Thursday, May 23, 2002|
By Radley Balko
Samantha Monroe was 12 years old in 1981
when her parents enrolled her in the Sarasota, Fla., branch of
Straight Inc., an aggressive drub rehab center for teens.
Barely a teen, Samantha also had no history
of drug abuse. But she spent the next two years of her life
surviving Straight Inc..
She was beaten, starved and denied toilet
privileges for days on end. She describes her "humble pants,"
a punishment that forced her to wear the same pants for six
weeks at a time. Because she was allowed just one shower a
week, the pants often filled with feces, urine and menstrual
blood. Often she was confined to her closet for days. She
gnawed through her jaw during those "timeout" sessions, hoping
she'd bleed to death.
She says that after she was raped by a male
counselor, "the wonderful state of Florida paid for and forced
me to have an abortion."
There are hundreds of Straight stories like
Fager enrolled his son in a Springfield, Va., chapter
of Straight on the advice of a high school guidance counselor.
Fager didn't see his son again until three months later —
after he'd escaped and developed severe mental
Since then, Fager's set out to clear the
air on Straight. He has accumulated stories like Samantha's
and his son's on a clearinghouse Web site. They are stories
suicides, rapes, forced
abortions, molestations, physical
abuse, lawsuits, court testimonies, and extensive
documentation of profound psychological abuse at Straight
chapters all over the country.
Yet, the Straight model of drug treatment
is thriving, with the trend toward "boot camp" style rehab
centers growing more and more en vogue and Straight's
founders, high-powered Republican boosters Mel and
wielding enormous influence over U.S. drug policy.
Mel Sembler is currently serving as
President Bush's ambassador to Italy, and the Semblers serve
on the boards of almost every major domestic anti-drug
program. They are longtime close associates of the Bush
family, and are behind efforts to defeat medicinal marijuana
initiatives all over the country. Despite the horrors that
have surfaced about Straight's history, they are proud and
unrepentant about the program.
With more and more U.S. states turning to
mandatory treatment instead of incarceration for minor drug
offenses — with Mel and Betty Sembler continuing to flex
political muscle in the power corridors of the drug war — the
story of Straight is one worth hearing.
Straight was spun off of a rehab
program called The Seed based on the "synanon"
method of treatment. Established in 1972, the program
lost its funding after a congressional
investigation turned up evidence of brainwashing and
cult-like mind control tactics. But a Florida congressman
named Bill Young persisted. He found advocates in the Semblers
and persuaded them to start a similar rehab center in St.
Petersburg, which they called " Straight Incorporated ."
Despite allegations of abuse from escaped
members and pending
lawsuits, over the next 15 years Straight won laudatory
praise in Republican circles. Luminaries from Nancy Reagan to
Princess Diana visited Straight branches and touted their
successes (though by most estimates only about 25 percent of
Straight "clients" ever completed the program).
But Straight's tactics soon
caught up to it in the courts. A college student won a
false imprisonment claim of $220,000 in 1983, and another
claim cost Straight $721,000
in 1990. A Straight spin-off called Kids of North Jersey
lost a $4.5
million claim in 2000. Straight chapters across the
country began to shut down, culminating with the last branch
in Atlanta closing in 1993.
But the Straight philosophy was far from
finished. Many chapters and directors reopened new
clinics that employed the same tactics under
different names — such as KIDS, Growing Together and SAFE.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush visited and praised SAFE, despite the
fact that a Miami television station reported widespread
Straight-like abuse at the facility in a 2000 expose.
Amidst mounting lawsuit
losses and bad publicity throughout the 1990's, the
umbrella organization Straight Inc. changed its name in 1996
to the Drug Free
America Foundation. DFAF thrives today —
receiving $400,000 in federal subsidies in
2000 and $320,000 from the Small Business Administration.
"It amazes me that despite the pattern of
complaints and abuse allegations, Straight chapters can simply
change their names and continue to operate," says Rick Ross, a
cult expert and intervention specialist. Ross says there's an
unfortunate market for "rehab" centers that take burdensome
children off the hands of troubled parents.
Most troubling, however, is the
considerable and continuing political clout of Straight Inc.'s
founders. Former President Bush once shot a television
commercial for DFAF, and designated the Semblers' program as
one of his "thousand points of light."
Long a presence in Florida Republican
circles, Mel Sembler was tapped as ambassador to Australia in
1989. Today he serves the younger Bush as ambassador
to Italy, and he served on the board of the 2000
Republican National Convention.
Betty Sembler co-chaired Jeb Bush's
campaign committee. In return, the governor declared Aug. 8,
Sembler Day" in Florida — due, he said, to her work
"protecting children from the dangers of drugs."
She also serves on the board of DARE, the
failed anti-drug program for elementary school
DFAF also worked with then-governor Bush on
anti-drug programs in Texas, and today claims to have his ear
on national drug policy as well. Indeed, Arizona
prosecutor and Sembler
favorite Rick Romley was on Bush's short list for drug
czar. Though Romley wasn't nominated, Bush did tap staunch
drug warrior John Walters. The nomination caused Betty Sembler
".... we have lacked the leadership and support of the White
House ... until now."
"It's really shocking that the Semblers are
still lauded and honored after all that's come out about their
organization," says cult expert Ross, a self-described
Last year, a reporter from the Canadian
News asked Betty Sembler in person about the
horror stories he'd read from Straight survivors. "They should
get a life," Sembler replied. "I am proud of everything we
have done. There's nothing to apologize for. The legalizers
are the ones who should be apologizing."
That's the attitude of the drug war's power
duo, who can be unrepentant about the lives their program
destroyed because they believe a win-at-all-costs approach is
the only way to remove the scourge of drugs from society.
Shattered lives, suicides, forced abortions, fractured psyches
— all necessary casualties of the drug war, and nothing to
Radley Balko is a writer living in
Arlington, Va., and publisher of The
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