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Breaking News July 11, 2013:  Aspen has done it again.  Five programs are closing.  Stone Mountain School, Talisman, Academy at Swift River, Adirondack Leadership, and SUWS (Idaho).   Aspen is simply not an organization we can trust. 

We point to Aspen's words from their news release: "However, changing market dynamics, including the inability of families to obtain credit, loans or home equity lines to help finance treatment, have made it difficult for parents to access treatment. It has become abundantly clear that the current market does not support us maintaining our entire network of therapeutic programs." (From Woodbury Reports) With the number of successful start-ups over the past five years and growth of other programs, we wonder if these words are not a bit of a red herring.  Is it possible that people have lost confidence in Aspen because of just this kind of thing?   Is it possible that under Bain Capital, short term financial considerations are more important than the welfare of your child?

This article on Aspen is due for total revision.  We are within just a few weeks of our new pay to access area, so the revision will wait for that.  

FamilyLight now (February 1, 2013) recommends referring to or enrolling in any Aspen or CRC Health school or program only with caution, although we no longer rule out those referrals entirely at this time.  We want people considering referrals to Aspen to realize that they are a subsidiary of Bain Capital, which has very concrete expectations of financial performance of each program.    At the same time, we are aware since the very concerning behaviors from a few years ago have not been repeated recently, and we have seen actions  that have been taken to improve quality.

It has been  a few years since Aspen/ CRC Health/ Bain Capital has abruptly closed a program causing and unnecessary discontinuity and disruption in their treatment.   Perhaps it is time to give them the benefit of the doubt.  This does not change the fact that CRC Health and Bain Capital are dollar driven organizations and we still do not have full confidence that they would not knowingly sacrifice the interest of a client/ patient/ resident in order to improve their bottom line.  But we also recognize the quality of some of staff and other resources on the ground in some programs. 

We are lifting our across the board recommendation against enrolling in Aspen programs.   We still think each program needs to be evaluated for its own merits.  We remain concerned about dollar considerations impacting professional judgment in any Aspen programs; still we believe some managers and staff in some of those programs actively and properly resist that. We do not have a concern about precipitous closings in shorter term Aspen programs (for example wilderness and assessment programs)  and are less urgently concerned about it for the longer term programs. In the case of longer term programs, we suggest that parents insist on a contract, that provides significant financial recourse in case of an untimely closing.  We are not optimistic that any Aspen program would agree to such a provision, but we think it would be prudent for parents to insist upon it. 

Adding this note in August, 2012, we are dismayed but the efforts of some in the media to take our criticisms of Aspen/ CRC/ Bain Capital and use as if it has political implications for the current presidential election campaign.   Regardless of the active dispute over when Governor Romney left Bain Capital, by any account he was gone when CRC/ Bain Capital acquired Aspen and long gone when the New Leaf program closed.   We are not entering the political arena. 

We continue to believe Aspen's parent company CRC Health Group is more attuned to publicly funded (Medicaid) type services and their parent company Bain Capital is primarily concerned about money.   For detail, on the history here, see Tom's blog for May 2010 and the non bold text that follows.

What follows is information on the company as we saw it in late 2009 and early 2010.  We do not expect to be updating what follows; we  anticipate focusing  our attention on more responsible providers.   We may do some updates on shorter term programs.

The Aspen Education Group proudly proclaims on its website that it “is recognized nationwide as the leading provider of education programs for struggling or underachieving young people.” We believe that if it is leading, it is leading in the wrong direction. 

Our purpose when we criticize as we are doing here is to motivate improvement, not causing harm.  We hope Bain Capital, owner of Aspen Education Group, will consider our comments and take action as necessary to improve that which we believe needs improvement.

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FamilyLight sm is an educational consulting firm specializing in work with families with a young person with behavioral, emotional or psychological difficulties.  We offer in-depth personal guidance to families on a fee basis and free guidance on the internet. FamilyLightsm attempts to be fully objective and accepts no advertising nor referral fees.

We have just introduced a new option.  We will now work with families who want less than our comprehensive package.  For more information click on this sentence.

We at FamilyLight sm acknowledge that the Aspen Education Group  operates a number of quality schools and programs but we do not believe that the Aspen name is an assurance of quality.  Specific reviews on many of the Aspen programs are linked at the bottom of this page.  We have had confidence in the schools, summer camps, and programs under the direction of Senior Vice President, Dr. Karen Fitzhugh, generally in the Northeast and North Carolina.  However, at last report, Dr.  Fitzhugh has been stripped of that responsibility with no public announcement on what she will be doing in the future.  We understand that on a temporary basis she is filling in as Executive Director at Academy at Swift River while Aspen searches for a permanent replacement for Frank Bartolomeo, who resigned to head a newly created therapeutic day school.    We believe this company would improve its quality overall and its reputation if Dr. Fitzhugh would be placed in charge of clinical standards throughout the company or at least all of those that are part of the Aspen brand. 

