With National Drug Treatment Binge Looming, Survivors Conference in Suburban DC Targets Abusive Programs 8/10/01

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"I saw many people beaten and restrained. I was beaten and restrained myself. I repeatedly carved on my own arms with my fingernails until I was covered in blood repeatedly, and I saw many others do the same. I was forced to ask for permission each time I wiped myself after a movement of the bowels. I was told that masturbation (a normal thing for a 17-year-old boy) was just a part of my drug problem and that masturbation would lead me back to drugs and eventually death. I was told that I had manipulated those adults in my past into having sex with me so that I could get drugs from them. The fact is I was being sexually abused for three years before I even tried any drugs. Every single day that I was in the program I saw someone getting abused. Verbal Assault is the primary therapeutic tool in these programs. Physical battery was a daily occurrence. Any client who was not fully participatory was poked and physically prodded until the client exploded in rage, then the client would be violently and physically restrained, sometimes for hours at a stretch. I saw people getting their heads dunked in toilets, I saw staff members physically abuse clients. I saw people being kidnapped and carried across state lines to return to the program. Kids jumped out of second floor windows naked to escape. Personally, I was told by one foster parent that I would be shot in the leg if I tried to get out of his home. He explained that he would simply say that I had tried to commit suicide and that no one would believe me if I told the truth. To this very day, I orgasm in silence because that was the only way to do so in the program, making noise meant risking public humiliation and verbal assault the next day for self gratification."

"I wish that this were a case of only a couple of specific egregious abuse, but in fact it is a case of systemic egregious abuse. Abuse was the process. Break down a kid completely and rebuild him. Straight made no bones about that, it was policy. I am pretty sure SAFE operates in the same way, but I have to leave it up to you reporters to find out for sure. Elan, in Maine operates in similar fashion, as do hundreds of overseas "boot camps" as well as domestic ones. In Atlanta, when Straight closed its doors, a new program opened up immediately and accepted the transfers from Straight. The new program is called Phoenix Institute for Adolescents. Straight was systematically abusive. Straight admitted me when I was clearly the victim of sexual abuse, and convinced me that I was so bad, and such a horrific drug addict that I had brought all this on myself, that I was to blame for all that had happened, and that I was going to be a drug addict forever. Of course I never was a drug addict, but I learned to act like one very well."

So Straight survivor James Lloyd reprised for DRCNet the story he told a Bethesda conference on abusive drug treatment programs in late July. (Lloyd wants to communicate with others and can be reached at [email protected].) Scandalously, his story is far from an aberration. An increasingly prominent part of the US anti-drug policy is the resort to treatment for drug offenders. Not only have the Clinton and Bush administrations raised both the profile and the funding levels for drug treatment, but powerful forces within the drug reform movement have also championed the treatment cause as an alternative to imprisonment, thus potentially creating a steady supply of captive customers for this growth industry.

Lost in the movement uproar over the suitability and efficacy of drug treatment, however, has been the issue of treatment programs whose methods range from the merely abusive to the clearly criminal. The conference hosted by the Trebach Institute (http://www.trebach.org) in suburban Bethesda, Maryland, on July 21 and 22 marked the beginning of a renewed campaign to combat abusive treatment programs. In doing so, conference organizers brought to the fore the overlap of the turn to drug treatment with the issue of abusive treatment in general, and in particular, abusive treatment programs geared toward controlling and reshaping teenagers who act out for any number of reasons.

And not a moment too soon, if recent chilling news accounts are any guide. At least three teenagers have died so far this year in outdoor "camps" designed to whip kids into shape through the application of harsh, confrontational "tough love" methods. In February, Ryan Lewis, 14, hung himself at a West Virginia "wilderness therapy" camp. That same month, Michael Wiltsie, 12, died in a Florida camp after being restrained by a 320-pound camp counselor for more than half an hour. Last month, Tony Haynes, 14, died at an Arizona boot camp. Other students at the camp told investigators Haynes was physically abused and forced to eat dirt before he died.

At least 31 teenagers have died in such camps since 1980, according to the New York Times. Shocking as these deaths may be, they are only the extreme end of a spectrum of abusive treatment modalities that rely on techniques more akin to the brainwashing of POWS than to the common image of compassionate care for troubled youths. At the conference, speaker after speaker arose to denounce "treatment" that turns the stomach of civilized people: forced confinement, physical beatings, prolonged restraint, forced consumption of foods, prolonged deprival of foods; as well as insidious psychological tortures including prolonged sleep deprivation, marathon confrontational humiliation sessions and vicious attacks on vulnerable young psyches. (Numerous web sites provide these gut-wrenching survivors' tales, including http://www.thestraights.com/straight/, http://www.nospank.org/boot.htm [on boot camps], and http://www.fornits.com/anonanon/, all of which also provide links to even more horror stories.)

