At Deschutes Wilderness Therapy, the safety of our students is our #1 priority.

If you or someone you know has experienced abuse in a program, we urge you to take the appropriate action and report it to the state where the program is based. While social media and the press might feel like a way for you to be heard, reporting your claim to the proper authority is the best way to ensure legitimate action is taken.

In Oregon, the State Office of Licensing, a division of the Oregon Department of Human Services, licenses all therapeutic programs.

For abuse allegations, concerns of regulatory violations, and other complaints, please go to

Why is there so much negative press recently about treatment programs?

Residential treatment and wilderness therapy programs have been transformative and positive experiences for many adolescents and young adults. And while treatment programs have existed for a long time, many programs in the 1980s and 1990s operated using an antiquated behavior modification approach where consequences and punitive actions along with rewards were used to shape and change "unwanted" behaviors. These interventions sometimes took place with staff lacking specific training and experience. Some programs implemented little or no therapy, while others were strongly faith-based.

In these particular settings, adolescents and young adults with mental health issues were misunderstood, mistreated, or abused.

There has been a good deal of press recently about such abuses, partly due to the celebrity Paris Hilton speaking out about her experiences when she was placed in a behavioral modification program in the 1990s. Other survivors join Paris as they come forward to share their experiences and raise awareness about institutional abuse. The media attention gained traction and resulted in legislation passed in Oregon and other states to increase regulation and oversight of residential and wilderness therapeutic programs.

Have programs changed since the 1990s?

The answer to this question is a resounding YES. Treatment programs have significantly transformed over the last thirty years. Most residential and wilderness treatment programs are now state-licensed and overseen by qualified medical professionals. These programs have licensed mental health clinicians and a focus on trauma-informed compassionate care and clinical modalities. And are accredited by national associations whose purpose is to ensure safety, quality and effectiveness.

Student Safety is Our #1 Priority

Does abuse in institutional settings still exist?

Some adolescents and young adults come out of a residential treatment setting with negative experiences. Our goal is not to discredit or invalidate those experiences. Deschutes Wilderness Therapy believes that only programs that can safely treat youth should operate. All adolescents and young adults in this especially vulnerable community have the right to safe, compassionate, and humane mental health care.

How does the State of Oregon ensure programs are safe?

The State Office of Licensing, a division of the Oregon Department of Human Services, licenses all therapeutic programs in Oregon.

Programs that follow Child-Caring Agencies (CCA) must comply with CCA Licensing Rules. The Umbrella Rules (OAR 413-215-000 to OAR 413-215-0136) apply to all licensed CCAs, regardless of the type of services they provide. Additionally, CCAs must comply with the specific rules associated with the types of services they provide.

Specially trained State licensors are assigned to inspect and oversee all Oregon programs. These licensors inspect each program. A recent report of license renewals and recent site visits can be found on the state website.

Additionally, programs are required to report safety-related incidents to the Office of Licensing, which investigates all critical incidents. Programs that can't maintain a track record of safety and effectiveness are sanctioned or shut down. In addition, Deschutes Wilderness Therapy's State Inspection results can be found here.

Is Deschutes Wilderness Therapy safe?

YES. Steve Sawyer co-founded Deschutes Wilderness Therapy in 2012. Steve is a licensed psychotherapist with two decades of experience working with tough-to-reach client populations in therapy settings ranging from residential, community-based, outpatient, and wilderness therapy. Steve is trained in several unique therapeutic models, including somatic trigger release, multiple levels of Brainspotting, traumatic memory reprocessing, and HeartMath. Steve is a core therapeutic training development staff with the Institute of HeartMath. He contributed to the innovative and comprehensive HeartMath Interventions Establishing a New Baseline for Sustained Behavioral Change therapist training Module that revolutionizes modern therapy interventions through an emotional physiology approach.