Aspen Education Group was acquired by Bain Capital in 2006 and brought within CRC Health Group, which was already controlled by Bain Capital.  For a while, Aspen Education Group was being referred to as the "CRC Youth Division" or "CRC Education Division," although we have not heard that for a while. 

Aspen Education Group has historically been a very solid organization that has historically taken quality seriously and continues to put great emphasis on physical safety and consumer relations. However, quality has always varied from one facility to another. At no time has the Aspen name been an assurance of top quality.  In 2010, the situation appears to be deteriorating although some  quality programs remain, and many quality people are scattered through the Aspen brand.  

Aspen’s marketing efforts have long been a source of concern to us, however.   Sometimes we find it hard to refer to an Aspen program we think is of high quality because of over-promotion and other marketing ploys, that leave us concerned about the overall integrity of the organization we would be referring to. While our general experience is that the better independent programs maintain higher quality standards than those operated by the larger companies like the Aspen brand within  CRC Health Group, we believe that very the best of the Aspen schools and programs are still competitive with the better independents, except for the confusion that can be introduced by marketing ploys. 

In an earlier draft of this article we had said that the on-site admission people at each program seem to be more accurate and reliable than the corporate level people, but increasingly we are encountering problems with the on-site admission staffs.  Much of the problem is that we can’t be sure what to believe. Because of our experience we can filter out many of the marketing ploys at issue, but inexperienced parents and to some extent clinicians who do little referral work, may be more vulnerable to manipulation.   Even with our experience, we are far from infallible in sorting marketing manipulation from reliable information.

On Thursday, May 14, 2009, our consultant, Tom Croke, spoke at length with Jim Dredge, then President of Aspen Education Group about these very issues.  We received a strongly worded apology for some past behavior from senior management people at Aspen, combined with assurance that the antics we have experienced do not reflect the values and practices that he expects from senior management, middle management and front line service providers.  We believe this was a very sincere expression.  Unfortunately for our hopes that arose from that communication, Jim has since resigned.  That and the apparent sidelining of Dr. Fitzhugh, raise concerns about whether Aspen/ CRC Health Group/ Bain Capital provide a hospitable work environment for senior executives with the standards that FamilyLight sm would like to see setting the direction for the industry as a whole.  These changes do not inspire our confidence. 

Despite the brand name "Aspen" and the phrase "CRC Youth Division" remaining in public view, the Aspen programs have become simply a cluster and a brand name within the Healthy Living Division of the CRC Health Group.  Dr. Philip Herschman heads that division, and, accordingly has taken the title "President of Aspen Education.   The following paragraph from the CRC Health Group website (lifted in January, 2010) indicates that he is president of the CRC Healthy Living Division and apparently serves Aspen Education on only a part time basis:

Philip L. Herschman - Ph.D, President, Healthy Living Division

 

Dr. Herschman serves as President of CRC’s Healthy Living Division, where he is responsible for the division’s overall operations. He brings over 30 years of experience in the health care industry to his position as President.

Prior to joining CRC, Dr. Herschman served as Chief Executive Officer of Behavioral Health Concepts, a national mental health management company that he founded in 1993. He also worked in business development for Republic Health Corporation, where he helped implement Republic’s strategy of joint venturing their acute care hospitals with physician groups. In addition, Dr. Herschman spent eight years with OrNda HealthCorp, where he was operationally responsible for three acute care hospitals totaling over 500 beds. Prior to OrNda/Republic, he acted as Regional Vice President of Operations for Horizon Health, a multi-unit psychiatric management company. Dr. Herschman holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, and a B.A. from the University of California, San Diego.

FamilyLight sm remains open to the possibility that Dr. Herschman will take steps to establish consistency throughout the Aspen brand (and within the CRC Health Group Brand as well?).  We are uncertain that he can do that effectively on a part-time basis.  We had hoped that what Dr. Fitzhugh had established in her territory would become the standard at Aspen Education and perhaps even at CRC Health Group as a whole while Dr. Fitzhugh continued to make further improvements within her territory.   Recent events have dampened our optimism about the prospects for that.

Among the improvements we want to see are these:

1.  A total overhaul of marketing and admission functions.    We want at least to see the elimination of activities that present the fact or the appearance of non-compliance with section  2.4 of the Principles of Good Practice of NATSAP  and items 5 and 12 of the Ethical Principles of NATSAP.  In this venue, we are concerned about the appearances.  It is beyond our ability to investigate the entirety of the facts behind those appearances but we detail our concerns in our pages on Aspen Marketing.  But when Aspen presents itself as a leader in the field we would like to see it function as visible example of the at least the minimum standards that NATSAP  has adopted for what the industry as a whole needs to be doing, if not higher standards than NATSAP has codified.

