Maia Szalavitz’s Presentation to The Cato Foundation

April 20, 2006

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here—I’m delighted to discuss an issue that should be of concern to all Americans who care about liberty and about the misguided war on (some) drugs. I have to say, I first became aware of the Cato Foundation when researching drug policy years ago—and was extremely impressed by what was one of the first thorough analyses I’d ever read of the drug war’s failings, which called for a complete ceasefire.

Anyway, as Evan has demonstrated, tough love programs that have been sold to the public as drug-fighters have a long and undistinguished history. I’d like to take a few moments to speak about that history, because I think it’s important to know where this stuff comes from and why it cannot simply be regulated away or made kinder and gentler. It’s rotten at the very core.


HELP AT ANY COST: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, By Maia Szalavitz,

The Seed program, which Evan attended, was a federally-funded experiment in behavior modification. It did not give participants informed consent, nor did it ever report the results of its research—and, needless to say, nor did it ever return the taxpayer monies it was supposed to have spent on that research. It claims to have “treated” some 5,000 teens in three Florida communities. During the 1970’s, in more than one Florida high school, 20-30% of the students were participants in its program.

How could this happen? How could thousands of ordinary parents be led to believe that their teenagers were in such trouble that they required 10-12 hour days of brutal confrontation, weeks away from home and school, locked bedrooms defying fire codes, even public beatings? How could anyone think that one in five kids was so bad as to need that kind of “treatment” for anything?

The answer is fear of drugs, spread by dedicated propangandists with government funding. It was a fear so strong—even before the drug war excesses of the 1980’s—that you could yell “drug” and parents would literally allow you to do virtually anything to their children, even pay you to do terrible things to them. And, it’s only gotten worse. The fear of addiction, the stigma attached to it is so great that even as far back as the early 70’s, a Seed father was willing to beat up his child in front of hundreds of other parents because the boy would not admit to having a drug problem. The father later wept when telling a reporter about what he’d done, unable to believe it himself.

Ironically, the boy had never taken drugs at all—he’d been accused of doing so by a kid he knew who attended the Seed. That teen, seeing rock posters on his friend’s bedroom wall, had been told that these were definite signs of drug use that needed to be reported in order to “save” his friend. So he reported him and The Seed duly recruited his parents to force him to attend.

Where did this idea come from, the idea that kids need to be broken through public humiliation, emotional and physical attacks, in order to be cured of drug problems? Where did we get the idea that hurting kids will help them? Although “tough cures” have had a long history in criminal justice and psychiatry, in the addictions field, they start with Synanon, a California commune founded by an ex-alcoholic and failed stand-up comic who thought the Alcoholics Anonymous’ philosophy would work better if it was coerced. When a junkie showed up to his no-holds-barred encounter groups and got clean, Synanon began to sell itself as a miracle cure for heroin addiction. At the time, heroin addicts were believed to be incurable.

Synanon took some of AA’s suggested steps—which encourage confession, self-examination and service—and made them mandatory, isolating participants from the outside world and from “distractions” like music, books and news. It transformed AA’s emphasis on personal humility into the use of public humiliation, often of a sexual nature.

And, curiously enough, forced confession, public sexual humiliation and total isolation turns out to be a virtually identical recipe to one which the CIA would discover to be the best way to “break” a man for interrogation without leaving too many marks on his body. No one cared what it did to his mind.

Anyway, The Seed was based on Synanon—like much of the American addiction treatment system, unfortunately. The two largest addiction treatment providers in the country to this day, Daytop and Phoenix House, began their lives as Synanon clones.

But no one had bothered to actually study Synanon’s miracle cure before they replicated it: the one state that did, New Jersey, found way back in 1969 that only 10-15% of participants who entered the Synanon program stayed with it and actually kicked drugs.

Nonetheless, the federal government funded The Seed, and its founder, yet another ex-alcoholic and failed standup comic, to apply the lessons supposedly learned with adult junkies in Synanon to teenagers. Most of them, of course, were pot-smokers not heroin addicts, but the gateway theory tells us that they were all headed for junkiedom without intervention.

In the early 70’s, however, some members of Congress, lead by Senator Sam Ervin, became suspicious about federal research on behavior modification. In 1974, they published an investigation titled, “Individual Rights and The Federal Role in Behavior Modification.” What worried Ervin, as he wrote in the preface, was federal research on prisoners, the mentally ill and even children which, as he put it, “attempt to develop new methods of behavior control capable of altering not just an individual’s actions but his very personality and his manner of thinking.1” Ervin noted that this research was being conducted “in the absence of strict controls2” and questioned whether the federal government had any business carrying out experiments that could “pose substantial threats to our basic freedoms3.” Interestingly, both liberals like Ted Kennedy and conservatives like Strom Thurmond signed onto the report.

