Empty Bedrooms: How a Slick PR Campaign Convinced a Nation to Turn its Children over to Criminals, Sociopaths and Child Abusers

In July of 2003, Lulu Corter won a $6.5 million settlement against K.I.D.S. of New Jersey and its founder, Miller Newton.  K.I.D.S. was a controversial drug rehabilitation program where Corter had been held from 1984, when she was 13, until she escaped in 1997 at the age of 26.

When Lulu was 13, her parents took her to see Newton after watching a CBS exposé of Newton’s controversial program.  Though she had no history of substance use, Newton convinced the parents that her “eating disorder” was an addiction just like an addiction to drugs and that his program was uniquely equipped to cure her.

Lulu was forcibly removed from her home and placed in the home another K.I.D.S “foster” family where the program had installed locks on the doors and bars on the windows.  She was forced to drop out of school and forbidden from all relationships with people outside of the program.  For the next 13 years, she spent up to 18 hours a day in “therapy” at the KIDS facility.  At night she was kept under lock and key.

She didn’t attend parties, didn’t date boys, didn’t go to school, didn’t learn to play an instrument, never played on a sports team.  She was a prisoner.  She wasn’t the only one.  And K.I.D.S. wasn’t the only prison.

Before he founded K.I.D.S., Newton was the clinical director for a drug rehab program called Straight, Incorporated.  In its heyday, Straight, Inc. had facilities in several states and claimed to be providing care for up to 10,000 children and young adults at any given time.  Children as young 10 years old, many of whom had no formal substance abuse diagnosis, were taken from their homes and forcefully placed in Straight-supervised “foster” homes where they were kept under lock and key.  If they did manage to escape, they had nowhere to go.  Their families, who also went through excruciatingly long, confrontational, encounter style “therapy” sessions were instructed that they must not accept their child back into the home until the child completed treatment.  Families that showed success in the program became foster families.  Children that showed success became counselors.

When a child entered the Straight program s/he was stripped of all civil liberties.  S/he was never allowed to be alone.  Children who had progressed in the program would escort her everywhere s/he went, holding her by her belt loops.  S/he would stand for hours on end in group sessions (she hadn’t earned the right to sit) where she would be berated, army recruit style, being called filthy names, being told she had destroyed herself and her family, even being spit upon, in an effort to break her down so she could be rebuilt.

“Clients” of the program lived in a state fear and dependency.  They were frequently bullied and even physically restrained by untrained client/staff members.  At times they were left restrained for hours sitting in their own urine and feces.  They would graduate from the program when they had adopted and internalized its ideology, and even then, they didn’t really move on.  Most would stay as peer leaders, staff members and advocates, praising their abusers and continuing the legacy of abuse in an effort to “help” others who were entering the program.

Miller Newton didn’t start Straight, Inc., nor did he develop its treatment regiment.  Straight Incorporated was founded by Marivn Zembler, a wealthy businessman who was tied to the Bush family.  The treatment techniques were developed under the direction of Nixon’s drug Czar, Robert DuPont.  Nixon had declared a war on drugs, declaring drugs “public enemy number one.”  He appointed DuPont as Drug Czar and together they oversaw the funding for an experimental youth rehabilitation program called The Seed.  The Seed grew into Straight Inc.  And Straight, Inc. paved the way for the growth of the multi-billion dollar “troubled teen” industry, which would prove to be far more troubled that the teens it claimed to help.

During the 80s, if one read the paper or watched the news, it seemed as though our nation was on the verge of falling, not to the cold war, but to the evils of teen substance abuse.  Stories of PCP-crazed kids chewing off their arms and people taking LSD and jumping out of 14th story windows were presented to high school students, while “Just Say No” was in full swing.  Nancy Reagan was praising the work of programs like Straight Incorporated and Palmer Drug Abuse Program, a national organization that had previously been exposed by 20/20 and 60-Minutes for widespread abuse and the use of Korean POW-style brainwashing techniques.  The First Lady even took Princess Di to visit Straight Incorporated in an effort to demonstrate our success in tackling the teenage drug abuse “epidemic.”

