Mackenzie Williams, left, with her “house-sibling” Daylan and another ranch resident Paige on the farm where she was forced to work. (Photo by Mackenzie Williams)
Mackenzie Williams, left, with her “house-sibling” Daylan and another ranch resident Paige on the farm where she was forced to work. (Photo by Mackenzie Williams)

Visitors to Times Square in New York last spring may well have had a chance to see UofL Brandeis School of Law second-year student Mackenzie Williams’ face on one of the massive video billboards there. Williams was sharing her experiences as part of a Paris Hilton-led initiative to help protect at-risk youth from predatory organizations preying on troubled teens.

Private institutions are using exemptions for tribal lands and religious beliefs to profit from the concern expressed for teenagers whose parents feel like they need to change their child’s behavior by putting them into what sounds like positive juvenile behavioral rehab facilities. These institutions are often in states far away from the parents and promise what sounds like great experiences. The attraction of being able to send a “troubled teen” to a horse farm where they will get schooling, practical experience and be far from the temptations of home is great. However, that is not always the reality.

Mackenzie Williams
Mackenzie Williams

Williams has been through this experience for herself. At the age of 13, a contract was signed with such an institution, and she was taken to a place in Montana described as a religious-based horse ranch so she could be in a safe environment.

The reality was very different. Williams describes what turned out to be little more than a youth labor camp, with children working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. Breaks were allowed only for eating and there was no personal freedom.

She explains how staff would listen in on weekly 15 minute-weekly calls of youth so they couldn’t tell their parents what was actually happening. 

“We were locked up at night with alarmed windows and doors and we couldn’t do anything, even drink water or use the restroom, without permission,” Williams said.

Although she was initially told she’d be there for six months, it was nearly three years later before Williams left. 

Alarmingly, Williams was probably one of the luckier ones. In some cases, children can be stuck there for up to 10 years. Typically, children in these facilities are between the ages of eight and 18.

Williams’ ranch has exploited more than 700 children, and there is an online support group of over 200 former residents sharing their experiences. Williams is glad for it.

“Having other people to talk to about this helped me realize that I wasn’t crazy for thinking my supposed ‘savior’ was actually my captor,” she said.

In 2020, she realized that she could help stop institutions like these, and she began actively working to support bills forcing places like this to change. Through this effort, she became aware of the work Paris Hilton to end such child abuse at these institutions and became involved in the #IAmMovement.

Her experiences and desire to put an end to this exploitation through legislation helped her to begin thinking about the law, and last year she started her journey at UofL’s Brandeis School of Law. Although she is still hurt by her experiences, she plans to work toward preventing others from going through the same.

“While I look forward to a career in the law, regardless of where it takes me, this experience will always be a part of me and because of that, I will keep speaking out against these places to bring awareness and to stop this from happening to others.”

By UofL Brandeis School of Law