Setting the Record Straight, Part 2

Editor’s note: Today guest blogger Marcus Chatfield continues his series on Straight, Inc. and the research it used to burnish its reputation in the 1980s.

As part of my research I sent a questionnaire to 12 former clients of Straight, some of whom I was in treatment with. My purpose was to collect testimony that would help explain the findings of Friedman et al., and to help raise awareness about the abuses that went on in Straight. I asked participants to reflect on their experiences in Straight and compare their current perspective with their perspective immediately following treatment. Their reports also included descriptions of broken relationships with parents, intensified drug use in the first few years after graduation, and long-term trauma resulting from coerced participation in the program. All of the participants reported being “extremely dissatisfied” now but most reported high levels of satisfaction with their treatment during the time soon after their release. As one former staff member responded, “my answers to these questions are completely different than they would have been immediately after completing aftercare because I was still brainwashed by Straight’s doctrine well beyond my involvement with Straight.”

Large group therapy
“Large group therapy process” (Straight brochure)

The only peer-reviewed research specific to clients of Straight was conducted by Straight’s own Medical Director, Richard Schwartz. Looking at the history of the program, it appears that this research began during a financially critical time. In late 1981, Straight’s executives began developing an $18 million expansion (16) plan to build thirteen new program facilities nationwide, a new corporate training center, and a new administration building. This money would come entirely from donations and treatment fees, which made Straight’s public image all the more important. However, their public relations and fund-raising campaign was threatened almost immediately by high profile lawsuits and yet another state investigation. This was when Straight executives decided to “enhance Straight’s reputation” by conducting and publishing research.

In 1981, Straight operated two locations in Florida, as well as programs in Cincinnati and Atlanta. In early 1982, right at the beginning of their fundraising campaign, four events took place that reveal the strings being pulled to combat negative public perceptions of Straight’s methods. First, in January, the Atlanta program was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for abuse and civil rights violations, including “inhumane and undignified treatment” and allegations of brainwashing. Second, in February, Nancy Reagan made her first highly publicized endorsement visit to Straight, which had been “recommended” (22) by White House advisor, Carlton Turner. Third, in April, the Cincinnati program was investigated by the ACLU, which petitioned the state of Ohio to conduct an investigation due to charges that “Straight illegally coerces teen-agers into signing themselves into the program, accepts clients who do not have serious drug problems, uses treatment techniques which might violate the client’s civil rights and employs brainwashing methods similar to those used by certain religious cults.”

The fourth important event occurred two weeks after these allegations were published by the Cincinnati Inquirer. Right around this time, future White House advisor Dr. Donald Ian Macdonald became Straight’s first Director of Research. In an agreement letter from Straight’s National Director dated April 15, 1982, Macdonald was notified that in his position he would be expected to act as Straight’s “friend” and that he could be fired for failing in this expectation. In this letter, one of the stated primary goals in publishing research was to, “enhance the reputation of Straight.” By the time Macdonald was made director of research, the St. Petersburg program alone had been the subject of at least 22 negative newspaper articles which cited lawsuits, state investigations, illegal restraints, illegal detention, coercion, brainwashing and improper handling of federal grant money. By 1984, amidst new lawsuits and more bad press coverage, Richard Schwartz, as Medical Director, had completed his first study and began publishing research, shining a favorable light on Straight’s method of treatment.

Addictions experts Dr. Barry Beyerstein and Dr. Bruce Alexander, both visited the Springfield program in 1990. Beyerstein wrote about the methods they observed there, saying “the personal degradation, invasion of privacy, and use of cult-like attacks on the personal autonomy of these youngsters in attempts to turn them into anti-drug zealots was, for us, quite alarming.” Alexander wrote “I believe that Straight’s treatment can be fairly compared with ‘brainwashing’ in prisoner-of-war-camps … . Procedures that would be reprehensible in any context outside of a prisoner-of-war-camp are considered acceptable “treatment” in the case of drug addiction.”

