firms such as Warburg Pincus.

Some 115 such programs are listed by a big trade group, Natsap (National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs); add nonmembers, and some 300 private programs treat kids, up tenfold since 1993, says Lon E. Woodbury of The Woodbury Report, a newsletter.

"Many successful parents have invested more time in their businesses than in their children, contributing to the rapid growth of these programs," says Natsap Executive Director M. L. (Andy) Anderson.

Adds Carol Kauffman, who teaches clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School: "We've all gone a little nuts in the past decade with the mirage of fabulous wealth. Children can know how important they are to their family, but if it isn't backed up with consistency of presence, they can feel valued and dismissed, indulged yet deprived."

Mixing Discipline, Nurturing

Picking a program can be a treacherous task as parents search for the right mix of discipline and nurturing, academics and psychotherapy — and fret over headlines about lawsuits over some accidental deaths and alleged mistreatment at some sites.

One of the oldest, largest firms in the fix-your-kid field is The Brown Schools, founded in 1940 and owner of Ascent and Rocky Mountain Academy. Brown had $170 million in revenue and $20 million in operating profit last year; in recent years business has grown at 10 percent to 25 percent a year.

Chief Executive Marguerite Sallee talks about cross-selling therapeutic programs as if they were software packages. A kid who finishes Ascent can move on to the firm's Laurel Ridge treatment center for addiction, then attend class at Boulder Creek Academy.

This is a growth industry," Sallee says. "There is no shortage of children and families who need these services, unfortunately."

Next, teens tell their own stories.

For more, go to Forbes.com..

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