Must-See Indy Film Exposes Cruel Teen Correction Programs
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Until now, there has never been a feature film that takes us inside "tough love" teen programs like those headed by Romney financiers Mel Sembler and Robert Lichfield. The New York Times calls Nick Gaglia's indy production, Over the GW a "lean yet harrowing ... look at reprogramming that masquerades as rehabilitation." It is playing for just a short time here in New York City (details)-- and I urge everyone to see it, especially those whose lives have been touched by these monstrous "therapies."
The movie was based on Gaglia's own story. From 1997-1999, he attended the KIDS program in New Jersey, which was run by Miller Newton. Those who follow these issues will probably recall that Newton previously served as national clinical director for Sembler's Straight Inc. Despite having had to pay out over $10 million in settlements related to abuse he participated in and directed and admitting abusive practices to regulators, Newton still sits on an advisory board for Sembler's Drug Free America Foundation.
Gaglia discussed his experience with me recently. Just 25, the writer/director is beginning to hear from Hollywood -- the NY Post, NY Sun and Variety also took note of his debut film. Before being sent to KIDS, Gaglia had auditioned for and was accepted to New York's prestigious Professional Performing Arts School, whose notable alumnae include Clare Danes, Alicia Keys and Britney Spears.
But Gaglia had problems at home. Although he's still not quite sure why, he didn't want to go to school and simply couldn't communicate with his parents, who had divorced when he was nine. "I wanted to do what I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted my independence and they were getting in my way." Soon he was drinking and smoking pot daily-- and coming home late, smashing furniture and punching doors. Until after KIDS, he'd never even tried any other drugs.
When taken to the program, located near a major shopping mall just over the George Washington Bridge from his home, he was told by his parents that he'd be going shopping. "I tried to run away, but a group of five people grabbed me. I was a really skinny kid and I wasn't going to fight, I wasn't violent."
He was strip-searched by teenagers who were already inmates-- made to "chicken squat" naked in front of them. In the film, the violence and potential for abuse in having unsupervised adolescents do such searches is represented with the terrifying snap of a rubber glove and images of a naked boy, surrounded by bigger, tougher kids who are clothed.
What he doesn't show is the urine stains visible on the "clean" underwear he was given to replace the "druggy" clothes he was made to leave behind when admitted. When restrained on the floor, teens were not given access to the bathroom. "At my first group, there was a kid being restrained on the floor and his hands were soiled," he says.
"I was restrained over 100 times," he continues, detailing how fellow participants would throw him to the floor for "offenses" such as responding to being poked because he wasn't paying attention by trying to fend off the attack. These restraints could last hours-- with one person sitting atop the victim while others held down each limb. The most frightening part was fear of suffocation: sometimes the victim's mouth would be covered and his nose pinched close.
Writhing was interpreted as defiance. "One time I felt like I was five seconds away from dying," he says, "I have scars in my mouth which was bleeding. I was panicked and trying to communicate but they think you are resisting. What are you supposed to do?"
Grim as this material is, Gaglia represents only the barest outlines of it in the film: limited both by budget and by recognizing that if he did show the whole truth, he might make a movie that was unbearable to watch. He also avoided the trap of didacticism, which often mars attempts to tell these stories.
"I wanted the viewer to feel like he was sitting in that room," he says. "You don't know why your sister was there, you don't know what day it is, you don't know why they were doing certain things. And that's the way I directed the actors."
In fact, the actor who played the character based on Newton didn't even know that there was a real-life model for the story until later. "I told him to act as though he believed he was doing everything 'to help these kids,'" says Gaglia. The self-righteous rage and "ends justify the means" thinking that characterize the operators of tough-love programs comes through vividly.
Gaglia eventually managed to escape from KIDS by jumping out of a car stuck in traffic at the toll plaza of the GW Bridge. The program parents who were driving the car had childproof locks to prevent escape via the back doors-- but the front seat was empty, and Gaglia went for it. Fortunately, after getting the attention of the police, he was able to convince his own parents not to return him.
But, like many who left, he was at first terrified that the program's predictions of a future of "jails, institution or death" would come true rapidly because he'd left without completing it. And, again like many others, when that wore off, he began drinking more heavily and using harder drugs. "When the drunkest guys you know are saying 'Hey dude, you're drinking too much,' you start to think it's a problem," he says. Ultimately, he studied film at Hunter College and got back on course.
"I don't see how anyone who was in that kind of a situation for as long as I was could come out without post-traumatic stress disorder," he says. "I had nightmares all the time that I was back in."
I attended a screening recently for those who had been through KIDS and similar programs. I was struck by the age range: there were people from their mid-20's to their 40's who had suffered through years at KIDS. Though many were nervous that the film would trigger distressing memories, those I spoke with found that the film validated their experience. "More than anything, I made the movie as an homage to these people," says Gaglia, "We're all speaking with this film."
Let's hope that people who can prevent the abuse from continuing are finally listening.
Maia Szalavitz is a journalist who covers health, science and public policy. Her most recent book, co-written with leading child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing (Basic, 2007).