Imagine if Wall Street were to honor Bernie Madoff for his skills as an investor ten years from now. The equivalent just happened in Florida, where Betty Sembler--co-founder of the abusive Straight, Inc. rehab chain--has been named by Governor Charlie Crist to its "Women's Hall of Fame" for her work fighting drugs. Last year, the DEA gave her a lifetime achievement award.
You may know Betty Sembler as wife of mall magnate Mel Sembler (another co-founder of Straight). He's the guy who headed the Scooter Libby Defense Fund, chaired finances for the Republicans during the first election of the second Bush, and served as ambassador to Italy, naming a building he acquired for the embassy for himself, in the process.
Straight--which at its peak had centers in seven states and claims to have treated 50,000 teens--has long been discredited for not only being ineffective, but harmful. Its policy of using confrontation, humiliation and physical punishment led to dozens of lawsuits, with plaintiffs winning hundreds of thousands of dollars for kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment and emotional abuse.
Some of the more notorious cases involved kids being gagged with Kotex, being restrained by fellow students until they wet or even soiled themselves, and frequent use of sexually degrading and homophobic slurs. Many survivors have since been diagnosed with PTSD; there have also been numerous suicides.
Research conducted on confrontation has found that the more it is used, the more likely patients are to drink or take drugs and drop out of treatment.
"With all the available evidence-based treatments with proven effects, it's hard to understand a desire to support things that fly in the face of evidence," says addiction expert Tom McLellan, PhD, who is CEO of the Treatment Research Institute and a professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Regarding Straight's tactics, McLellan says, "They're counterproductive. It's hard to even conceive of a therapeutic relationship based on confrontation, bullying and frankly, meanness."
Says William Miller, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of New Mexico and one of the leading experts on addiction treatment evaluation, "Obviously this recognition was not founded on evidence-based effectiveness in helping troubled teens."
If Straight was simply a historical relic, the refusal to accept its tarnished place in the history of addiction treatment might be tolerable. However, programs based on Straight like the Pathway Family Center in Detroit and AARC in Canada are still operating. While the worst physical excesses seem to have declined in some places, the emotional abuse of being constantly forced to focus on your flaws and bad behavior, remains.
And most teens who have been through these programs say that the psychological abuse is the worst part. Imagine being attacked every day as a "druggie" who needs to "surrender" and "admit powerlessness" and "character defects." Consider what it feels like to be told when you do discuss your actual drug use that you are lying, that you must have done more than that, that you are not telling the whole story. If you admit excessive use, you are attacked and further identified as an addict-- if you don't, you are bullied for being a liar.
Meanwhile, imagine having every aspect of your daily life under a microscope, with no privacy, even at night or in the bathroom. Everything you do or say is picked over by other teenagers whose only chance of going home and getting free is to pick up on your weaknesses and attack them, to prove that they are "working the program." And you have to attack others, too, if you want to "advance."
Consider, too, that your sex life is included in this examination--and that any desire for anyone else will be attacked as "fake" or "addictive," rather than seen as human and normal. Any relationships that you have had in the past will be tarred as "druggy"-- and you will be told that your first love never really cared for you, that anything that happened while you were "using" was about drugs and nothing more.
If you confess to being a virgin, you'll be ridiculed for that--but if you admit sexual activity, you'll be reviled as a slut. And if program staff make inappropriate advances, you'll be blamed for leading them on!
I wish I was making this stuff up--but unfortunately, I've personally listened to and read hundreds of accounts of similar and even worse treatment at Straight, Inc. and its descendants. And sadly, it's not limited to them: other "troubled teen" programs like the Family Foundation School, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools and the Elan School are similarly based on "breaking" teenagers to fix them.
Honoring anyone involved with this kind of treatment who still fails to recognize its harms is a dishonor to us all.