The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry

By ~lostgurl~ · Aug 20, 2007 · ·
  1. ~lostgurl~
    The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry

    August 20, 2007
    Mother Jones
    By Maia Szalavitz

    The idea that punishment can be therapeutic is not unique to the Rotenberg Center. In fact, this notion is widespread among the hundreds of "emotional growth boarding schools," wilderness camps, and "tough love" antidrug programs that make up the billion-dollar teen residential treatment industry.

    This harsh approach to helping troubled teens has a long and disturbing history. No fewer than 50 programs (though not the Rotenberg Center) can trace their treatment philosophy, directly or indirectly, to an antidrug cult called Synanon. Founded in 1958, Synanon sold itself as a cure for hardcore heroin addicts who could help each other by "breaking" new initiates with isolation, humiliation, hard labor, and sleep deprivation.

    Today, troubled-teen programs use Synanon-like tactics, advertising themselves to parents as solutions for everything from poor study habits to substance misuse. However, there is little evidence that harsh behavior-modification techniques can solve these problems. Studies found that Synanon's "encounter groups" could produce lasting psychological harm and that only 10 to 15 percent of the addicts who participated in them recovered. And as the classic 1971 Stanford prison experiment demonstrated, creating situations in which the severe treatment of powerless people is rewarded inevitably yields abuse. This is especially true when punishment is viewed as a healing process. Synanon was discredited in the late 1970s and 1980s as its violent record was exposed. (The group is now remembered for an incident in which a member placed a live rattlesnake—rattle removed—in the mailbox of a lawyer who'd successfully sued it.) Yet by the time Synanon shut down in 1991, its model had already been widely copied.

    In 1971, the federal government gave a grant to a Florida organization called The Seed, which applied Synanon's methods to teenagers, even those only suspected of trying drugs. In 1974, Congress opened an investigation into such behavior-modification programs, finding that The Seed had used methods "similar to the highly refined brainwashing techniques employed by the North Koreans."

    The bad publicity led some supporters of The Seed to create a copycat organization under a different name. Straight Inc. was cofounded by Mel Sembler, a Bush family friend who would become the gop's 2000 finance chair and who heads Lewis "Scooter" Libby's legal defense fund. By the mid-'80s, Straight was operating in seven states. First lady Nancy Reagan declared it her favorite antidrug program. As with The Seed, abuse was omnipresent—including beatings and kidnapping of adult participants. Facing seven-figure legal judgments, it closed in 1993.

    But loopholes in state laws and a lack of federal oversight allowed shuttered programs to simply change their names and reopen, often with the same staff, in the same state—even in the same building. Straight spin-offs like the Pathway Family Center are still in business.

    Confrontation and humiliation are also used by religious programs such as Escuela Caribe in the Dominican Republic and myriad "emotional growth boarding schools" affiliated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (wwasp), such as Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. wwasp's president told me that the organization "took a little bit of what Synanon [did]."

    Lobbying by well-connected supporters such as wwasp founder Robert Lichfield (who, like Sembler, is a fundraiser for Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney) has kept state regulators at bay and blocked federal regulation entirely.

    By the '90s, tough love had spawned military-style boot camps and wilderness programs that thrust kids into extreme survival scenarios. At least three dozen teens have died in these programs, often because staff see medical complaints as malingering. This May, a 15-year-old boy died from a staph infection at a Colorado wilderness program. His family claims his pleas for help were ignored. In his final letter to his mother, he wrote, "They found my weakness and I want to go home."

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  1. Nagognog2
    Synanon was so named as many junkies, splattered on methadone, could not pronounce 'seminar' - which is what it was supposed to be called.

    In the late 50's and early 60's, Synanon was a hot bed of CIA activity. They were dosing patients on LSD as part of their experiments in Project MK-Ultra.
  2. Rob Cypher
    Romney Adviser's Reefer Madness

    [an update to this piece; Straight Incorporated's founder is now one of [GOP Presidential candidate] Mitt Romney's advisers.]

    When the national political press writes about Republican financier Mel Sembler—a major Romney donor who formerly chaired the finance committee for the party (and the candidate himself)—it typically fails to mention his involvement in abusive addiction treatment and reactionary drug policy.

    For example, a recent Daily Beast piece on his fundraising simply notes that the Florida shopping mall magnate switched his political affiliation away from the Democrats in 1979 because of his opposition to marijuana use.

    What it doesn’t mention is that he also founded a rehab that “treated” some 50,000 American teens with a dehumanizing daily routine often involving beatings, days on end of sleep deprivation, brutal restraints that often left youth wetting or soiling themselves, public humiliation (including misogynistic and homophobic insults), lack of privacy and other human rights violations including kidnapping and false imprisonment of both adults and youth.

