Therapeutic Child Abuse and Effecting Change
Recently, troubled teenagers in residential treatment programs throughout America have been brutally marched to death, sexually abused, raped, electrocuted over 30 times a day (warning: upsetting video), restrained unnecessarily until nearly dead, and more. However, the gory details of several cases aren’t the worst part. The worst part, according to testimony before Congress and much evidence, is that the abuse is ongoing.
The suggested scope of the matter is rarely addressed by current media or government. This oversight prompted Senator McKeon to lament, “I don’t understand.” Another, George Miller, Senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, says, “The last time this country witnessed somebody with a bag over their head and a noose around their neck, the world was horrified, the nation was embarrassed and it was at Abu-ghraib, to be told by this committee that this is a valid therapy, I guess, or a practice by somebody in the care of somebody else’s child . . . that this was acceptable, would horrify this nation again.”
Miller incredulously spoke these iconic words after testimony by investigator Gregory Kutz. Kutz was head of the Government Accountability Office special investigations unit responsible for the 2007 report Residential Treatment Programs: Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth. The report detailed tremendous abuse in private facilities for troubled kids, an issue acknowledged by few but desperately in need of attention. In one example, a 15-year-old girl lay dead on the road for 18 hours after vomiting water for two days, but the camp’s advertised “survival experts” did nothing and were not equipped to offer or obtain aid. Congressman George was tired of hearing these stories.
The government report came on the heels of a groundbreaking investigative piece by current Time magazine neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz. The book, entitled Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, offers an in-depth look at rampant abuse at private facilities for troubled teens. She followed the industry roots to a bizarre militant anti-drug cult called Synanon, where addicts were “brutally confronting one another” (a practice now known as “attack therapy”) to keep each other clean. Humiliation, including demeaning outfits such as diapers for “crybabies” and hooker skirts for “promiscuous” young ladies, have been employed by many relatively modern programs (such as the Elan School, and the Bain Capital-owned CRC Health Facility Mount Bachelor Academy), but they find their roots in Synanon. The “humiliating, degrading and traumatizing . . . sexualized role play” within Mount Bachelor, as described by the Oregon Department of Human Services in 2009, was a mimic of Synanon and Straight, Inc. The cult ultimately degenerated into forced partner swapping/divorce, forced abortions, and forced vasectomies. In 1980, after losing a $300,000 lawsuit for kidnapping, the para-military arm of the organization (the Imperial Marines) placed a de-rattled rattle snake into the mailbox of the opposing lawyer. This action ultimately led to their decline.
Before the world was even rid of Synanon, the abusive practices were adopted by Straight, Inc., which ran from 1976-1993. Despite closing its last facility long ago, many may have heard of the organization’s new name, the Drug Free America Foundation, a prominent conservative anti-drug “think tank” to this day. Straight was founded by Mel Sembler, a powerful Republican who became the Republican Finance Chairman for the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000, as well as Mitt Romney’s national finance co-chair. Although Synanon was made up of families, and consequently youth, Straight was explicitly a youth drug rehab program. The abuse in Straight facilities was, perhaps, second to none. The mistreatment recorded is eerily similar to Synanon:
The abuse included kidnapping, false imprisonment, beatings, sexual humiliation (boys were called “fags,” girls, “whores”), punitive use of isolation and restraint and bizarre incidents like teens being gagged with Kotex and held on the floor for hours until they wet or even soiled themselves. In every state where Straight had a facility, regulators and/or lawsuits eventually documented serious abuse.
But after Straight closed in 1993, things did not much improve, and many other programs took up the black flag. The most notorious of these programs was World Wide Association of Specialty Programs (WWASP). The organization has operated many facilities from 1998 until the present day. Although, allegedly, the organization only exists to address “ongoing lawsuits,” at least one of the owners (Narvin Lichfield) still runs facilities such as Seneca Ranch. The list of abuses is nearly identical to its two predecessors, with at least one of the owners (Robert Lichfield, Utah Finance co-chair for Romney) borrowing pages from the Straight-influenced Provo Canyon School, in Provo and Orem, Utah. Lichfield was employed there starting in 1977, and according to courts, the facility was abusive has demonstrated an ongoing history of abuse:
Regardless of origin, condition or motivation, once arrived, each person during the beginning phases of the school program was locked in, isolated from the outside world, and whether anti-social, crippled or learning disabled, was subject to mandated physical standing day after day after day to promote “right thinking” and “social conformity.” Mail was censored. Visitors were discouraged. Disparaging remarks concerning the institution were prohibited and punished. To “graduate” from confinement to a more liberated phase, one had to “pass” a lie detector test relating to “attitude,” “truthfulness and “future conduct.” Some failed to pass and remained in confinement for extended periods of time.
PCS lost this lawsuit. Also, more lawsuits emerged, including in 2014 alleging “cruel and unusual punishment” and wrongful death.
Allegations abounded against WWASP, including its many international facilities. At Tranquility Bay, kids say they spent “13 hours a day, for weeks or months on end, lying on their stomachs in an isolation room, their arms repeatedly twisted to the breaking point.” At High Impact, authorities video-taped kids locked in dog cages and tied spread-eagle in the Mexico sun. In some cases, survivors report they were tied in their underwear, with no protection from fire-ants, and they were threatened with a cattle prod if they moved.
