Tough Love and Free Speech

How a 'child advocate' gamed the media


Sue Scheff has some serious chutzpah. Portrayed by ABC News, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes as a beleaguered mom running a small business to help parents find treatment for troubled teens, Scheff's been telling reporters about a service called Reputation Defender, which she says allowed her to triumph over a bunch of rage-filled Internet cranks. Scheff says these vengeance-seeking wackos nearly destroyed her, an innocent businesswoman, with a series of libelous comments posted on online discussion boards. They had called her a "fraud" and "con artist," she says, and claimed that she was referring teens to tough love programs that then abused them.

What none of this media coverage mentions is that a few years back, Scheff was sued for the same types of comments now directed at her—highlighting the abuses of a "tough love" rehab center (in this case, one of Scheff's rivals). At the time, she framed the suit against her as an attempt to squelch her free speech.

The major news organizations also mention an $11 million libel judgment Scheff boasts about winning against one of her critics, a woman named Carey Bock. But none of these accounts actually looked into the details of that judgment. Bock's home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina during the course of the legal action. Due to her address change, and the stress and depression brought on by the storm, she wasn't even present at her own trial, nor was she represented by counsel.

Bock's current lawyer, Tom McGowan, says he's seeking to have the judgment set aside, because Bock never received notice of the trial date. "They get pretty wacky on these sites, but it's an outrage what's going on," says McGowan. If Bock had actually made it to court, the outcome may well have been quite different.

While all of this may seem like an installment of "News of the Weird," it has serious implications for free speech on the Internet—and highlights how the media often fails to get the whole story.

The saga begins in 2000, when Scheff sent her own daughter to a program affiliated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASP, sometimes called WWASPS). Scheff was initially a booster of WWASP, and even referred other parents to its programs. For a referral, WWASP paid $1000 per child, or offered a month's free treatment for the referrer's child. WWASP clients spend at least 18 months in treatment, at $3000-$5000 per month.

At some point, Sue Scheff became aware of online bulletin boards where teens who had been in WWASP programs were telling horrific stories of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Users also posted media accounts detailing how nine WWASP-affiliated programs were closed following police investigations, regulatory infractions and/or allegations of child abuse.

Scheff later wrote on her website that she had become uncomfortable with some of the organization's methods. She removed her daughter from the program, and began posting her own allegations against WWASP on online forums, under several different names. She also set up her own consultant business, called Parents Universal Resource Experts (PURE), and began taking referral payments for placing teens, just as WWASP does.

While this sort of practice isn't illegal, it's widely considered unethical. Conflicts of interest arise when consultants get higher referral fees from some programs than they get from others. The temptation arises to place kids in the programs that pay more, even though these may not be the programs best suited to a particular child. Once you're being regularly paid by a program, it's hard to be objective about its quality. This is why codes of ethics in psychology and psychiatry typically bar such "dual relationships."

Under the Lanham Act, which bans business competitors from making false and inflammatory claims about rivals, WWASP sued Scheff over her critical online posts. Because the court was able to substantiate Scheff's claims with vivid testimony from victims, WWASP lost.

Soon, however, the online boards buzzed again with yet more reports of abuse at new programs, and this time they included programs where Sue Scheff was referring children. It was around this time that Scheff launched her own lawsuit against Bock. Scheff had helped Bock remove her two sons from a WWASP program, but Bock eventually become outraged by what she considered to be Scheff's unethical referrals. The $11 million judgment resulted only after Bock didn't show up in court to defend herself.

(Note: The original version of this article stated that the judgment against Bock was "default."  Technically, this is incorrect.  There was a trial and verdict.  But Bock wasn't present, nor did she have counsel present to represent her.)

Meanwhile, child welfare investigators substantiated charges of abuse in 2005 at the Whitmore Academy in Utah, a program to which Scheff made referrals. Regulators shut the program down. Just last month, another complaint was filed against Scheff and another program where she places teens, the Focal Point Academy in Nevada. In that filing, a Florida couple alleges that Scheff failed to disclose that she was being paid by Focal Point, nor did she tell them that the business was licensed only as a foster home, not for residential treatment. The complaint describes these failures to disclose as "fraudulent misrepresentations" and "kickbacks."

The complaint also details how the couple's teenage son, R.G., was sexually abused by other boys at the program, who "would hold R.G. down in order to take out their penises, which they would rub on his face, while they threatened and beat him." He was also allegedly repeatedly threatened with anal rape—and the complaint charges that he was beaten after reporting the bullies to school authorities, who neither reported the sexual abuse to the state as legally required, or made efforts to stop it.

Eventually, Scheff hired Reputation Defender to rehabilitate her image online. Reputation Defender sells itself as a service that removes reputation-damaging posts on the Internet, or at least attempts to make them less prominent on search engines. Scheff and Reputation Defender appear to have contacted the Internet service providers for the site that hosts the most popular discussion boards for victims of tough love programs, a site called According to fornits founder Ginger McNulty, two different service providers recently removed from their servers after complaints. Both ISPs refused to divulge the source of the complaints. But the timing is awfully suggestive.

(Disclosure: McNulty did some paid web design work for my book Help at Any Cost.)

The Electronic Frontier Foundation—a premier defender of free speech on the net—was quoted in Forbes as supportive of Reputation Defender. But its spokesperson, staff attorney Kevin Bankston, said that the group was described to him as using positive articles to defend against negative ones, not suppressing speech. "To the extent that Reputation Defender is using baseless legal threats to get speech critical of its clients taken taken down—that is something we'd have serious problems with," he said.