Drug rehab program were springing up on every street corner.  Parents and their health insurance companies were spending billions treating the teens of terrified parents of teenage, pot-smoking, boundary-pushers.  Instead of informing parents that their hormone-driven kids were likely to rebel when they reached their teens, anti-drug zealots exploited the parents’ shock at seeing their once mousy-voiced son or daughter scream, “I hate you,” in a grown-up voice before slamming the door and running out to hang with friends and soothe the internal storm.  They convinced parents to hire “escorts” (not the fun kind) to come to the home when their children were sleeping, cuff their child and carry them off to Straight, or PDAP, or a boot camp program, or a wilderness program where the teen would spend months wandering around the mountains of Utah with other “out of control” teenage tobacco chewers and serial swearers.

Kids died in these programs.  Many escaped, graduated, or were kicked out only to be left with nasty cases of post-traumatic-stress-disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and major depression.  Many turned to drugs and alcohol to medicate, “proving” to those who had treated them that they had been correct in diagnosing these children with the “progressive, incurable, and fatal” “disease” of addiction.  Many of these kids (now adults) have found themselves returning to drug rehab programs over and over again.  Rather than recognizing that the patient may be abusing substances as a reaction to the abuse perpetrated by previous programs, the providers often blame the victim.  “If you had only accepted your problem in the first place, you wouldn’t find yourself in rehab again, “ they say.

At some point in the 2000s, someone called bullshit and the whole sham started to unravel.  Whereas there was a time when no one took seriously the complaints of “druggie” rehab patients (treatment providers had convinced us all that their complaints of abuse were manipulative ploys to resist treatment and that extreme measures were warranted in order to save their lives), during the double-aught decade former clients started to sue.  And the lawsuits started to stick.

The “troubled teen” industry is still shrinking.  PDAP has legitimized its operation and is a tenth the size it was during the mid 80s.  Every Straight, Inc. satellite has been shut down, though there are a few small spin-offs in existence.  We’re still fighting the drug war on other fronts.  Our prisons are full of war-on-drugs POWs, mostly minorities.  But we are growing weary of the war, as evidenced by the recent passage of legislation to legalize marijuana use in Colorado and Washington.

Opponents to legalization—those still promoting the drug war—claim that legalization is a mistake.  They cite the fact that more kids enter rehab for marijuana us than for all other drugs combined.  It’s a convincing statistic, unless one realizes that that is exactly what the problem is—that we’ve been incarcerating and abusing teens, often through court order for experimental and recreational use of a substance which is far less addictive and far less harmful than fast food.

How did we reach a point where parents willingly turned their children over to the care of uncredentialed, unqualified, strangers to be belittled and restrained into Stockholm syndrome submission?   The war on drugs was delivered to the people via an Edward Bernays style PR campaign–a total push effort to demonize the counter-culture and exploit the hidden fears of American parents.  At its height, it had companies drug testing their employees and celebrities entering rehab and speaking publicly of their recovery,  wearing the label of recovering addict/alcoholic as a chic badge.

During the 80s the drug war was about a lot more than drugs.  The Reagan administration, along with the religious right used the drug war as a part of an attempt to create a society of well-tempered, well-behaved, made-in-America families.  It was anti-Rock and-Roll, pro-Christian, anti-sex, and anti-gay.  In fact, the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, a religious program which was a spin-off of the fundamentalist Christian Oxford Group and which featured turning one’s will and life over to God as the essential tool in achieving recovery, became the most widely used approach in America’s treatment programs.  Rehab programs often forbade their clients from listening to heavy-metal and other rock music, and being a homosexual was considered by many in the rehab industry to be a complication of addiction.  It was common for treatment programs to insist that their clients become straight in order to achieve recovery.

Edward bernays’ definition is much closer to the truth–“Public relations is the attempt, by information, persuasion, and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement, or institution.”  Stanley Walker’s definition describes the methodology used in many PR campaigns.

In the case of the drug war, we have convinced the nation to incarcerate hundreds of thousands and we have convinced millions of loving parents to commit their children to Soviet-style re-education camps that employ abusive strategies without a shred of scientific evidence in regard to their efficacy.  What we do know is that less than 5% of the kids who enter these programs actually stay clean and sober.  We also know that many are severely damaged as a result of their involvement.

My former best friend is one of the damaged.  When we were 19, we both found ourselves in rehab and under the control of Bob Meehan, a sociopathic, career criminal turned drug rehabilitator.  I eventually escaped Meehan and his program.  Thirty years later, my friend is still there.

