Tough Treatment For Problem Juveniles Under Investigation
SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Matt Woolston’s five weeks of drug treatment were spent mostly in a windowless room on a blue plastic chair.
″They wouldn’t let you lean back. You had to sit forward with your back straight,″ often for up to 15 hours at a time, six days a week, and ″rap″ about personal problems, he said. He didn’t see the sun for days at a time.
Woolston, 20, was held for 38 days after his parents placed him in KIDS of Greater Salt Lake, a drug and alcohol treatment program. He said he was coerced into going and was rescued only after friends followed a van heading to the ″host home″ where he was being held and called police.
Woolston’s 19-year-old sister, Jennifer, has filed a $6.5 million lawsuit against KIDS, claiming she was held against her will. She says she escaped once by climbing down knotted bedsheets, was returned by her parents and a man with a badge who claimed to be a policeman, and broke an arm and a leg falling in a second attempt.
Police are investigating allegations of false imprisonment, unlawful detention and assault. The allegations are similar to those that closed KIDS of Southern California and KIDS of El Paso, Texas, early this year.
W. Kimball DeLaMare, director of the Utah KIDS, acknowledges that treatment can be severe. But so are the ravages of compulsive behaviors, he says.
″We’re not in the business to make money. We invite people to come in here. Our motive is to help kids get straight and live successful lives and develop coping skills. ... We want to give kids back to their parents.″
KIDS is the third Utah ″tough love″ program to be investigated in a year. State officials worry Utah is becoming a mecca for unorthodox treatment centers that prey on desperate parents and use poorly trained ″peer counselors.″
″The parents want an answer and prevention, even an inoculation for these behaviors,″ said Wayne Holland, a Division of Youth Corrections investigator who believes Utah’s religious and cultural background ″tend to allow these non-traditional groups to fill that need.″
It isn’t unusual for parents to place children in a long-term program, which may take 18 months or more, for smoking cigarettes or having sex. Without proper admitting procedures involving professionals, too often kids who don’t really need the treatment end up there, Holland said.
″A lot of times these kinds of programs promise miracles, and when they can’t deliver they turn abusive,″ said Patricia Kreher, director of licensing for the Department of Social Services.
Another group, the Challenger Foundation, is fighting for its license after 17-year-old Elizabeth Zasso claimed she was kidnapped into a 63-day wilderness experience aimed at character-building. A judge ruled that her constitutional rights were violated and she filed a $20 million lawsuit. The Garfield County Attorney has filed misdemeanor child abuse and witness-tampering charges.
And Proctor Advocate founder Layne Meacham faces charges he permitted the abuse of a 16-year-old girl by peer counselors. Meacham has testified he based his program partly on the teachings of the founder of KIDS.
KIDS in Utah is the non-profit progeny of KIDS of Bergen County, N.J., the subject of abuse allegations since it opened in 1984. KIDS now operates only in New Jersey, which has no licensing requirements, and Utah.
The 3-month-old Utah program’s conditional license has been extended to Jan. 31, and the state is awaiting the outcome of Jennifer Woolston’s lawsuit and others contemplated by former patients, said Social Services’ Ken Stettler.
Jennifer and Matt Woolston were put into KIDS by their parents. Jennifer and her attorney, Mary Corporon, say the reasons for her placement are unknown. Matt was placed in the 18-month program for drug treatment.
Because of the litigation, Marilyn Woolston, their mother, had no other comment but: ″We feel real positive about it, and feel it is very beneficial to the kids. Even Matt would tell you how he benefited.″
DeLaMare said patients don’t always know what’s best and that parents have the right to intervene in a life out of control, even an adult child’s. Adult patients sign a contract and can leave on 24 hours’ written notice, he said.
Matt Woolston claims he was coerced into signing a contract, spent hours a day in ″rap″ sessions, slept on the floor of a locked room with five other patients, and was under constant surveillance.
DeLaMare said the first weeks are difficult. Newcomers are ″belt-looped″ - required to constantly lock fingers through the belt or belt loops of an older, experienced patient when moving about in the main compound.
They aren’t allowed to go to school or to see or speak to anyone outside, except under the strictest supervision. It is a phase, he said, that can last for as long as the patient refuses to acknowledge a problem.
Jennifer contends she saw patients beaten. Matt never saw beatings, but said ″restraining″ - counselors holding his arms and legs while another sat on his chest - was common.
DeLaMare said restraining is used only when a patient is in danger of hurting himself or others.
Matt said it happened when patients didn’t do what they were told.
Then there was ″the honesty machine.″ ″Four or five of the counselors would stand around and scream at you, call you a liar, if they doubted you,″ he said. It could go on for more than an hour and it ″didn’t matter if you told the truth. Pretty soon you’d tell them whatever they wanted to hear.″
Peer counselors, the mainstay of both KIDS of Greater Salt Lake and Proctor Advocate, can see through deceptions they once used, DeLaMare said. KIDS has 10 full-time staff for about 75 patients. Eight of those are ″paraprofessional″ peer counselors who have graduated from the KIDS program in New Jersey.
Kreher said the young counselors often are unsupervised and may be overzealous; their tactics can become abuse when they are confronted with behavior or illnesses they may not understand. ″The thing that distinguishes these programs from others is training, or more accurately the lack of it.″
These young adults often wielde authority with a heavy hand, Holland said. Many of the complaints in California and Texas involved counselors who were patients assaulting patients in a lower phase, investigators said.
Attorney Mike Mohrman, who sued Challenger for Zasso, has been retained by several former KIDS patients considering action. Mohrman believes parents are often blinded by real or imagined concerns, and said the programs rarely turn anyone away since they need the business.
Corporon is concerned her suit might focus more on whether Jennifer needed help than the basic issue: freedom. ″She was an adult and in our country she is supposed to have the right to freedom as long as she hasn’t committed a crime. It is not a crime not to live the way somebody else wants you to.″