At a Samoan facility, Paradise Cove, the punishments involved turning the kids against each other. Of course, staff-to-student abuse flourished, including, “Beatings by staff. . . . But the worst consequence was ‘the Box,’ a three-foot-square windowless, wooden hut with a concrete floor, where teens were made to stay for days to months, subsisting on rice and water. Sometimes, they were thrown in hog-tied and left.”
The same article points out murders committed by former attendees, and speculates the facility is to blame. I concur. A more damaged bunch I have never met than the poor now-adults that attended this wretched place.
Finally, one notable lawsuit against WWASP had 357 plaintiffs alleging abuse, including (and this is only a small portion, it goes for pages):
• Denial of proper medical and dental care and treatment
• Denial of an even minimally sufficient education
• Kicked, beaten, thrown and slammed to the ground;
• Forced to lie in, or wear, urine and feces as one method of punishment;
• Sexual abuse, which included forced sexual relations and acts of fondling and masturbation performed on them
• Forced to eat their own vomit (Author’s note: this is a weirdly common program practice)
• Threatened severe punishment, including death, if they told anyone of their abuses and poor living conditions
• And much more
WWASP ultimately ebbed due to bad press and legal battles over alleged wrongful death, and the owners distanced themselves as much as they could. Although WWASP businessmen still run facilities, they are thankfully few.
After hearing this for the first time, one might wonder if I cherry-picked the worst of the worst or suspect the abuse to be mostly past. Unfortunately, although data is limited, what we know indicates the opposite. Concerning a pattern of widespread abuse, if we circle around to the Government Accountability Office reports, we learn that the 2007 reports (there are at least four of them: Abuse/Death, Abuse/Death/Marketing, Oversight Gaps, Seclusion and Restraint) focused on two objectives:
• Verify whether allegations of abuse and death at residential treatment programs are widespread
• Examine the facts and circumstances surrounding selected closed cases where a teenager died while enrolled in a private program.
The results are upsetting. GAO found thousands of allegations of abuse. GAO could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because it could not locate a single website, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data. Later, they address the second question. During 2005 alone, 33 states reported 1,619 staff members involved in incidents of abuse in residential programs. GAO could not identify a more concrete number of allegations because it could not locate a single website, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that 1619 staff members, not incidents, were recorded. We can assume staff members participated in more than one instance of abuse before the state caught them. Also, the 2009 reports demonstrated that states don’t have adequate laws and aren’t keeping track. It becomes abundantly clear why seventeen states are not represented in the above statistics.
GAO found no federal laws restricting the use of seclusion and restraints. . . . Nineteen states have no laws or regulations related to the use of seclusions or restraints in schools. Seven states place some restrictions of the use of restraints, but do not regulate seclusions . . . while nineteen require parents to be notified after restraints have been used. Two states require annual reporting on the use of restraints.
The combined GAO investigations demonstrate core components of the abuse pandemic. Those advocating for youth locked in programs already knew, and the 2009 report confirms, that improper restraint by under-trained staff, and unnecessary punitive restraint in non-emergencies, is a significant cause of death. (Click to access example one, example two, and example three.) Poorly trained staff, poor conditions, improper nutrition, possible profit motive, lack of evidence-based treatment, and other reasons predictably result in abuse of our most vulnerable and impressionable.
Regrettably, some information is dated, but as the GAO tirelessly point out, nobody is keeping track. Although congressmen expressed outrage, no law was passed, despite the valiant efforts by George Miller and others to pass H.R. 922 (111th): Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2009. Currently, a third iteration of the failed bill is in Congress, but certain committee members are blocking it. To solve the problem and get more data, we need to pass a national law.
So, what can we do today to effect change?
We can support efforts to shut down the Judge Rotenberg Center, the only facility in the United States, maybe the world, that openly uses electric shock (documented: 31 shocks in one sitting) to punish misbehavior for misdeeds; you know, they’re punished for bad stuff, like refusing to remove their jackets.
Next, we can work to correct the idea that kids in facilities are “bad kids” or deserve “tough love.” Many are in facilities because they are gay, or often simply because they’re not getting along with their parents. Although not a lot of facilities advertise it anymore, “correcting” homosexuality is a common practice in religious facilities (especially Utah and Missouri) and non-religious facilities (or at least they aren’t advertised as religious; this is particularly true in Utah). Further, kids in many facilities often have misdiagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problems, and diagnosed or not, many facilities do little to help kids with mental health issues. “Faith based” programs in particular often ignore diagnosable problems with documented mitigations and solutions. It would also help if we could demonstrate to the conservative community that this isn’t a state’s rights issue falling under the purview of education. Rather, it’s an interstate commerce and human rights issue.
Further, when states violate the rights of other states’ citizens, we have a states’ rights issue the conservative community should firmly stand behind. We aren’t trying to stifle the states’ ability to manage education. Instead, we are trying to make sure children’s rights and dignities are maintained. I think most political parties will agree on the basics at a federal level, if only we correctly frame the problem.
Finally, education is our best tool. Check back in to learn more about the particulars: What open facilities and networks are abusive? How does the abuse continue? Who is responsible? What parties stand to gain?
I will do my best to answer these questions in upcoming articles so we are informed and prepared to fight the good fight.