Shortly after we entered the program, Meehan discovered that he was gay, a fact that he had hidden because he felt ashamed.  Rather than encourage my friend to embrace his sexuality and work to free him of his guilt, he exploited it.  He chastised him and told him that being gay was the ultimate form of self-hatred.  He berated gays, calling them “faggots” that “sucked their own shit off of other peoples’ dicks.”  He made my friend dress in cowboy boots and Levi’s.  He pushed him into a relationship with a woman and then pressured him to get married.  After 10 years his wife, who was also in the program, cheated on him and left him, claiming that he was unable and unwilling to satisfy her…another life affected.

My friend is still in the program.  He works as a program director and undergoes regular encounter style group therapy session, which may include getting screamed at and dressed down for hours on end.  My friend is still gay, though he calls himself a “recovering faggot.”  We don’t talk any more because he’s forbidden from communicating with me or anyone else that isn’t in the program.  He believes that if he ever leaves, he’ll die.  Now 49 years old, he hasn’t tasted alcohol or ingested any type of drug since he was 19.  But he’s an addict/alcoholic.

I know he is unhappy, though he claims to be spiritually fulfilled.  I know he longs to have someone to love, a partner.  I know he works himself into the ground trying to “free” others from the “bondage” of addiction and homosexuality, not in an effort to mask his pain, but in an effort to quell his passion.

I still write him from time to time.  I let him know that I’m sorry for participating in his rejection of his sexuality.  I tell him that he’s being exploited and that there’s no reason he has to drink or use drugs if he leaves.  I tell him that I’m not an addict, that I never was, and that I still don’t use drugs and alcohol.  I tell him that I still love him.  He never answers my letters.  I know that he’ll probably die there.

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Comments

  1. Well said from top to bottom David.

  2. Interesting. Not a whole lot different that programs run by Bob Meehan.

  3. Sorry Dave, your post is excellent. But I have to admit that I posted before reading it completely through. I know the program you speak of, I know the evil one, and I know the man still trapped. And many others still there drinking the kool-aide. I to hope that some day he will find his way to freedom form that program. I am hearing from many that the program is run totally differently now. Supposedly the counselors are certified and the ‘evil one’ isn’t a part of it anymore. I don’t really think I believe that, not with his ego. Especially since his son-in-law is still involved, and I consider that one to be as evil as Bob. But for the sake of the kids in that program around the country I hope things a better. I was a parent for in the parent group for way too many years. I made some fabulous friends while there. Some that are still with me after all these years, and some that I have no doubt will ALWAYS be a huge part of my life. For that I am grateful. Some of these friends were parents of kids who became counselors for the group, as mine did. One of those friends son is still there. Insisting that he is happy and doing well. I hope so, but who knows.

    As I look back, some of the things that myself and other parents were led to believe boggles the mind. It took me a very long time to finish making my amends to sponsee’s I had while there. For the most part I don’t beat myself up anymore, or judge myself with information I have today. Information I didn’t have back then. I say, ‘ for the most part’ because that hole is still there. You know, that hole that we are supposed to learn to step around. Yeah, it is still there and sometimes I step into it. But it isn’t as deep as it once was. For myself and my family things have turned out good. Not without some residue of the program for sure, but all in all,good. I count my family as being very lucky that my son and his wife found their way out, as many others have. But my heart breaks for those who have lost their children through death, or to the program it’s self. There are still too many out there still working for this program who have very little, if any contact with their families.

    I have spoken with so many ex-parents of the program and I can tell you that 90% of them still battle every day for what they term as, “giving their children away”. I relate to that very well as I remember very early on the wife of your friend looking me square in the eye, standing in the hall upstairs at the old Kirkwood, Mo. satellite, saying to me, “Why don’t you give me you kid and let me get him sober?” Myself and many parents missed out on the normal raising of our teenagers, missed many milestones, and lost a closeness that every parent should have been allowed to have, but was discouraged by the program. Resulting in our not being allowed to go through a natural separation process. Those are things that a parent can never get back, and there will forever be an empty space where those memories should be.

    I hope that at some point in time ‘the evil one’ will pay, and pay dearly for the wrongs he has done. May he burn in hell!

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