Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to introduce a new guest blogger today. Marcus Chatfield is currently writing a book about coercive therapy in the “troubled-teen industry,” based on research he has conducted as a student at Goddard College. A client of Straight, Incorporated from 1985-1987, he is associate producer of the upcoming documentary film, Surviving Straight Inc. Marcus’s five-part weekly series for Points focuses on the research that enabled this program to win the trust of families, media, and high-ranking officials during its operations in nine states between 1976 and 1993.
“The problem, of course is that Straight really does not know what happens to a good many of its graduates. And it will be criticized for this in the future.” Andrew I. and Barbara E. Malcolm, report to the White House drug czar, 1981.
Straight Incorporated is one of the most infamous adolescent treatment programs in the history of America’s War on Drugs. Straight was an intervention and prevention program, established in 1976 with a federal grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Agency (LEAA). The LEAA funded hundreds of behavior-modification programs in America and many of them were found to be dramatically unethical. The coercive methods that were used at Straight were not only ineffective, but quite harmful for a large percentage of clients. This essay is a critical examination of an article published in 1989 by the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (JSAT), entitled “Outcome of a Unique Youth Drug Abuse Program: A Follow-up Study of Clients of Straight Inc.” Authors Alfred S. Friedman, Richard Schwartz, and Arlene Utada claimed that Straight was highly effective at reducing drug use and that 70% of the former clients from the Springfield, Virginia facility were “satisfied” with their treatment. Program executives presented this statistic to parents and the media as scientific proof that Straight worked.
The JSAT article shows evidence of selective sampling, numerous factual errors, serious design flaws, and misleading representations of data. In addition to these concerns, Straight’s own Medical Director, Richard Schwartz, was instrumental in designing the study, collecting the data, and in evaluating the results. His biases and conflicts of interest were left unaddressed when the study was published. While the authors partially acknowledge some of these methodological problems, they fail to disclose several key factors that would have undermined the credibility of their publication even further. This series provides missing information, historical context, previously unpublished documents retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act, and the findings of my own follow-up study.
I was a client of Straight Incorporated, and graduated from the Springfield, Virginia facility in 1987. Today I am an undergraduate student enrolled at Goddard College in the Individualized Studies program.
I’ve designed my curriculum around the history, dynamics, and effects of coercive reform and hope to conduct future research in developing effective strategies for the prevention of abuse in residential treatment programs. During the last 23 years, I’ve had conversations with more than a hundred former clients and staff members of Straight and similar programs, who report being extremely dissatisfied and negatively affected by their experiences in treatment.
In 2006, survivors initiated a petition, now signed by more than 500 signatures of former Straight clients asking for an acknowledgement and an apology for the extreme forms of abuse that were inherent to the program. These comments are the tip of the iceberg, pointing not only to the long-term effects of Straight’s methods, but to the effects of numerous programs that have relied on coercive group psychological abuse. Growing awareness about current abuses in today’s “troubled-teen industry,” and awareness about the scope of harm in residential programs nationwide, demands a look at the various ways these facilities are able to continue operating even as regulators become increasingly aware of the legal and ethical violations that are routine aspects of the “treatment.” The Government Accountability Office reports industry-wide deceptive marketing practices and current programs continue to rely on research that is just as invalid as Straight’s.
Carol Menzel wrote about a number of LEAA-funded programs in her 1974 article, “Coercive Psychology” (1974). She describes the re-conditioning methods and “attack therapy” sessions used at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, concluding that “such techniques can only annihilate the personality. They play upon the vulnerable person’s guilt, shame and regret with both sledge hammer and scalpel. Reminiscent of the Communist Chinese ‘truth session’ used in the prison camps of North Korea, attack-group therapy, particularly when it occurs in marathon groups (one of its commonest forms), creates a state of extreme exhaustion, thus heightening suggestibility” (46).
These were the same methods used at Straight except, of course, at Straight these sessions were imposed every day, all day long, upon teenagers. Straight was a cult for parents, but it was an extrajudicial, child-run prison for the clients. The program’s philosophy, described by executive director Virgil Miller Newton in his book, Gone Way Down: Teenage Drug Use is a Disease (1981), was based on the idea that the very act of drug use was a “disease of the feelings” and all the angst in a “druggie” teen’s life was caused by this disease. The program’s mission was to prevent drug abuse through an extreme form of psychological child abuse, maintaining a closed social power system in order to sustain a self perpetuating cycle of “positive peer pressure.” “Oldcomers” were required to train their “newcomers” who would eventually become oldcomers themselves. Through this cycle, a totalitarian doctrine was transmitted from one generation to the next. Oldcomers were required to wholeheartedly engage in acts of abuse as a means of coercing compliance among newcomers.
The intentional infliction of pain, participation in violence, emotional cruelty, and the enforcement of staff-ordered deprivations, were requirements for progress through all phases of the program. This was how Straight “saved” kids. As Straight’s co-founders Melvin and Betty Sembler said, “peer counseling [is] a unique method of psychologically painful but life saving therapy” (46). This “therapy” was delivered by teenage clients and staff, who were acting out the commands of adult executives. The paid “paraprofessionals” were teenagers who had graduated the program and had been given power to lead the large encounter sessions and dole out arbitrary punishments. “The fear of disobeying Straight was overwhelming,” one former client explains. “I complied with everything Straight demanded for fear of being started over.” She adds, “at the time, I would have told you Straight saved my life – because that is what I was trained to believe.”
At face value, a 70% satisfaction rate seems like the “clear vote of confidence” that the JSAT article claimed it to be (264). But to express dissatisfaction with the program was a highly punishable offense, and of course, victims of abuse often remain silent, inadvertently protecting their perpetrators out of fear of retaliation. In extreme cases of abuse and brainwashing, victims who have been coerced into participating in dehumanizing behavior may adopt the views of their captors as a means of defending and justifying their own abusive behaviors. This phenomenon also fosters loyalty to the group – the only people likely to condone these acts of torture. Straight’s follow-up study fails to mention this phenomenon that served to protect the program and Straight executives in the same way it protects perpetrators of abuse within families.
In reform environments like Straight, the most vigilant converts are often the most abusive, and the ones with the most to regret about their role in providing this “psychologically painful therapy” after release from the milieu. This regret may have contributed to the suicides of at least three former staff members of the Springfield program. So far I’ve confirmed 12 suicides among those I knew personally in the program. Some of these suicides were people I confronted and helped to restrain for no good reason – to “help” them, to get them straight.
Straight’s 1989 follow-up study reveals more by what it attempts to hide than by what it claims to reveal. Stated bluntly, peer-reviewed research was used to justify abuse. Friedman, Schwartz, and Utada added fuel to the fire that Straight executives were spreading through their 21 marketing offices. This research was used as a selling point, and although the self-reported percentage of client “satisfaction” was 70%, after the publication of this research, Straight brochures began claiming that 70% of Straight’s graduates “remain drug free following treatment.” This misrepresentation of questionable data was widely quoted and published in at least six separate newspaper articles. Their report is currently cited online as evidence that the majority of Straight’s clients were helped and satisfied with their treatment.
Friedman, Schwartz, and Utada presented Straight as something it was not and their publication adds yet another dimension to the injustice already suffered by thousands of Straight’s victims. Abusive dynamics are almost always enabled by being kept secret. Although their study is scientifically useless, it does serve as a valuable window into the ways that “science” can enable harm, and abuses can be hidden in plain sight.
Next week: Ex-client research vs. Straight’s p.r. machine.