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Sex Abuse in Rehab? How Predators Can Take Advantage of Addicts Seeking Help

Much of what is portrayed in the media as “professional treatment” isn’t based on evidence of what works and can lead to boundary violations and outright abuse.

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It's always difficult to know what to do when your child is at risk. But parents of children with drug problems are incredibly vulnerable. When a child has cancer, Mom and Dad tell the grandparents immediately, call Aunt Alice who used to work as a secretary at Sloan-Kettering or the Mayo Clinic, Google the scientific literature for the best treatments and generally mobilize their entire support system.

But parents of addicted kids tend to shamefully sneak searches online and then grab at the first referral they’re offered quietly, often ignoring clear red flags. In other words, they become easy prey for charlatans and worse.

Los Angeles Magazine recently ran a dramatic and poignant  account by one such parent, Michael Angeli, the co-executive producer of  Law and Order: Criminal Intent. The story illustrates why we need to educate parents about what to look for in treatment programs—and why professional standards should never be ignored.

Angeli’s son Bey apparently developed a marijuana problem so severe that his parents believed he required intensive treatment. They sent the 17-year-old to an unregulated “nonresidential” program, which, in California, requires no licensing and was under no government oversight.

“The House” was run by a charismatic ex-addict, Steve Izenstark, who was ultimately arrested—by an armed LAPD strike force—during a Family Night therapy session and charged with a litany of sex crimes: He had had sex with several of his teenage patients, which he labeled “intimacy therapy.” 

Here’s how a 16-year-old victim described her experience in court testimony:

Q: Could you please tell us what [Steve] told you?

A: My goal…would be to be in love with him and want to have sex with him. And at that point, I’m at my intimate peak, and it’s my healthiest that I could be. And he would say no to having sex with me and I would be done with my intimacy therapy.

Q: Was there ever a time during this intimacy therapy where he put his penis into your vagina?

A: Yeah.

But such obvious sex crimes were far from the only boundary violations that occurred. When Angeli first visited the program, concerned about his son’s withdrawal and isolation, Izenstark writes: “Hey, don’t you worry about that, my friend,” Steve reassured me, “my friend” being one of his signature phrases. “Have you seen some of the girls around here? Have you? Huh? They’re drop-dead gorgeous.”

Angeli perfectly captures Izenstark’s chamelonlike personality:

He had a knack for being all things to all people: the dreamer, the drill sergeant, the world-weary mentor, the rebel pied piper, the vocation-devoted divorcé, the gentle soul, the gulag colonel. He reversed the weaving permissiveness of baby boomer parents and at the same time seduced them by tapping into the moldering resin of their counterculture youth with his shambling charm and his different-drum approach.

Before the arrest made the allegations public, Angeli’s son Bey himself had stayed over at the “nonresidential” program during nights when he was “in crisis,” even though such stays should have made the program subject to regulation.

“I have heard every bullshit story you can imagine, OK?” [Izenstark told Angeli.] “These kids will lie until they get tired of being busted for it or it’s too late and they’re thrown out of here, OK? Everybody who walks through that door lies.”

So, how did a rich, successful Hollywood producer fall for what is—to anyone who knows anything about treatment research—an obviously outdated scam? The problem is that much of what is portrayed in the media as “professional treatment” in shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention isn’t based on evidence of what works and can all too easily lead to boundary violations and outright abuse.