The Family Foundation School, closed in 2014, has long faced accusations of using improper methods. Decades later, lawsuits submitted under the Child Victims’ Act have exposed rampant claims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
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The approach to the little reform school in the woods seemed to be from a storybook, a winding road bringing new students to its remote campus, with dormitories and a red barn perched beside a pond. Teenagers who weren’t in class sat quietly on porches or carried buckets across a broad lawn, part of the regimen of chores in a program that promised to rehabilitate — to cure.
But a rash of recent lawsuits against the little campus in the woods, the Family Foundation School in Hancock, N.Y., a place of last resort for distraught parents from New York City and the surrounding region, tell a different kind of story.
The buckets the students carried were filled with stones, on their way from one pile to another, and then back again, a meaningless punishment for a trivial or invented affront, former students said in court documents. The teenagers on the porch were in a social blackout, forbidden to communicate for days at a time, others said. And in the barn, a former staff member sexually abused at least one girl and several boys, while in a nearby kitchen, a cook sodomized a girl, the former students said in sworn depositions.
The school, tucked in a leafy crook of the Delaware River on the border of Pennsylvania, has emerged from rural obscurity to become an example of abusive overreach within the so-called troubled teen industry, a nationwide constellation of schools and programs — many of which devolved into financial rip-offs or harmful sources of lasting trauma.
After more than two years in court, several lawsuits against the school were recently settled. The terms of the settlements have not been disclosed, but all of them involve payouts to the plaintiffs, said Ralph DeSimone, their lawyer. Former students said the settlements represented the first time in decades that their accounts about the Family School had been taken seriously.
New students were routinely strip-searched upon arrival — not by counselors, but by other students — and assigned to “families” with staff members in the role of Mom and Dad. Students who attended the school, even years apart, uniformly describe being mocked, jeered at and forced to confess to the group offenses as arbitrary as thinking impure thoughts. Other confessions were followed by physical punishment. And there was no one to turn to for help.
“My parents were told if I said anything bad, I was just manipulating and I wanted to come home and not to believe me and to turn me in,” one former student, Elizabeth Ianelli, 42, said in a deposition filed last year, one of several attacking the school. “And I was told that if I tell my parents anything, that there would be severe consequences.” She would learn just how severe in the months and years that followed.
The cases were filed after the State of New York passed the Child Victims Act in 2019, which allowed plaintiffs a one-year window to bring sexual-abuse lawsuits for episodes in which the statute of limitations had already expired. The act led to new accusations, some dating back decades, against the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and Prince Andrew, a son of Queen Elizabeth II who was a friend of the financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The window was extended into 2021 because of the pandemic but has now closed, and state and federal courts are addressing at least 10 cases involving the school filed in the past three years.
The cases describe abuse in the 1990s and 2000s that former students said still haunts them well into adulthood. “In many states, there’s more regulations on nail salons than places that literally incarcerate children,” said Maia Szalavitz, author of the 2006 book “Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.” “This is a huge part of American culture that is very underground.”
The industry contracted after the financial crisis of 2008 and after the internet made negative feedback easier to share. But it has adapted from the bad press around its tough-love era, seeking to project a more holistic approach to therapy.
“It will change form,” Ms. Szalavitz said. “People who know, ‘Oh, boot camps are bad’ will call it a ‘wilderness camp.’ It’s just putting old wine in new bottles.”
In preparing the cases, the plaintiffs’ lawyer asked two expert witnesses to analyze the Family Foundation School’s methods. They delivered scathing reports.
“A convicted murderer on death row for mass murder cannot be treated as these children were,” wrote Anna C. Salter, a psychologist and expert on sexual predators.
The lawsuits suggest that conditions at the Family Foundation School flourished in secrecy, aided by restrictions on student contact with families outside. When a student did complain to a parent, the school asserted that the student was lying. When students tried to run away — an eight-mile flight up that winding road — the police in the village of Hancock knew to be on the lookout for truants and simply brought them back.
The school closed in 2014 after roughly 30 years amid a “truth campaign” by former students who described some of the grim conditions there, which led to a steep drop in enrollment. In 2018, an article in The New York Times examined an alarming rate of suicide and fatal overdoses among the school’s alumni.
Four of those lawsuits were settled in October, with one of the school’s insurance carriers paying a collective seven-figure amount among the plaintiffs, their attorney, Mr. DeSimone, said.
“No amount of money can adequately compensate our clients for the harm they suffered at the hands of the defendants,” Mr. DeSimone said in a statement. “Our extensive investigation reveals that the Family Foundation School was a front to separate parents from their money while engaging in an organized system of physical and mental abuse consisting of isolation, food deprivation, forced hard labor and extended physical restraint. The defendants were particularly adept at targeting the most vulnerable of our society — our children.”
Howard B. Mankoff, a lawyer for the school, declined to comment. In court filings and depositions, the school’s former administrators largely defended their methods — the hard labor, isolation rooms and periods of social exile — as measures for the students’ safety or for therapeutic purposes. At the same time, they distanced themselves from the employees accused of sexual abuse.
After years of rumors of mistreatment, recent depositions provide a new and sordid perspective on the school. One of the four plaintiffs who settled their lawsuits is Ms. Ianelli, who has sought for years to raise awareness about the conditions at the school by posting under the social media username Survivor993, for the number of days she spent there. And yet her deposition suggests she held back her most horrific moments in Hancock from Facebook.
