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Setting the Record Straight, Part 5: A Disease They Didn’t Have

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s note: Today marks the final installment of guest blogger Marcus Chatfield’s eye-opening exploration of the role that peer-reviewed research played in facilitating the survival of Straight Inc. into the 1990s, as well as its ongoing legacy in coercive youth drug abuse treatment.

In the 1989 Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment article “Outcome of a Unique Youth Drug Abuse Program: A Follow-up Study of Clients of Straight Inc.”, Alfred S. Friedman, Richard Schwartz, and Arlene Utada state that 99 percent of Straight’s clients were white and that 30 percent of clients attended church regularly prior to intake. It is relevant to consider the type of teens that were recruited for “treatment,” as well as how they were recruited for treatment and why their parents placed them in Straight. Notably, several authors have reported that many clients at Straight were treated for a disease they didn’t have. This was due in large part to Straight’s assertion that even the experimental use of alcohol or marijuana was the symptom of a disease. And because this disease was the cause of even initial drug use, treatment was required whether teens had experimented with drugs or not. Many clients in Straight were “dry druggies” who had never used an illegal substance but were displaying “druggie behavior.”

Spot the druggies.

Spot the druggies.

The Straight study does not indicate how clients were recruited for treatment and does not describe the aggressive marketing strategy that required parents to recruit other families for treatment. Parents in the program were required to engage in public speaking events, personal testimonies, fundraising, and personal outreach. A parent handout entitled “Weekly Reports” describes the recruitment strategy of the Atlanta program. In order for a child to graduate from treatment, the parents were each required to arrange 10 public speaking engagements for clients, and also to personally give 10 public speaking engagements themselves. Parents were also required to participate in the Parent Outreach Program (POP) and report each week on the number of “POP’s” they had.

Each parent is required to have 5 POPs per month. A POP is a 12th step activity of personally communicating with someone about STRAIGHT, what it has done for you, and how it can help others. The goal is to build up a network of people who know about STRAIGHT.

This parent handout also asks parents to report each week the names of parents they had invited to attend the Open Meeting each Friday night, and to report the number of parents they referred to Straight’s Admissions Coordinator.

Post-treatment monitoring could be just as aggressive. The self-report surveys used in Friedman, Schwartz, and Utada’s research were potentially jeopardizing to participants, because reporting drug use to Schwartz or any Straight staff would have placed most of these former clients in danger of being re-subjected to the abuses inherent in Straight’s “treatment” methods. Eighty-three percent of participants lived with their parents, who had the power to forcibly return their children to the program for a “refresher.” Parent-arranged kidnappings were often recommended by staff, and graduates who admitted to “relapse” were at risk of being forcibly returned to “group” in this way.

One former client reports being kidnapped back to the program four months after graduation and held in Straight against her will as an 18-year-old adult. Her stepmother and Straight’s staff were concerned because she had been seen breaking the rules of her aftercare by holding a boy’s hand. Another graduate recently reported to me that she was kidnapped by staff members and returned to “treatment” without her parents consent. Straight was sued at least four times for false imprisonment and a Florida state investigation found Straight guilty of false imprisonment, one of many violations. This risk to participants is not mentioned in the follow-up study, and there is no indication that this threat or its potential influence on participant response was accounted for.

The former participants of the Friedman study that I surveyed in 2012 indicated that they would have been afraid to report drug use when surveyed by Straight. Maia Szalavitz, in Help At Any Cost, reports that even paid staff members of Straight were sometimes “started over” and forced to undergo a whole new treatment regime. One of the victims I interviewed was in the program for 22 months before graduating. Soon after graduation, as a 17-year-old, she was falsely accused of dating, which was against the rules of her aftercare agreement. She reports being kidnapped by staff members, and brought back for “treatment” without her parents’ consent. Months later, she reports being raped by these same junior staff members.

They hid what they did for days. … Executive staff found out, called my parents in, and I was terminated under the guise that I slept with these guys even though I told them I was raped. Bottom line is they did it [terminated her program] to cover their asses. I know for a fact the same staff members raped phasers shortly after my incident. … I wasn’t a drug addict before the program. After many years of being told that I would end up insane, dead or in jail, I abused drugs. I became addicted to cocaine, I’ve been in jail 5 times. … I believed for years that I provoked the staff members who raped me. We were told that all girls were whores who made men molest us.

This failure to report sexual abuse seems to have been a theme. Among the 76 violations that led to the closing of the Springfield program was the executive staff’s failure to report the sexual abuse of a 13-year-old client.

The abuses that were being exposed put pressure on Straight to produce the kinds of results reported in the follow-up study. While the study was being published, the Springfield, Virginia branch was in violation of multiple state laws and regulations, violations which were soon to be discovered by state authorities. According to the Baltimore Sun, in July of 1990, Straight signed a legally binding agreement with the state of Virginia, promising once again to end, among other things, the abusive practices of illegal restraints and false imprisonment. The Sun also described official investigations, conducted six months later, which revealed that Straight was still in violation of 76 separate regulations. These were much the same violations reported as early as 1978 by state investigators in Florida. In January of 1991, less than two years after publication of the follow-up study, Straight’s state license to operate in Virginia was revoked.

As state licensing pressures mounted, Straight’s executives became concerned about bankruptcy due to numerous lawsuits, millions of dollars in paid damages, and chronic bad publicity. Representatives of Straight wrote to President Bush in 1991, asking for financial and public relations support saying that Straight was the victim of “yellow journalism at its worst” and that Straight was suffering from $4.5 million in financial damages and on the verge of collapse.

Urgent: aggression needed.

Urgent: aggression needed.

Pressure from the chronic negative media attention and the need to portray Straight in a positive light might explain why more effort was not placed on designing a more accurate method of studying the program’s effectiveness and may also explain why such a focus was placed on parent and client “satisfaction.” As the study’s co-author and Straight’s National Medical Director, Schwartz was in a compromised position that should have been addressed in a detailed disclosure statement.

The publication of this bad science left a legacy. The study created misperceptions that enabled the survival of the infamous methods for which Straight and it’s “spin-off” programs are now remembered. Straight operated in 11 different locations and at least 16 Straight-based programs were developed by former Straight Inc. executives. As of 2003, at least 90 lawsuits had been filed against them.

And yet similar methods are still used today. Canada’s Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre (AARC) is based on the Straight model. The program is perhaps less abusive than Straight, but even so, AARC continues to be scrutinized and criticized for similar violations.

Although most of Straight’s descendent programs have been shuttered, Straight’s legacy and the methods of coercive “tough love” are still the backbone of the “troubled-teen industry.” The last Straight-descendant program known to operate in the U.S. was named Pathways. Upon its closure in 2009, the father of a client there said, “I think that bad publicity, not just bad publicity, but actually the truth started getting out. I think community pressure closed it down.” He was right, and the community pressure he was speaking of was led by former clients of Straight programs who knew what went on behind closed doors in these spin-off programs. I know from personal conversations that these activists were former staff members and clients who were once convinced that the program had saved their lives.

“Outcome of a Unique Youth Drug Abuse Program” is a study in the misuse of science.  Friedman, Schwartz, and Utada bolstered the false pretenses of a corporate cult, while hiding the damage done to those who most needed a voice, adding yet another dimension to the suffering endured by those who were traumatized by “treatment” there. In 1989, the editors of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment did not have access to most of the information I have presented in these articles. Now that they do, perhaps they will set the record straight.


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