When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he’d support doubling the size of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he was trying to show voters that he’d be tough on terror. Two of his top fundraisers, however, have long supported using tactics that have been likened to torture for troubled teenagers.
As The Hill noted last week, 133 plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Romney’s Utah finance co-chair, Robert Lichfield, and his various business entities involved in residential treatment programs for adolescents. The umbrella group for his organization is the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS, sometimes known as WWASP) and Lichfield is its founder and is on its board of directors.
The suit alleges that teens were locked in outdoor dog cages, exercised to exhaustion, deprived of food and sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures without adequate clothing or water, severely beaten, emotionally brutalized, and sexually abused and humiliated. Some were even made to eat their own vomit.
But the link to teen abuse goes far higher up in the Romney campaign. Romney’s national finance co-chair is a man named Mel Sembler. A long time friend of the Bushes, Sembler was campaign finance chair for the Republican party during the first election of George W. Bush, and a major fundraiser for his father.
Like Lichfield, Sembler also founded a nationwide network of treatment programs for troubled youth. Known as Straight Inc., from 1976 to 1993, it variously operated nine programs in seven states. At all of Straight’s facilities, state investigators and/or civil lawsuits documented scores of abuses including teens being beaten, deprived of food and sleep for days, restrained by fellow youth for hours, bound, sexually humiliated, abused and spat upon.
According to the L.A. Times, California investigators said that at Straight teens were “subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse… and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.”
Through a spokesperson, Lichfield has dismissed the similar charges against WWASPS to The Hill as “ludicrous,” claiming that the teens who sued “have a long history of lying, fabricating and twisting the story around to their own benefit.”
Straight would use virtually identical language in its denials: In the 1990 L.A. Times article cited above, a Straight counselor downplayed the California investigators’ report by saying, “Some kids get very upset and lie and some parents believe them.” Both Straight and WWASPS have repeatedly called their teen participants “liars” and “manipulators” who oppose the programs because they want to continue taking drugs or engage in other bad behavior.
Curiously, however, both programs regularly admitted teens who did not actually have serious problems. In 1982, 18-year-old Fred Collins, a Virginia Tech student with excellent grades, went to visit his brother, who was in treatment for a drug problem at Straight in Orlando, Florida.
A counselor determined that he was high on marijuana because his eyes were red (this would later turn out to have been due to swimming in a pool with contacts on). He did admit to occasional marijuana use, but insisted he was not high at the time, nor was he an addict. Nonetheless, he was barraged with hours of humiliating questions, strip-searched, and held against his will for months until he managed to escape.
He won $220,000 in a lawsuit he filed against the program for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault, and battery. Ultimately, Straight would pay out millions in settlements before it finally closed. However, to this day, there are at least eight programs operating that use Straight’s methods, often in former Straight buildings operated by former Straight staff. They include: Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center (Canada), Pathway Family Center (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio), Growing Together (Florida), Possibilities Unlimited (Kentucky), SAFE (Florida), and Phoenix Institute for Adolescents (Georgia).
Sembler has never admitted to the problems with Straight's methods. In fact, when he recently served as Ambassador to Italy, he listed it among his accomplishments on his official State Department profile. Although all of the programs with the Straight name are closed, the nonprofit Straight Foundation that funded them still exists, though under a different name. It's now called the Drug Free America Foundation, and it lobbies for drug testing and in support of tougher policies in the war on drugs.
One of the plaintiffs in the current case against WWASPS, 21-year-old Chelsea Filer, spoke to me when I was researching a TV segment on the industry. She told me that she was forced to walk for miles on a track in scorching desert heat with a 35-pound sandbag on her back. “You were not allowed to scratch your face, move your fingers, lick your lips, move your eyes from the ground,” she said. When she asked for a chapstick, “They put a piece of wood in my mouth and I had to hold it there for two weeks. I was bleeding on my tongue.”
Why was Filer subject to such punishment? “I had less interest in school and more interest in boys and my mom was worried about me,” she says, explaining that her mother believed that the program was nothing more than a strict boarding school.
Because she has attention deficit disorder, Filer was unable to consistently follow the exacting rules, and repeated small violations were seen as ongoing defiance. “It broke my heart that my mom had no belief in me,” she says, describing how, because WWASPS had told her mother to dismiss complaints as “manipulation,” her mother ignored her pleas to come home.