The report noted that behavior modification was not like ordinary learning because it “is not based on the reasoned exchange of information4.” It conceded that such therapies could potentially be useful in certain circumstances, but the authors of the report did not think the threat that they posed to personal liberty should be dismissed lightly.

Ervin’s investigators discovered that the federal government admitted to funding a great deal of diverse research in the area; only later would covert funding for other mind control research come to light. But one of the programs that came under Ervin’s scrutiny was a federally-funded Florida program for teens known as “The Seed.” His investigators described the methods of such treatment this way:

“…individuals are required to participate in group therapy discussions where intensive pressure is often placed on the individuals to accept the attitudes of the group. More intensive forms of encounter groups begin first by subjecting the individual to isolation and humiliation in a conscious effort to break down his psychological defenses. Once the individual is submissive, his personality can begin to be reformed around attitudes determined by the program director to be acceptable. [It is] similar to the highly refined brainwashing techniques employed by the North Koreans in the early 1950’s5.”

Neither the teens enrolled in The Seed nor their parents were told that these methods were experimental. Nor were they informed that by 1973, research had been published suggesting that such encounter groups could cause lasting emotional damage. One major study of these groups found that 9.1% of those who completed more than half of the sessions had long term psychological difficulties, lasting at least six months following the end of the group6.

These included depressions severe enough to require hospitalization, suicidal thoughts, manic and psychotic episodes and reductions in self-esteem. There was even one suicide, but researchers thought it was caused by other factors. The 200-plus subjects in this study were normal college students interested in self-exploration who could drop out at any time7—not troubled teens with no choice in the matter like many of those sent to The Seed.

Worse, the most damaging types of encounter groups, according to the authors of the study, were those with highly aggressive leaders who harshly berated participants and had group members attack each other to produce conformity. One of the groups in the study which had the highest level of casualties was Synanon.

Obviously, the Ervin report presented problems for the Seed—it’s not exactly good P.R. to have Congress compare your program to Korean brainwashing and investigators had also reported to Congress on psychiatric problems suffered by former participants which professionals believed to be the result of the program.

But The Seed had two powerful backers: Mel Sembler, who would go on to chair campaign finances for the Republican party in the 2000 presidential election and who, even back then, was a major campaign donor, and another Republican financier, Joseph Zappala.

Sembler and Zappala were smart enough to recognize that The Seed itself was no longer saleable. But, believing that it helped fight drugs and that any means necessary were OK so long as it did that, they simply copied the Seed, took a bunch of its staff (who were untrained former participants and parents who often didn’t even have a high school degree) and opened a new program. It was called Straight Incorporated.

Straight was a perfect product of the drug war—and a perfect vehicle to advance its aims. When Nancy Reagan came under fire for fussing around with White House China and spending money on designer dresses, Mel Sembler came to the rescue. He suggested that the First Lady make fighting teen drug use her cause—and he suggested a visit to Straight to inspire her.

And inspire her it did. At Straight, Mrs. Reagan heard story after story of teens led into prostitution and even sex with animals because of their drug use. She heard young teens listing types of drugs they’d used that she’d never even heard of before. She heard dramatic stories of defiant, deviant and dangerous behavior—and, of course, how Straight had saved the day. The next day, she told the press that America was “in danger of losing an entire generation” to drugs, based on what she’d heard.

She had no idea that many of the kids hadn’t even taken the drugs they’d discussed—let alone been involved in the degrading stories they’d told. As in The Seed, if you didn’t have a good enough story to tell, you’d never regain your freedom. Straight, in fact, would become notorious for holding adults against their will, even kidnapping them when they tried to flee. It would spend several million dollars settling civil suits related to such actions.

So Straight both fed and was fed by the drug war and its propaganda.

By 1989, fear of drugs had so consumed the American public that 64% told a New York Times/CBS poll that drugs were the most serious problem facing America. In 1985—before the propaganda blitz on crack—only 1% had felt that way.

