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“I’m not a bad kid,” she continued, “I never used drugs, I was never in trouble, I have no criminal record. I know my mom was worried about me—but so many times I told her that this is too much. I would gladly have gone to prison instead.”
WWASPS is linked with facilities Academy at Ivy Ridge (New York), Carolina Springs Academy (South Carolina), Cross Creek Programs (Utah), Darrington Academy (Georgia), Horizon Academy (Nevada), Majestic Ranch Academy (Utah), MidWest Academy (Iowa), Respect Camp (Mississippi), Royal Gorge Academy (Colorado), Spring Creek Lodge (Montana), and Tranquility Bay (Jamaica).
Although it has settled several lawsuits out of court, the organization has never publicly admitted wrong-doing. However, the U.S. State Department spurred Samoa to investigate its Paradise Cove program in 1998 after receiving “credible allegations of physical abuse,” including “beatings, isolation, food and water deprivation, choke-holds, kicking, punching, bondage, spraying with chemical agents, forced medication, verbal abuse and threats of further physical abuse.” Paradise Cove closed shortly thereafter. That same year, the Czech Republic forced the closure of WWASP-linked Morava Academy following employees’ allegations that teens were being abused.
The former director of the Dundee Ranch Academy Program in Costa Rica went to local authorities after seeing medical neglect and other severe abuse, although human rights abuse charges were ultimately dropped against the owner, Robert Lichfield’s brother Narvin. That program closed in 2003.
Police in Mexico have shut down three WWASP-linked facilities: Sunrise Beach (1996), Casa By The Sea (2004) and High Impact (where police videotaped the teens chained in dog cages).
In 2005, New York’s Eliot Spitzer forced WWASP to return over $1 million to the parents of Academy at Ivy Ridge students, because the school had fraudulently claimed to provide legitimate New York high school diplomas. He fined Ivy Ridge $250,000, plus $2000 in court costs. A civil suit has been filed for educational fraud in New York as well, by a different law firm.
Straight's Sembler currently heads the Scooter Libby Defense Fund, in addition to his work for Romney, and has worked tirelessly to keep the Vice President's former Chief of Staff out of prison, even after his conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. After all, if running programs that impose these kinds of "treatments" on American teenagers is not a prison-worthy offense, why should lying to a court be?
The Romney campaign is aware of the WWASP suits, and should be familiar with the Straight suits. If not, it's worth asking: Does Romney support these types of tactics for at-risk youth? Or does he take the line the organizations founded by his fundraisers take—that these dozens of lawsuits are merely from bad kids who make up lies?
Coming from the man who wants to double the size of Guantanamo, these aren't insignificant questions. If Romney doesn't believe the aggressive tactics he supports for use against enemy combatants ought to be used against troubled teens and youth drug users, he should say so, and show he means it by removing these men from his campaign.
Maia Szalavitz is author of Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead, 2006) and a senior fellow at stats.org. Her latest book, co-written with Dr. Bruce D. Perry is The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook. (Basic Books, 2007).