Ms. Ianelli said she was sent to the school in 1994 by her parents, concerned over behavior that would later be diagnosed as attention deficit disorder. She, like other new students, was forced to write a long and fabricated “confession” to a variety of misdeeds that, without her knowledge, was then sent to her parents.
“I confessed to everything except capital murder,” Ms. Ianelli said in a deposition in March. “Using heroin, prostitution, cocaine, stealing, grand theft auto, grand larceny, every drug that you could imagine, crimes. I was making anything up that I could think of.”
Ms. Ianelli and other former students described “work sanctions,” which one plaintiff, identified in court documents only by his initials, C.E., said varied from “carrying buckets of rocks up and down the hill to shoveling a pile of snow from one side of the sidewalk to the other, shoveling the snow on the softball field, to taking care of the pigs.”
Eventually, Ms. Ianelli was assigned to work in a school kitchen, where an adult cook began to seemingly accidentally brush up against her, she said. Then one day, shortly before Christmas in 1995, he asked her to help him in a walk-in cooler and then shut the door behind them and sodomized her, she said. “It was extremely painful,” she said. “I thought I was going to die.”
She reported the episode to a school administrator and was reprimanded for “making up such an egregious claim,” she said. Her punishment: She was wrapped in a heavy blanket, from head to toe, “like a burrito,” she said, bound with duct tape and left on the floor of a boiler room.
“There weren’t any bathroom breaks, so I defecated on myself,” she said. “I urinated on myself. I had gotten my period during that time.” She said she was given tuna fish, which she could eat only by shimmying to it and sticking her face inside the bowl.
She spent eight days in that room, she said. She had severe back pain afterward and was taken to a doctor, who said she had a herniated disk. A letter from her father to the school, asking that she be excused from strenuous labor because of the injury, was submitted as an exhibit in the lawsuit. Ms. Ianelli has said that her treatment at the school did not change and that for years she was not even aware of her father’s letter.
At least four other plaintiffs, male and female, said in lawsuits and in sworn depositions that they were sexually abused by a music instructor, Paul Geer, who worked at the school for more than 20 years. The former students vary in age and attended over a long span, from as early as 1993 to as late as 2007, and so for the most part they were not at the school together.
One man said Mr. Geer drove him to Maine for a weeklong fishing trip in the early 1990s, where he sexually abused him. Another man said in a deposition that during his time at Family Foundation in the early 2000s, Mr. Geer promised to get him released early in return for sex.
Liz Boysick, who attended the school from 2000 to 2001, said in a deposition that Mr. Geer sexually abused her, too. She said that he would hold her back after a class in the red barn and threaten to make her life “miserable” if she did not touch his genitals, which “escalated to oral sex.”
Ms. Boysick reported the abuse to a school administrator, who threatened her family, she said in her deposition. That administrator has since died.
Ms. Boysick filed a complaint with sheriff’s deputies in 2018, and investigators questioned Mr. Geer, who denied abusing her. Ms. Ianelli invited Mr. Geer to meet at a restaurant in 2018 and secretly recorded their conversation, which was later admitted as an exhibit in the lawsuits.
“I hurt people,” he told her. “I was a monster.” But he denied abusing students, in particular Ms. Boysick, in the barn. “That’s something I did not do,” he told Ms. Ianelli.
He was twice deposed in the lawsuits that were settled, and again he denied abusing students but admitted to speaking to them inappropriately about sexual matters. “I should never have done those things,” he said. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking I was doing something wrong.”
Approached recently by a reporter in his driveway in Hancock, Mr. Geer, now 54, was asked to comment on the accusations, and slowly shook his head and said, “No.” He turned and entered his house.
Eventually, the son of the Family Foundation School’s founders, Emmanuel Argiros, who goes by Michael, took over day-to-day operations. In depositions in 2018 and 2021, he denied knowing about any reports of abuse while at the school. He elaborated in a deposition last April. “The magnitude and frequency of these events seems impossible,” he said. “The school was so open physically, like people everywhere moving around.”
He acknowledged several unorthodox practices there, including “trotting,” or forcing a student to jog in place for hours, as a form of punishment, and said that “sexuality was talked about on a regular basis.”
Asked about Mr. Geer and the accusations of sexual abuse, Mr. Argiros said: “Hindsight is 20-20. So you’re asking me if I think he’s an appropriate guy or not, and what I know today, no.” As for the cook, “He was harsh with the kids,” he said, adding that he ultimately quit or was fired.
Mr. Argiros, asked for comment at his home near Hancock, in Starlight, Pa., said, “I have no comment” and cited ongoing cases.
Another expert consulted by plaintiffs, Frank M. Marlow, is a former schools superintendent and principal in New Jersey. “Every child who was forced to go into an isolation room for an extended period of time, without the benefit of a toilet, should have been reported to Child Protective Services,” he wrote. “Every child forced to carry a bucket of gravel up and down a hill should have been reported to C.P.S. Any staff member using sexual language with children should have been terminated.”
Ms. Ianelli, a psychotherapist and single mother in the Hudson Valley, said in an interview that she wanted the lawsuits to move other young victims of abuse to come forward.
“I hope a survivor out there somewhere sees other survivors with small victories in a big world,” she said. “There are plenty of me’s who never came forward. We’re not a bunch of losers — we’re tough, we’re smart.
“I went from laying with dust in my eyes on a gross basement floor in a blanket, laying in my own fluids, thinking, is this where it ends?” she said. “I want the world to see me doing well.”