In 2014, I self-published a book with a long, fancy subtitle, Institutionalized Persuasion; The Technology of Reformation in Straight Incorporated and the Residential Teen Treatment Industry . I started out thinking I'd simply write a book about Straight but as I learned more I began to realize that there was a much bigger and more important problem. I found out that there is a harmful trend in the "troubled teen industry" that has affected thousands of families and has been going on for decades in spite of state and federal investigations , in spite of congressional hearings and in spite of existing laws against child abuse. As I learned about the many different types of programs, the more superficial their differences seemed to be - like 31 flavors of the same awful ice cream. I started to wonder if abusive programs might all use the same basic technology of coercive reform and I started reading everything I could find on the subject.
In 2013, I summarized three years worth of this research at a conference presentation but my book gives a broader history and more details about the dynamics of coercive reform. The basic premise of coercive residential teen treatment is very simple, whether it's used for religious purposes or otherwise, these places claim that their initiates are changed for the better simply by adapting to the controlled environment and progressing through the levels of this milieu. Put even more simply, they try to "break 'em down and build 'em up." The problem is that in order to be "re-formed" in this way, some youths are "de-formed" through extreme degrees of stress and trauma that are actually built into the prescribed daily schedule. When things get out of hand and word of abuse gets out, "one bad apple" is typically blamed for breaking the rules but I think this is misleading. The high-control environments where this technology is applied often turn into"bad barrels" and they can be torturous by design, bringing out the worst in the best of people. One of the main assertions of my book is that state authorities will be able to develop more-effective strategies for the prevention of institutional child abuse once they specifically address the use of this technology.
I graduated from Straight, Inc. in 1987, totally convinced that the program had saved my life. I had used pot as a 16 year-old"Straight helped me realize I was an addict"I came to believe that I had a progressive, incurable and terminal disease""group" and "my internal program" were constantly "restoring me to sanity" and keeping me alive. But soon after my release from treatment I discovered that the way I had changed, the person I'd become in order to get through "my phases," did not work too well outside the program. This angst became even more desperate as I began to hear about friends from "group" committing suicide. By 1990, I was barely surviving the transition but I didn't know that I was experiencing the overwhelming symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress. I didn't have words to describe it, I just knew my mind had been contaminated by something artificial and insidious that was called "treatment" and I felt betrayed to the core. I began reading about cults and totalitarian thought-reform programs, slowly realizing the full extent of what had happened to me and my fellow "straightlings." But after 22 years of wondering and learning, I still had more questions than answers so I went back to school to focus full-time on an Individualized Bachelor of Arts degree, where I studied Straight and similar reform programs.
My book about Straight is also a book about the W.W.A.S.P.S. programs and any place that claims to re-socialize teens in high-control environments. It's a book about the religious "gulags" and the "gay conversion" programs and the programs that call themselves boarding schools, wilderness schools, drug rehabs or "emotional growth" centers. It's about the way coercive programs are designed and why so many teens are traumatized by this treatment. It's an unfinished work in progress but it begins to present theory that helps to explain the risk of complex psychological abuse and the prevalence of physical abuses in these settings.
During the last 30 years, the general public has become increasingly aware of abusive "boot camps" and "tough love" programs but thousands of teens are still sent away each year. Many states have passed minimum standards for private programs and schools but in terms of actually preventing institutional child abuse, I think state authorities fail to reach the heart of the matter. One of the most recent examples of this might be seen in the way state legislators are responding to the scandal at Midwest Academy, in Keokuk, Iowa. Midwest is currently being investigated by the FBI (and could be sued in civil court by former parents and clients) for crimes that state agencies and the sheriff's department were well aware of. These authorities knew for many years that teens were being abused in horrific ways but they didn't do anything to stop it until a former staff member reported sexual abuses there. It's tempting to say that the problem is just a lack of enforcement because we have state and federal laws against child abuse but state authorities often fail to enforce those laws when they are broken within the confines of a private program. I think this failure is only a small piece of the larger trend; there's a disconnect between what experts know about abuse and trauma and what state authorities do to prevent it. Some legislators might not understand the unique dynamics of institutional child abuse or how to even define the harm they are responsible for preventing. I think this gap needs to be bridged with new information, fuller perspectives and better strategies for professional education.
Aside from failure in law enforcement and the need for professional education, there are even more-fundamental issues that contribute to harm. In several states, laws that are meant to protect youth from abuse seem to be enforced by what amounts to a "good ol' boy" system where the ends are allowed to justify the means. Some authorities condone institutional child abuse and are free to interpret the generic term, "abuse," according to their own personal beliefs rather than actual scientific evidence. In Iowa, the Sheriff's Department was called 80 times to check on events in Midwest Academy during a 3 year time span. In other states, sheriffs deputies have routinely delivered escaped teens back to abusive programs. In the rare case that institutional abuse is formally addressed in the courtroom, laws are pointless if the presiding judge believes that child abuse is something that merely exists in the eye of the beholder . In most states, evidence based practices are not well defined or mandated by law, both unlicensed religious programs and state licensed treatment programs, are free to use unproven or dangerous methods. While responsible care providers do not resort to harmful practices, the irresponsible ones may do so without much scrutiny. Licensing and accreditation are ineffective measures for abuse prevention because they don't assess the psychological safety of the actual content of treatment and they don't assess enough (if any) of the environmental factors that lead to abuse.
The larger trend of abuse in this industry is made up of several factors that work together as a perfect storm of systemic failures. There are problems with enforcement and there is a need to modernize professional education. There are people seated in powerful positions who condone institutional child abuse as a legitimate means to an end. Even where there is oversight, no one is looking at the actual content of treatment and care providers are allowed to abide by their own ethics. These gaps between knowledge and practice seem to compound each other, creating conditions that are ripe for institutional child abuse. It's almost as if this disconnect is actually written between the lines in much of the current legislation allowing for loopholes, subjective opinions and vague definitions.
Reading the new legislation drafted in Iowa, I wonder how effective the Department of Human Services will be in preventing complex psychological abuse. When I read the plaintiffs' descriptions of their experiences at Midwest Academy it sounds like something that would have happened at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base or in some totalitarian prison. But their descriptions are extreme examples of the way institutionalized persuasion has been used to bring about "therapeutic" changes in coercive programs for the last several decades in the United States. Some of these methods are still used today in fully licensed programs and in states with similar legislation. Intuitively, we may want to think that new laws will stop the problem but is that really true? Child abuse is already illegal; how effective can legislation be if it continues to miss the true heart the problem?
I recently discovered that by writing about Straight Inc., I was inadvertently writing about Midwest Academy and many other programs I had not yet heard of. To me, they are unified by the technology they employ - the abuses you might hear about in the news are mere symptoms of what happens when this technology is applied in harmful ways. The problem is not that programs are unregulated, the problem is that the technology is unregulated and it's used in ways that often lead to all sorts of additional abuses.
My book begins to explain this technology as the application of institutionalized persuasion. I think it's important to think in terms of the system at work because institutional abuse is only as preventable as it is predictable and to make predictions you have to understand how the parts work together in a systematic way. To prevent harm in these settings, state authorities will first need to understand the potential for harm so they can act preemptively. Responding to a scandal after the damage has been done means the authorities are responding too late. Until the heart of the matter is addressed it will continue to cause harm wherever it's given a blind eye.