In a presentation attendees said was typical of abusive treatment programs, Rosslyn Araiza-Jordan, 31, related her experience in the KIDS of El Paso treatment center in 1986. She was misdiagnosed upon entry to the program, she said. "When I went into KIDS, I was diagnosed as a 'druggie,'" she told the audience. "I had done marijuana a total of three times and drank about as many times. I was displaying bulimic behavior. I admit and agree that my behavior was far from a normal teenager's, but it was not due to drug abuse."

Araiza-Jordan told how counselors forced her to eat seafood to which she was allergic. "They told me I was lying and that I had to eat this food," she said, and when she continued to refuse she was forced to carry it for several hours. Eventually she was placed in four-point restraints for several hours, then the food was forced down her throat. "Almost instantly, I began to swell. My throat began to close and my face became very swollen. They took me to an intake room, after several hours I was given Benadryl to reduce the swelling. They refused to take me to a hospital for this reaction," she said.

Araiza-Jordan also explained the "Quiet Room," where she was beaten and screamed at by more than 20 fellow residents at the counselors' behest. "People pushed me around and restrained me to the wall," she related. "Some people spat in my face, some pulled and ripped at my clothes. I vomited all over myself, and they even rubbed fecal matter on my face. Finally, as if the experience couldn't have been more shameful, they had a male staff member read very intimate sexual incidents out of the moral inventory that I had to write."

When Araiza-Jordan turned 18 and, as an adult, had the right to leave the KIDS center, the center held her against her will and against the law. Her parents eventually retrieved her from the center. Her tale is so horrifying that any civilized person hopes it is an aberration. But as the testimony of speaker after speaker demonstrated, it is all too common.

But even tales such as Araiza-Jordan's did not convince some parents in attendance that the treatment programs in question were flawed. In an opening night discussion, at least two parents with children who either are in or had graduated from such programs stood up to provide a vigorous defense of their program at least.

"You don't have to be stupid to be brainwashed," treatment survivor Ginger Warbis told DRCNet, adding that she welcomed the participation of people who believe in the usefulness of such programs. "I think we had a great mix of people together in one room, and through the discussion we were able to gain some insights. These people who stood up for SAFE (one of the targeted programs) were articulate advocates on their position. We need to be able to deal with these people."

For James Lloyd, the parents who stood up for SAFE were disturbing. "Hearing the cult lingo and their inability to communicate in terms outside of the lingo was really scary to me," he told DRCNet. "I acknowledge that these people believe things have changed since Straight's days, but from the picture they paint it is pretty much the same. One major point that they made was that clients are no longer allowed to touch each other. But I wonder really how far that goes. Let's suppose I am in the program and 16 years old. If I stand up to leave and walk out, how will SAFE stop me from doing so without touching me?" he asked.

Such maltreatment has historically been associated with treatment modalities patterned after Synanon, according to Wesley Fager, the parent of a youth who suffered from an abusive treatment program and author of the online book, "A Clockwork Straight," (http://www.fornits.com/straight/). Fager connected the dots between Synanon, which specialized in brutal verbal confrontation to cure heroin addiction and which later devolved into a cult, and its lineal descendants, including the Seed, Straight, Inc., the KIDS chain of treatment centers, the LIFE chain, and numerous others listed on his web site.

And although this subject was barely touched on the conference, the confrontational, "tough love" approach to drug treatment pioneered by Synanon remains a dominant treatment model to this day. While they may forego the egregious physical abuses documented at the conference, "therapeutic community" treatment programs, including such prominent and loudly lauded organizations as Walden House, Daytop Village and Phoenix House rely on precisely the same ego-destroying regime of confrontation, degradation, and humiliation.

Given her experience with the Seed, another Synanon-based program, Warbis is skeptical of any therapeutic community. "I wouldn't put my kid in one," she told DRCNet. But people who are considering such an option, said Warbis, must ensure that "at a bare minimum every program must adhere to the basic rule that anyone who comes to one of these communities has the right to leave." Without that right, said Warbis, "you have situation of intense psychological coercion, physical abuses can happen, and then the community convinces you to color what happened in a slightly better light."