And as the years went by and the propaganda became ever more dire, Straight became far more brutal and extreme than The Seed had been. The Seed program generally kept kids for months; the minimum time at Straight was a year and a half and three, even five year stays were not uncommon. In the Seed, the kids had to wave their arms to get called on—at Straight, this process, which was known as “motivating” began to look like the teens were attempting to fly out of their seats. It was so violent that broken wrists, arms and noses occasionally resulted from it when participants, accidentally or otherwise, banged into their neighbors.

Straight also put kids on peanut-butter-only diets for weeks, kept them awake with no sleep whatsoever for days, forced them to spank each other and made them maintain various stress positions or exercise to the point of exhaustion. It constantly humiliated participants, famously gagging some with Kotex, calling girls “sluts” and boys “fags” and making those who had been sexually abused take responsibility for their “part” in seducing the pedophiles who had molested them.

Straight also extensively used isolation and restraint. And Straight’s restraint “procedure” was nothing like the medical euphemism suggests: what it involved was a teen being thrown violently to the floor by fellow participants and then sat upon by multiple people, sometimes someone would even restrict the victim’s breathing by holding the mouth and nose closed. This, too, often lead to serious injuries—many of which went untreated so the program could avoid arousing suspicion from medical personnel. If someone did have to go the doctor, a Straight guard would accompany him or her to make sure the program wasn’t blamed for the injury.

In addition, Straight was notorious for restricting access to the bathroom so severely that kids would often soil and wet themselves in its groups. People in restraint, of course, were not allowed bathroom breaks.

Amazingly, the stories about abuses at Straight go back to its very beginning. News accounts of counselors and board members resigning in disgust due to unchecked abuse go back as far as the mid-70’s. But Straight remained open until 1993 – spreading from Florida into Massachusetts, Michigan, the DC-area and California and variously claiming to have treated 12,000-50,000 kids. Even more incredibly, there are still at least nine programs which use various combinations of Straight tactics to this day: usually including host-homes, isolation, Straight-style restraint, lack of privacy, forced confessions and “motivating.”

When Straight finally closed, the St. Pete Times ran an editorial headlined “A Persistent, Foul Odor,” referring to the scent of corruption that appeared to be the only thing that could explain why Straight remained in business despite decades of documented and serious abuses.

In a series of interesting ironies, Mel Sembler currently heads the defense fund for Scooter Libby. Libby, of course, was the vice president’s chief of staff and the vice president’s office was critically involved in the development of the torture policy for treatment of terrorist suspects. So, in essence, the guy who popularized stress positions, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and complete isolation for teenagers is defending the guy who wants to use such stuff on adult terror suspects. Frankly, I find the use of torture for terrorists a bit easier to understand than what we continue to do to teenagers.

Because… there are currently several hundred “boot camp,” “tough love wilderness” “emotional growth boarding schools” and “behavior modification” centers which hold by my estimate 10,-20,000 American teens at any given time and use the same old Seed/Straight/Synanon philosophy of break them emotionally and physically to fix them. Some that you might have heard of include WWASP, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, which currently operates a notorious program in Jamaica called Tranquility Bay, one in Montana called Spring Creek Lodge and one in Utah known as Cross Creek Manor. Governments in Costa Rica, Samoa, the Czech Republic and Mexico have found abuses at WWASP-linked programs, leading to their closure. In Mexico, police video showed kids tied in outdoor dog cages. WWASP currently claims to be making hundreds of millions of dollars and holds 1000-2000 teenagers.

All of this despite the fact that since Synanon, no one has ever been able to prove that any of their tough-love tactics help anyone in any way. With regard to drug use, the programs which initially supported confront ‘em, break-em-down, scrub the floor you junkie scum style treatment, like Phoenix House, eventually recognized that such methods drive people away from recovery, not into it. Phoenix House now bans humiliation and confrontation for its own sake—although, like fraternity initiations, it is hard to get rid of when people who have been through the “hard way” still staff the place. But at least they’re trying.

With regard to alcohol, one famous study found that the more a counselor confronts, the more the client drinks; the same has now been found true for drugs. With regard to teenagers, research on teen boot camps done by the Justice Department found that they were no more effective than juvenile prison. A recent NIH consensus statement (I’ll sum it up from the draft statement, before it was watered down), summarizes the issue this way: Programs that seek to change teen behavior “through fear and tough treatment do not work8…and there is some evidence that they may make the problem worse rather than simply not working…Such evidence as there is offers no reason to believe that group detention centers, boot camps, and other “get tough” programs do anything more than provide an opportunity for delinquent youth to amplify negative effects on each other.”