    Nor does it detail how that organization—Straight Incorporated—morphed into the Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF), a group that now fights to ensure that drug policy remains harsh and punitive. Last week, The Nation examined those connections, noting that 95% of the money donated to oppose Colorado’s marijuana legalization initiative, Amendment 64, comes from DFAF’s sister organization, also founded by Sembler and his wife, Betty, called Save Our Society from Drugs. If approved by voters on November 6, Colorado will be the first state to make it legal for adults (age 21 and up) to possess as much as one ounce of pot. The initiative, sponsored by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, would bring the cultivation, sales and consumption of marijuana under state control. (The amendment was supported by a majority of voters, but recent anti-legalization agitprop has tightened the race.)

    Writes The Nation’s Lee Fang: Three years after Straight shut down, the Semblers changed its name to the Drug Free America Foundation, headquartered in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Drug Free America Foundation, a nonprofit that shares resources, an office and staff with the Save Our Society group financing the Amendment 64 opposition in Colorado, has a contract with the federal government to help small businesses develop their own drug-testing programs for employees. In 2010, taxpayers forked over $250,000 to a Sembler group to oversee a drug-free workplace program for the Small Business Administration. It also helps produce anti-marijuana literature and promotional campaigns.

    Straight wasn’t abusive by accident: it was based on an organization called The Seed, which a Congressional investigation compared to the brutal brainwashing conducted by the North Koreans on American soldiers during the war. Sembler co-founded Straight, in fact, because The Seed had treated one of his children and he wanted its tough methods to continue to be used after that program was discredited by the federal probe.

    In every one of the seven states where it operated from 1976 to 1993, Straight faced lawsuits and regulatory investigations because its tactics were so inhumane. The abuse wasn’t an aberration: it was the “therapy.” Every single teen at Straight had to sit up tall on a plastic chair for hours at a time; the only movement allowed was “motivating” or wildly waving one’s hands to be called on to speak. If a child refused to participate, hours of restraint would ensue. And participating involved disclosing your darkest secrets and then having that information used to break you.

    But having no secrets may have been worse: Straight often admitted youth who were merely suspected of drug use, then subjected them to hours of confrontation to break through their “lies” and “denial.” This led many who had rarely or even never taken drugs to create elaborate tales of addiction, simply to stop the attacks. (For more on Straight’s abusive practices, see The Fix‘s “Mitt Romney’s Big Drug Problem.”)

    Hundreds of former participants, not surprisingly, developed post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and worsened drug problems afterward—and there have been dozens of suicides that survivors of Straight say are directly linked to the program.

    You would think that people who ran an organization like this would be in prison—or at least, wouldn’t be proud of their actions. The Semblers, however, have never renounced Straight: in fact, Mel Sembler’s online biography boasts that it was a “remarkable program” and claims that 12,000 teens graduated. When the ACLU called it a “brutal program” and a “concentration camp,” Sembler said that their opposition “just shows that we have been doing things right.”

    Given their money and influence in the Sunshine State, the Semblers are feted as philanthropists—their past as operators of an organization that practiced what most human rights experts would label torture only rarely linked to their current advocacy for continued drug criminalization. DFAF is seen as a legitimate think-tank, despite the fact that under its prior name it engaged in “treatment” that would not be acceptable in prisons, let alone healthcare.

    Whatever your views on the harms related to marijuana, there’s no evidence that our current policies—or abusive rehab or prison—in any way reduces them. And yet virtually all of the most vocal proponents of a marijuana-focused drug war—including Kevin Sabet, a former official in the drug czar’s office who has written countless anti-marijuana op-eds, including for The Fix (“The Case Against Medical Marijuana“)—have ties to DFAF. Sabet, for example, has served on their advisory board and represented the group at international meetings.

    DFAF fights not only against marijuana legalization and in favor of a strong role for law enforcement and the drug war. It also opposes two of the most effective ways to save the lives of addicted people: needle exchange programs and methadone and buprenorphine maintenance. At several UN-related meetings, it has countered efforts to include these and other evidence-based “harm reduction” policies in the agency’s documents and strategies. Using propaganda based on junk science, the group exaggerates the negative aspects of drugs, such as their addictiveness and health risks, portraying the marijuana “menace” as if informed entirely by the 1950’s Reefer Madness—a cult classic for its over-the-top pot panic.

    Why is this group seriously? Why do we allow anyone who has not renounced abusive treatment to have any say about anything to do with drug users? Would we accept, in any other area of policy, the participation of leaders who deliberately enabled, ignored or even actively promoted the maltreatment of children? How can anyone believe that a group that brutalized drug users and even suspected drug users is a sane voice about policy related to them?

    The obvious answer is politics: Sembler’s fortune and influence in the swing state of Florida, together with his huge donations to the Republican Party, have long bought him not only access but appointments as an advisor on drug policy to presidents and governors, not to mention several ambassadorships.

    But an even more insidious answer is that people with addictions are seen as less than human—and anything to “fight drugs” is still seen as acceptable, even if it backfires as destructively as Straight and bans on needle exchange and methadone have done. If we are to have drug policy that is both more humane and more effective, we need to stand with the survivors of Straight and not allow those who harmed them to inflict further harm on teens, drug users or those suspected of using.

    If the supporters of marijuana legalization initiatives like Amendment 64 had a prior history of using force to convert prohibition supporters into drug users, would it be seen as irrelevant? Somehow I think not.
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