Fager also connected the dots between Straight, Inc., the upper echelons of the Republican Party, and the organized drug war. The founders of Straight, Inc. are Mel and Betty Sembler, a prominent Florida couple who dabbled in real estate development and politics, said Fager. Mel Sembler was recently head of fundraising for the Republican National Committee and has been nominated by President Bush to be ambassador to Italy. Betty Sembler eventually shut down the Straight, Inc. Foundation and reopened it as the Drug Free America Foundation, from which she wages war against drug reformers and for which she was honored with a Betty Sembler day by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last August.

For Florida drug reform activist Jodi James, the conference was a call to action, especially as Florida prepares for a Prop 36-style initiative. "Many of the centers being discussed have a legacy in Florida and are still operating," she told DRCNet. "And we're getting ready to force everyone into treatment. I've been somewhat involved with building the survivors network, but I didn't realize how devastating the long-term effects of these programs are, what these families have gone through. It is amazing that after 20 years some of these people are still suffering from what they went through. Many of them were shamed into believing they were bad, sick persons."

Straight, Inc. and many of its cousins may have been run out of business -- KIDS of North Jersey, for example, had to pay out a $4.5 million settlement to one teen abused in its center -- but the problem of abusive treatment remains. As the nation relies ever more heavily on drug treatment, the potential for further horror stories from the treatment gulag is real and present. Attendees at the Trebach Institute's conference saw it as a good first step, but only the beginning of a lengthy struggle for sanity and justice.

Attendees at the conference appear to be ready and eager for that struggle. "We're looking at the possibility of holding another conference like this is Florida," James told DRCNet, "and we are discussing concrete ways to get the issue before the media and the public." Ginger Warbis agrees. "I'll be working to see more people taking an interest in this issue," she told DRCNet. "It isn't going away. These abusive programs pretty well predominate the industry."

And she has a suggestion of whom to target: "Bridges of America is a pretty big company that takes a lot (maybe mostly) court referrals. I spoke with a recent client a couple of weeks ago who described it as very similar to the types of psychological abuses most often alleged against Straight/Synanon type places, except that they're short term and do allow some outside contact fairly early on."

Straight survivor John Wenning traveled from Portland, Oregon, to attend the conference. He, too, plans on working to shut down similar programs. "I hadn't thought about how surreal that place was for years," he told DRCNet, "but the conference brought it all back. I wasn't physically abused, but the day-to-day misery was bad enough. I've been talking with people like Ginger Warbis and Wes Fager, and just knowing that these kinds of places are still around motivates me to want to see them shut down."

Like many of the treatment abuse survivors at the conference, for the treatment industry Wenning is a sort of Frankenstein's monster. Not only did treatment not create the docile, ego-stripped client it boasted it could, it instead created a determined foe. "I've gotten into drug policy, I've been involved with NORML and Common Sense for Drug Policy, as well as the ACLU and Amnesty International. I think prohibition is wrong, and I believe that the philosophy that sees addiction as a chronic, progressive, organic disease is deeply mistaken."

(This conference addressed so many issues, all with far-reaching ramifications, that it is impossible to mention, let alone do justice, to all of them. Conference organizers at the Trebach Institute, however, have promised to post extensive conference coverage on their website and have audio and videotapes available for a nominal fee. Check http://www.trebach.org to see all that this article failed to cover.)

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Issue #198, 8/10/01 Editorial: Nostalgia for the '80s | With National Drug Treatment Binge Looming, Survivors Conference in Suburban DC Targets Abusive Programs | Court Ruling Brings New York City Needle Exchange Suit a Step Closer to Class Action Status | Two Steps Backward, No Steps Forward in Illinois: No to Hemp, Yes to Draconian Ecstasy Penalties | Canadian Health Minister Has "Open Mind" on Marijuana Legalization | Reams Reeferendum Underway in Virginia, Libertarian Candidate Enters Lt. Governor Race to Push Marijuana Reform | Hawaii Pays Hemp Advocates $75,000 in Persecution Settlement | Reformer Profile: Ethan Nadelmann | T-shirts for Victory! Special New Offer and Appeal from DRCNet This Month | Media Scan: Major Dan Forbes/Salon.com Scoop, National Review, OC Register, Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Economist | Resources: Andean Regional Initiative, Salvia Divinorum, Australian National Crime Authority | Action Alerts: Ecstasy Bill, HEA, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana, John Walters | HEA Campaign Still Seeking Student Victim Cases -- New York Metropolitan Area Especially Urgent | The Reformer's Calendar
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