2.  Eliminate the practice of subjecting all people being admitted to some Aspen programs to procedures that would be appropriate (if at all) to people with Conduct Disorder or serious Oppositional and Defiant Disorder.  We would not object to such procedures if all admissions were carefully screened to ensure that the client’s needs fit the procedure at issue and that students who did not specifically demonstrate need for  that kind of intervention would be denied admission or referred elsewhere.  Our concern is about subjecting all children and young adults who need therapeutic intervention to the unnecessary discomfort of procedures designed for teens who are simply defiant. 

We believe this concern applies (now or recently) to Turn-About Ranch, several wilderness programs, and perhaps others.  We have no objection use of procedures which may be uncomfortable when proper evaluation demonstrates that the use of the procedure is the best way to produce appropriate results.  Our objection is to the use of such procedures on a “one size fits all” basis, while the program at issue is promoted for young people who would not need the kind of intervention at issue. 

3.  Review of all Aspen brand programs to identify and remove vestiges of the Cedu-originated harsh emotional growth techniques of the 1970s and 1980s.  We understand the use of those techniques then; we see no excuse for their application in the twenty-first century.  We do not mean to target some current practices that are modifications of the Cedu methods, where counterproductive harshness has been removed from them. For example, we have no objection to a modernized version of the historic "profeets." with objectionable parts eliminated.  The recent (November, 2009) allegations from the State of Oregon accompanying the suspension of the license of Mt. Bachelor Academy are specific to the parts of those events we want to see eliminated. These include but are not limited to, sleep deprived marathon sessions, verbal attacks with crude language expressing or simulating rage as part of a "therapeutic" or "emotional growth" group, role plays of past negative behavior that might be humiliating or sexually charged or might awaken the sense of trauma from past events for some participants. 

4.  Apply evidence based procedures and best practices in all facilities at all times where such practices might apply, except as a clear justification is found for doing otherwise.  "That is how we have always done it," does not in our minds count as a justification for not applying evidence based procedures and best practices.

5.  CRC Health Group, controlling the Aspen brand name, is not just a for-profit organization but it is owned by a private investment firm Bain Capital with a fiduciary responsibility to maximize return on investment.  The reality is that the best care in therapeutic facilities is not necessarily the care that produces the greatest return on investment. We would like to  hear a commitment directly from Bain Capital that they have directed  CRC Health Group to provide the highest quality of care they can, observing that while short-term financial gains might result from taking shortcuts, the long term best financial performance will result from delivering the highest quality services with the highest standards of ethics. 

We hope CRC Health Group  and  Bain Capital will actually do these things in their Aspen Education brand.   Their facilities have trEmendous potential and the organization has the know-how to make it happen, and deliver a reasonable return to their investors.

Frankly, we have been dismayed by the sidelining of Dr. Fitzhugh while the senior management people at Aspen/ CRC Health Group  who approved of the activities at Mount Bachelor Academy that led to its demise remain in place.  If we were investors at Bain Capital, we would have some serious questions about the management of our investment.

We would like to see the day that in a positive way, Aspen truly becomes the inspiring leader of this industry.

Some Aspen Schools and programs:

Academy at Swift River

Adirondack Leadership Academy

Aspen Achievement Academy

Aspen Institute for Behavioral Assessment

Bromley Brook School

Four Circles Recovery Center

Island View Residential Treatment Center

Oakley School

Mount Bachelor Academy

New Leaf Academy North Carolina

Passages to Recovery

Pine Ridge Academy

Stone Mountain School

Turnabout Ranch

Youth Care, Inc.

 

The above is not an exhaustive list of Aspen Schools and Programs.

 

Other Links:

Official web site of Aspen Education

Official web site of CRC Health Group

Official web site of Bain Capital

Aspen Marketing

Tom's Blog, May 2010, recommending against placing  children in Aspen or CRC schools or programs

Return to Major Providers Index

Return to Individual Schools and Programs Index

Woodbury Reports links to Aspen Education

Feedback is invited. We will publish selected feedback.  Email FamilyLightResponse@yahoo.com

Disclaimer: No  program review, no matter how positive, is a blanket endorsement. No criticism is a blanket condemnation.  When we express our level of confidence in a school or program, that is our subjective opinion with which others might reasonably disagree.  When we assert something as fact, we have done our best to be accurate, but we cannot guarantee that all of out information is accurate and up to date. When we address compliance with our guidelines, you need to remember that these are only OUR guidelines -- not guidelines from an official source.  We have also set the bar very high, and do not expect any school or program to be in total compliance.  It is not appropriate to draw a conclusion of impropriety (or even failure to live up to conventional wisdom) from our lack of confidence in a school or program or from less than perfect conformity to our guidelines.  Some will say we expect too much. Readers are responsible for verifying accuracy of information supplied here prior to acting upon it.

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Last revised July11 2013;

 
     
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