And it’s not just the kids who are bad influences on each other. I believe that there are situational values that make boot camps and other tough love programs inherently abuse-prone and dangerous. Nearly every single one of the boot camp deaths was caused by the refusal of adults in charge to take the health complaints of teenagers seriously. The most recent death, that of fourteen-year-old Martin Lee Anderson in a boot camp run by the Florida sheriff’s department, exemplifies this exactly. Anderson had been made to run laps and do push-ups and other strenuous exercises, just minutes after he entered the program. On his last lap, he collapsed, complaining of shortness of breath.

This was interpreted as defiance, although, as a fellow participant put it, why would someone complete all but the last few feet of the last lap if he was non-compliant? But because of the ideology of these programs, any refusal to do anything is deliberate and must be punished. So Anderson was given what they called “hammer strikes” (punches), was kicked, and had “pressure points” applied to his head. These “pain compliance” techniques had been banned for all other juvenile programs in the state.

In fact, the Supreme Court has ruled that the law does not allow the state to use force on children or mental patients—even on death row convicts before execution-- unless they are a threat to themselves or others. But Florida made an exception for tough love. Whether that exception stands up in court remains to be seen—another amazing fact about these programs is that they routinely get away with practices that parents would be convicted of abuse for were they to use them on their own kids.

So for an hour, Anderson was kicked and punched and a videotape of the incident shows absolutely no resistance from the boy. A nurse stands by, watching, once checking him with her stethoscope then allowing the beating to continue. When the nine guards and “drill instructors” believe the boy to be faking unconsciousness, they shove ammonia in face until they finally recognize that he isn’t faking and take him to the hospital. By then, as it was for sixteen year old Aaron Bacon who died slowly and painfully over two weeks of an easily treatable ulcer that perforated, as it was for fourteen-year-old Gina Score who died of heat exhaustion following similar forced exercise, as it was for 60-pound 12-year-old Mikey Wiltsie who died when a 300 pound counselor sat on him to restrain him and didn’t believe he couldn’t breathe, by then it was too late.

The reason the nurse just stood there, the reason the adults didn’t believe the kids, the reason so many kids have died and been left with post-traumatic stress disorder is the basic ideology of tough love itself. The idea that hurting people helps them is pernicious. If hurting people helps them, then a nurse won’t intervene in a beating—by intervening, she’d be harming! If hurting people helps them, complaints should be ignored, because if they are believed, stopping the pain interferes with “treatment!” If hurting people helps them, sadism is charitable and empathy is cruelty.

There are already situational reasons why people who run institutions that serve troubled youth are disinclined to believe them. For one, many troubled kids are difficult and they do sometimes lie. Secondly, as the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, if you put people, even ordinary people, in positions of power over others, a significant percentage will abuse that power. That experiment involved normal adults role playing as guards and prisoners—it had to be stopped because the guards began doing things, familiar to anyone who went through a program like Straight, such as forced exercise and making people clean up feces with their bare hands. If you add the power role to the ideology that pain is good for people, abuse is inevitable.

And that’s what led to every one of these deaths and to the countless cases of emotional and physical abuse that I document in my book, Help at Any Cost. And that’s why we need to get the government out of the tough love business and out of the propaganda business promoting it. We need to inform parents that not only is tough love dangerous and unethical, it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It doesn’t help kids. And it hurts all of us by devaluing empathy and promoting cruelty. For kids who are genuinely troubled, we need evidence-based treatment. For those whose only problem is that they smoked a few joints, we need a sane drug policy that doesn’t increase harm in order to sell its bankrupt ideology and keep government bureaucrats employed.

Tough love programs need to go the way of laetrile as a cancer cure and other quack therapies. No matter what one’s views are about the proper role of government, I don’t think anyone argues that it should be to run programs that are both ineffective and harmful.

Thank you and I’d be delighted to take questions.

1. Ervin, Sam J. and staff of subcommittee on constitutional rights, Judiciary Committee, 93rd Congress, “Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behavior Modification,” US Gov Printing, November 1974, p. III.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., p. 1.

5. Ibid., p. 15.

6. Lieberman M., Yalom I., Miles M., Encounter Groups: First Facts, Basic Books, 1973, p. 174.

7. Ibid, p. 170.

8. National Institutes Of Health State-Of-The-Science Conference Statement, “Preventing Violence and Related Health-Risking Social Behaviors in Adolescents,” October 13–15, 2004
Draft 10/15/04, p. 27

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