In 1981, Andrew and Barbara Malcolm submitted an unpublished report on Straight to the White House. I obtained a copy of The Malcolm Report through a FOIA request to a federal archive. According to the report, the Malcolms were responding to a request by Robert DuPont, founding director of the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA). DuPont, as a paid consultant to Straight, hired Dr. Malcolm and his wife to visit Straight and to answer such questions as: “Does Straight Turn Out Zombies? Does Straight Engage in Brainwashing? Are the children [at Straight] simply being slaves? Is Straight Sadistic? Is Straight Scientific?” In their report, their answer to this last question begins with “No, it is not… Straight is not oriented toward science” and then prophetically adds, “the problem, of course is that Straight really does not know what happens to a good many of its graduates. And it will be criticized for this in the future.”

The Malcolm report includes misleading factual errors about Straight’s procedures. For example, they state that clients were free to leave the program and were not held against their will. The authors’ tone indicates that their purpose was to calm the fears federal agencies might have gathered from the growing public concern about Straight’s practices. They write, “we had the distinct impression that it was because of criticism from various quarters asserting that the Straight programme brainwashed the participants that we were consulted in the first place”  (4).

More critical of Straight’s methods and research was Richard Lawrence Miller. His 1991 paper entitled “Teens and Marijuana; Ethics of Research” outlines the ethical violations of Straight’s doctor, Richard Schwartz, as he conducted research among clients who were in treatment. Miller lists 20 different research projects that Schwartz conducted while acting as Straight’s medical director. In Miller’s critique, he addresses the many ways that Straight’s studies disregarded the standards set forth in the Nuremberg Code of Ethics, the Declaration of Helsinki, and the Belmont Report, which outline worldwide protections for human participants in research.

Research intended to “enhance” the tarnished reputation of a harmful practice is an unethical fabrication of propaganda. The publication of Friedman, Schwartz, and Utada’s follow-up study was an act of perception management —  meant to manipulate faltering public opinion as Straight planned it’s $18 million expansion plan. Rather than developing less harmful practices, Straight executives sought to justify their reliance on abuse by manipulating society’s moral panic by investing in “public awareness” campaigns. Straight founders Melvin and Betty Sembler intensified their efforts in “public awareness” by founding The Drug Free America Foundation (DFAF). Today DFAF is federally funded and acts as special counsel to the United Nations on international drug law and drug policy. DFAF is currently one of the most powerful opponents to the legalization of medical marijuana.

Melvin Sembler, patriot and former chair of the GOP Finance Committee.
Mel Sembler served as U.S. ambassador to Australia (1989-93) and Italy (2001-05), and has been a top GOP fundraiser for more than 30 years.

As Straight’s president, Melvin Sembler was well aware of the importance of perception management in maintaining public opinion. Speaking about the nation’s drug epidemic among American teens, Sembler said:

fifteen years ago my wife and I identified this problem among the children in our community. We began with the hope of starting a drug rehabilitation center for young people since there was a total lack of programs designed for children at that time. Since that early beginning, we have opened eight of these programs in various cities across the U.S. — we have treated 5,000 children and presently have 900 children in treatment.  In 1982, early in her administration, we asked Nancy Reagan to visit the program and see the devastating effects that drugs were having on kids. She came to St. Petersburg, met with us, and found out what a major problem we faced. Mrs. Reagan asked that evening as she cried with the children, “what can I do to help?” and I replied — “help the country perceive the problem correctly.”

By 1986, when Sembler delivered this speech about the correct way to perceive “the problem,” Straight had been sued for millions of dollars, had been found guilty of abuse by multiple state investigations, and had been the subject of negative news reports all over the country. In spite of detailed state reports describing brainwashing, kidnapping, staff violence, extreme deprivations, gross humiliation, and sexual abuse, Sembler’s mission appears to have focused on improving public opinion rather than improving Straight’s quality of care.

Next week: Tough love and bad science.

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