Obama Drug Czar Pick Tied to Christian Rehab Linked to Contributor Charged with $3.5 Billion Fraud (Updated)

Ramstad's support for Teen Challenge shows a disregard for evidence-based treatment and either a willingness to abandon his beliefs about treating addiction or a failure to investigate what kinds of programs he funds.
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If his opposition to needle exchange and maintenance treatment for addictions isn't enough to convince you that Jim Ramstad isn't qualified to serve in Obama's cabinet as "drug czar," how about an earmark funding a Christian addiction "program" that uses outdated and abusive tactics and tries to "complete" Jews? Now add a connection between that program and a man who is charged with swindling investors out of $3.5 billion dollars.

That's right. Jim Ramstad was the sole sponsor of an earmark providing $235,000 to Minnesota Teen Challenge, a branch of a national anti-addiction group which believes that recruiting people into the Assemblies of God ministry will cure their addiction.

Yes, this is the same Teen Challenge that prompted George W. Bush to de-regulate faith-based addiction treatment in Texas in 1997. The program couldn't meet basic education standards required for qualified counselors, but Bush wanted it kept open.

After he became President, Texas actually re-regulated faith-based programs when the predicted spate of abuse and maltreatment that comes with unregulated facilities rapidly materialized.

Back then, Bush praised Teen Challenge for its practices, saying that while inside, "if you don't work, you don't eat." That's right: the program uses unpaid, forced labor backed by the threat of food deprivation as "addiction treatment."

Further, according to Teen Challenge, "Addiction is a sin, not a disease." Consequently, the program does not allow the use of medication.

Beyond this, it humiliates and attempts to "break down" people with addictions, using techniques that I have covered extensively elsewhere that are known to do more harm than good.

Since half of all addicts have a co-existing mental illness which often requires medication, banning it is not exactly evidence-based practice. And since there are medications that can help treat particular addictions, this is even more absurd. Given that Ramstad sponsored a bill to change the name of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to the National Institute on Diseases of Addiction, it is deeply troubling that he'd support an organization which views it as sin.

But his ties to Teen Challenge seem close. Here's a photo of him at a benefit* for Petters' foundation, which has given large donations to Minnesota Teen Challenge. He's standing next to Tom Petters, the campaign contributor now charged with bilking investors out of billions. Minnesota Teen Challenge was one of Petters favorite charities--and it has been hit hard by Petters' fall.

One wonders, however, why it needed 260 staff members to serve 400 clients annually.

Ramstad almost certainly knew nothing of Petters' fraudulent dealings--it's impossible for a politician to know everything about every contributor.

But his support for Teen Challenge shows a disregard for evidence-based treatment and either a willingness to abandon his deeply held beliefs about treating addiction as a disease or a failure to investigate what kinds of programs he funds. Neither possibility reflects well on his qualifications to serve as drug czar.

Obama has said that he supports the use of faith-based services where evidence exists that they are effective. Though Teen Challenge makes the usual anecdote and flawed research-based claims of high success rates, in fact, its approach is completely contrary to almost everything we know about what makes addiction treatment work. It seems unlikely, then, that Obama would favor it.

Also, unlike Bush, Obama does not support allowing faith-based groups to discriminate against members of other religions in hiring. Teen Challenge admitted in Congressional testimony in 2001 that it does this--and that it had successfully converted some Jews who entered the program, using the offensive term "completed Jews" for such converts.

Given that Ramstad has spent much time and energy seeking compassion for recovering addicts and championing the idea that addiction is a disease, not a moral problem, it is astonishing that he would fund and promote Teen Challenge. The fact that he does suggests--just like his opposition to needle exchange--that he does not know how to carefully evaluate data and vet addiction programs. President-elect Obama, are you listening?

[Much thanks to Ken Avidor of the Dump Bachmann blog for alerting me to this story]

P.S. Mainstream media where are you? A $3.5 billion fraud case isn't a national story?

*This originally read that the benefit was for Teen Challenge-- it was for Petters' foundation, which funds Teen Challenge amongst other causes.

UPDATE: 12/12/08:

Minnesota Teen Challenge has complained about my coverage of their organization and its connection to the Teen Challenge national organization and its practices. Their response is here. They basically say that they do not use the practices I've reported in here relation to the national organization.

Minnesota Teen Challenge says that it is independent--but here is its listing on the national teen challenge website:

Minnesota Teen Challenge also says that it does not recruit into the Assemblies of God Ministry--but if you go to the national website of the Assemblies of God, look under "adult ministries," you will find Teen Challenge listed as one of their ministries, with a direct link to the national teen challenge website, which, of course, links the Minnesota branch.

If Minnesota Teen Challenge is truly an independent organization that does not attempt to convert participants to a particular form of Christianity, why does it use the same name as an organization that does and allow them to claim a link on their national website?

If it is independent, why does it start its history like this, with the same founding story as the national group?

The application form for Minnesota Teen Challenge is very explicit about the Christian, faith-based nature of the program.

Here is a quote from Minnesota Teen Challenge's own newsletter [pdf] from 2001, "On October 3, 84 Minnesota Teen Challenge students were baptized, publicly confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal savior. They were bound by sin, but each one has been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ."

That same issue contains an interview with a Teen Challenge participant who says he was previously a member of a Satanic cult. Here are a few excerpts:

Q: Which Halloween experience was the scariest?

A: "Different moons require different sacrifices. One Halloween, we received a letter from the head church in San Diego with blood and a crow's foot on it. This meant that there had to be a human sacrifice. The leader of our group walked over to an older, unimportant man and handed him a knife, saying:'You know what you need to do.' The man took the knife and split his stomach open, letting his intestines spill out on the ground. He screamed in agony, and as he fell to his knees he cried out, 'Satan, take me home!'

An editorial in the same issue says:

This Teen Challenge student's testimony of involvement in the occult is not an isolated incident...One of the goals of the Satanic church is to make evil cute and cuddly. They are accomplishing this goal through games such as Pokemon, Dungeons and Dragons, Majick, and Ouija boards...Much of what our society reads, watches, and listens to is demonically influenced. Teen Challenge combats these lies in the Name of Jesus.

Many national organizations have regional variations. But these excerpts suggest that Minnesota Teen Challenge participants are not exactly being given mainstream drug education and that their counselors and newsletter editors may have some difficulty distinguishing between truth and teen exaggeration.

Finally, if Minnesota Teen Challenge is as different from the national organization in philosophy and practices as it claims to be, why on earth would it use the same name?

Related -- Rich Scherber of the Minnesota Teen Challenge responds on HuffPost:
Setting the Record Straight About the Minnesota Teen Challenge

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