Bush + Jesus = Unprotected Kids

One of the primary goals of President George W. Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is "to eliminate unnecessary legislative, regulatory, and other bureaucratic barriers that impede effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems." Bush has said that America needs more "faith-based treatment" for addiction and juvenile delinquency and that he would like to "promote alternative licensing regimes to recognize religious training as an alternative form of qualification."

Bad idea. Even leaving aside the dubious constitutionality of government financial support for religious services, deregulation is a recipe for disaster. Recent experience shows why.

Over the last 10 years, more than two dozen teenagers have died in so-called "tough love" rehabilitation facilities that use violent confrontation and exposure to primitive living conditions as a means to a cure. At least three girls in different facilities died from dehydration or hyperthermia following forced exercise; a 16-year-old California boy died of an infection after staff laughed at him and forced him to carry a basket filled with his vomit- and excrement-covered clothes; a 12-year-old Florida boy died in 2000 when a 320-pound counselor physically restrained him (the counselor said he thought the boy's complaints that he was unable to breathe were "fake").

Not all victims of such "treatment" die, of course: Many just end up with post-traumatic stress disorder or in a coma, or are discovered tied up in closets. Some of the programs where these incidents occurred were explicitly faith-based; some were not. None, however, were properly regulated.

Yet despite these cautionary examples -- and despite the testimony of numerous experts who say that what is needed to prevent them from recurring is more federal oversight, not less -- Bush's enthusiasm for these programs has not waned. In 1997, after Texas regulators had tried to shut down a Christian rehabilitation program called Teen Challenge because its staff failed to meet educational requirements, then-Governor Bush responded by scuttling all the state's training and safety regulations for such facilities. And in a speech two years later, Bush praised the fact that at Teen Challenge, "if you don't work, you don't eat." Now that he's ensconced in the White House, Bush intends to deregulate Teen Challenge-type programs nationwide.

Our new president's enthusiasm for deregulation of faith-based services is not hard to figure. As a onetime heavy drinker who says Jesus saved him as well as a Republican with classic antipathy toward government, Bush sees in faith-based services the opportunity both to trumpet his faith and to shrink the size of government. (Why have taxpayers funded government programs when religious groups will do the job cheaper?) But is there even more to his support of faith-based programs than meets the eye?

Mel Sembler, who made his fortune as a shopping mall magnate, is a longtime Bush-family supporter and friend. He was also the Republican Party's campaign finance director from 1997 to 2001. Sembler's the man who devised the term "Republican Regents" for contributors of more than $250,000 to the GOP during W.'s 2000 campaign.

He is also the founder of Straight, Inc. Started in 1976, Straight, Inc., was based on the "therapeutic community" approach pioneered several years earlier, which involved addicts forcing harsh discipline and a surrender to God on one another. (The first "therapeutic community" program, called Synanon, went on to become a violent cult, some of whose members placed snakes in their detractors' mailboxes.)

Whether Sembler has used his fundraising prowess as leverage to pressure President Bush into funding faith-based programs is impossible to determine. But he's clearly got the Bush family's ear -- and claims to have been responsible for former first lady Nancy Reagan's interest in the drug fight. In any case, the story of Straight, Inc., is a cautionary tale for anyone who believes that deregulating youth services facilities is a good idea.

Accounts by former patients depict a grim routine at Straight. "Newcomers" were required to be trailed at all times by a series of "oldcomers," who literally were to keep a finger through the newcomer's belt loop at all times -- even when the newcomer went to the bathroom. "Therapy" consisted of mainly sitting straight for 10 hours a day, confessing sins. A teen who wasn't sufficiently enthusiastic in his or her confession would be thrown to the floor and immobilized, often for hours.

Immobilization was also the punishment for other infractions -- such as eye contact between a boy and a girl, or slouching. Television, music, and reading were frequently forbidden. So was unsupervised contact with parents or other outsiders. The program had a, shall we say, fundamentalist view of sexuality. Girls were made to confess sexual transgressions in detail, while boys yelled "Slut!" and "Whore!" at them. Boys were sometimes forced to dress in drag as punishment for transgressions.

Yet Straight grew rapidly as the war on drugs escalated. Nancy Reagan visited the organization twice and called it her "favorite." At its peak, it operated nine centers in seven states. On average, teens stayed a year at a cost of $14,000. Since "counselors" were former patients whose only training had been treatment, costs were low and profits high.

The lawsuits began almost immediately. In 1981 the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Atlanta-based branch of Straight, Inc., but dropped litigation in return for an independent investigation. (Sembler told a Florida business publication that the ACLU's opposition "just shows that we have been doing things right.") In 1983 a former patient won $220,000 from a jury for unlawful imprisonment that involved regular beatings at the Straight, Inc., facility in St. Petersburg, Florida. Another Florida patient won a $721,000 jury award in 1990. Dozens -- if not hundreds -- of other suits were settled out of court.

State regulatory agencies, fueled by media accounts, were concerned about Straight from the start. In 1983 60 Minutes focused on reports of abuse at the St. Petersburg program. In 1991 the Springfield, Virginia, facility visited by Mrs. Reagan was shut down by state authorities -- and was immediately reopened in Columbia, Maryland, until state regulators there cracked down the following year.

Soon thereafter, the Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas facilities were all shuttered, either by government regulators or as the result of criminal investigations. By 1993 Straight, Inc., itself was dead -- all the regulation, investigation, and bad publicity had finally led to terminal attrition. But Straight's ethos lives on: In 1999 a patient won $4.5 million in a suit against a similar program -- shut down by New Jersey regulators in 1998 -- that was run by Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director.

Meanwhile, after Straight, Inc., closed its last facility in Florida in 1993, an internal state audit concluded that officials had renewed its license despite knowledge of its abuses for years. Why? Political reasons, according to the audit. A St. Petersburg Times editorial entitled "A Persistent Foul Odor" noted the connections between Mel Sembler and George Bush the elder.

Now that deregulation has been under way in Texas for a few years, familiar abuses are being reported. A Christian counselor was arrested after teens claimed they were beaten and bound at the Roloff Homes, a church-run shelter in Corpus Christi. One boy had to be hospitalized with broken bones after being forced to jump over a pit. Earlier, state regulators had closed the program when they found a girl restrained with duct tape -- but they had been compelled to let the facility reopen once Governor Bush ditched the regulations.

One final example. In Florida last July, juvenile justice stopped sending kids to a center run by a faith-based group called Lutheran Services -- whose spokesperson is former Straight, Inc., official Joy Margolis -- when investigators discovered that a 15-year-old boy who hung himself had been left dangling unconscious because the staff didn't know how to help. He died after lying in a coma for several months. The program had operated without a license since 1996, in part because staffers hadn't completed resuscitation training. Under deregulation, such training wouldn't be required.

The irony is that even if you believe faith-based, tough-love addiction programs are especially effective -- and for the record, they aren't (research shows that kindness works better than confrontation) -- they don't need to be deregulated in order to prosper. More than 90 percent of American rehab centers already rely on "the 12-step" system, which requires belief in a "higher power" or "God as you understand him," and most do use significant confrontation as part of their treatment programs. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has just begun an effort to push research-based treatments -- but Bush's approach moves in the opposite direction. What's needed is not less regulation and more religion but the reverse.

Maia Szalavitz is co-author of Recovery Options: The Complete Guide, How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems.

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