Having witnessed the problems and limitations of programs in the 90s, Steve dedicated his efforts to developing Deschutes Wilderness Therapy's Trauma Informed Care model in the wilderness setting that has challenged the entire wilderness therapy field to make healthier interventions with their students. Our treatment environment is characterized by evidence-based best practices, clinical sophistication, and a philosophy founded on healthy attachments.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy does not utilize a level system or one of rewards and punishments to shape behavior. Instead, we treat students with dignity and respect and foster independence through empowerment, knowledge, and personal growth. Sophisticated clinical modalities are used to engage the students, build competencies and recognize that each student is unique and there cannot be a cookie-cutter approach.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy staff are among the best in the field. The clinicians are fully licensed, and field instructors and administrators are professionally trained. DWT's clinical, field, and logistical staff are:

  • Certified in CPR and 1stAid and Wilderness First Responder
  • Cleared to work with youth by a national background check
  • Trained in the latest de-escalation and safety techniques
  • Engaged in ongoing weekly training around safety in wilderness and therapeutic intervention techniques.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy consistently exceeds the state-required minimums. Our organization is accredited by the Joint Commission. DWT belongs to the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs and the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council. This organization was founded to promote program standards and excellence, raise the bar for outdoor behavioral healthcare, and facilitate research on efficacy.

Furthermore, in 2013 the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council invited Association for Experiential Education (AEE) to jointly expand AEE's existing standards to better reflect the field of wilderness therapy's current practices with a goal of having AEE become an independent accreditor for these types of programs. This action resulted in creating a detailed set of ethical, risk management, and treatment standards created by longstanding leaders in Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare (OBH), adventure therapy, and wilderness programming. OBH programming can be defined as the prescriptive use of wilderness experiences by licensed mental health professionals to meet the therapeutic needs of clients, as well as a strong ethic of care and support throughout the therapeutic experience.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy was accredited in 2016. Accredited status through the AEE Accreditation Program is solid evidence of an organization's commitment to quality and safety, belief in professional standards, and allocation of resources toward continued excellence and improvement. ​**

Additionally, Deschutes Wilderness Therapy hosts politicians, legislators, and visiting dignitaries interested in learning what exemplary wilderness therapy looks like.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy has never had a known incident of abuse or neglect. The field area and program as a whole are watched over by active co-founders who protect the safety of our students as they would their own children.

** Association for Experiential Education,

Is Deschutes Wilderness Therapy effective?

DWT is a NATSAP Research Designated Program. This designation is given to programs that apply and demonstrate they are involved in supplying data to evaluate NATSAP program effectiveness and increase understanding of our program's impact on youth and their families. Our outcome data is collected using standardized, valid, scientific assessment tools handled by third-party researchers at the University of New Hampshire.

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy is involved in several long-term research projects. DWT tests all students on both Youth Outcomes Questionnaire Self-Report 2.0 (Y-OQ) and HeartMath EmWave PC stress scans. To identify clinical change, therapeutic programs utilize Youth Outcome Questionnaires (Y-OQ) and Outcome Questionnaires (OQ) to highlight significant risk factors in substance abuse and mental health. The community norm is 46. For data to be clinically significant, results for the Y-OQ must change by 18 points or more.

For adolescents, the Y-OQ focuses on these areas of functioning:

  • How they feel.
  • How they get along with significant others.
  • How they cope with stress physically and behaviorally.
  • How they complete life tasks.

Adolescent results show a decrease (improvement) of 24 points from enrollment to graduation, indicating that, on average, DWT students are demonstrating clinically significant improvement after participation. Parent or guardian results show a decrease (improvement) of 60 points from enrollment to graduation. Even after graduating from DWT, adolescents consistently show lower risk factors close to the community norm.

For our young adult programming, the OQ-45.2 is completed by young adults analyzing three areas of functioning, including how the young adult feels, how they get along with significant others, and how they feel doing essential life tasks. Young adult results show a decrease (improvement) of 33 points from enrollment to graduation, demonstrating significant clinical change, and this change remains one year later.