Fornits is a mostly unmoderated forum, and, as a result, can sometimes include obscene, angry, and off-color rants and slurs. But it's also one of the best sources parents and journalists have for finding out about abuse in residential teen tough-love programs, often straight from the mouths of abused teens and their parents.

Before the Internet existed, thousands of teens who felt they had been harmed by tough love had few ways of complaining, or finding out if others had endured similar experiences. Without places like fornits, they can't be heard, in part because journalists have few other ways to find them.

"It's unfortunate that nuts and angry people have chosen to attack Sue Scheff in obscene terms," says attorney Phil Elberg, who represented fornits when it was sued along with Bock by Scheff (the fornits case was dropped). Elberg's one of the few lawyers to have won multimillion dollar judgments against tough love programs. He adds, "This has allowed the focus to shift away from the tactics that Scheff has used and the fact that she describes herself on the net as a child advocate and a critic of the industry, when in reality, she symbolizes so much of what is wrong with it."

Also unfortunate is the reporting by ABC News investigative reporter Martin Bashir on the new show, I-Caught, as well as coverage in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. All told only half the story. Both McNulty and McGowan say they tried to contact these reporters to set the record straight, but were ignored.

The whole sordid story reveals the flaws in both unmoderated online media and in what passes these days for journalism. One way Reputation Defender has managed to move positive stories about Scheff up the ranks on Google is by posting "news stories" she has written on citizen journalism sites like NowPublic. But the mainstream media is not supposed to be as easy to game.

They could start correcting the record by reporting on Reputation Defender's attempts at censorship and obfuscation, instead of cheering on efforts to silence websites that, for all their flaws, have a history of exposing real incidents of child abuse.

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 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).

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  1. Most boring “New at Reason” lede ever. Phoning it in on a Friday like the rest of us.

    Have a fun weekend.

  2. Can we have an open thread on the topic of rumors of Castro’s imminent death?

    Could be a good weekend…

  3. Actually, the first ISP did, in a roundabout manner, divulge Sue Scheff’s identity. Sue Scheff state “my company, PURE” as well as several very obvious clues in the email. Ther is flat out nobody else who it could have been. Here is the original email:

  4. I fully agree with most boring article ever. I got three paragraphs in and went to the comments only to find that no one else could finish it either.

    Internet drama queen fight goes to court ? I play MMORPG’s and even people there avoid these ladies like the leprosy carriers they are. Don’t delve into their arguements please.

  5. I’m still amazed that such “troubled teen” imprisonment programs are even legal. I’m not a parents’-rights absolutist, believing that children have rights as well, and I’d say the right to avoid imprisonment unless you’ve been charged with and convicted of an actual crime ranks high among them.

  6. Just a suggestion, Dave. Get a life (not a virtual one.) I found the article fascinating.

  7. Heh, I couldn’t finish it either, but I think it says more about me than about the article. There’re a lot of articles here I don’t finish 🙂

  8. Sue Scheff has written a blog “Whitmore Academy-My Experiences” in which she promotes the defunct Whitmore Academy; and praises the owners, Mark and Cheryl Sudweeks. This blog fails to disclose these owner’s criminal histories in 3 countries -Canada, Mexico and the United States. Yet Scheff bashes, and posts lies about a parent critic. Scheff blames this parent for the Sudweeks’legal problems – yet Cheryl Sudweeks accepted a plea bargain in her Whitmore criminal case; in which she was charged with 5 counts of abuse, and 2 counts of hazing against 4 Whitmore Academy students.
    Scheff has announced that she has a 2nd Whitmore blog she will release entitled:
    “Whitmore Academy, THE SECRET, SHHH” in which she advises her readership to “stay tuned” for some secrets about this parent she promises to reveal; in what appears to be another attempt to silence this parent’s criticism.
    Is this what Scheff defines as “freedom of speech?” Does Scheff really know the meaning of defamation?
    I received a letter from Scheff’s attorney, David Pollack, when I voiced criticisms about Whitmore Academy; and Scheff/PURE’s referral of my daughter to Whitmore. Scheff criticized WWASP; yet she wanted to silence my right honestly voice my opinion as written in my statement to International Survivors Action Committee:
    The full account of the Whitmore story can be read on

  9. The new Reason is here! The new Reason is here! I *am* somebody! lol

    Thanks for writing this, Maia, and to your publishers for taking it on. And thanks, Jennifer, for taking an interest.

    To the rest who are bored, sorry. Really. I must confess to some frustration and hurt feelings hearing that from you.

    See, I was one of those kids locked up for a couple of years in Mel Sembler’s private kiddie prison. And this struggle to tell the story is very real! We’re working against an astonishing (even to me, even after all these years!) amount of prejudice against kids, especially those slandered as troubled or drug addicted by their own parents and the likes of Mel Sembler and people of his ilk. If that weren’t bad enough we also have to deal with a corporate culture in which all it takes to shut somebody up is the mere threat of legal action. Go and read GoDaddy’s policy for yourself. (permanently, we hope, at uh… come to think of it you’d better hurry!)

    But enough about my petty grievances and hurt feelings. You might want to look over Maia’s other recently published articles. The Mitt Romney/Robert Lichfield/Mel Sembler story is sort of fascinating, least wise it is to me! Oh, and here’s a video that will simply blow your mind.

  10. Sue Scheff will give anyone a blowjob for five bucks.

    There. I dare her to sue me for that.

  11. As usual, Maia Szalavitz has been able to cut through the many layers of obfuscating muck, and clarify the truth. She has taken a very complicated situation, explained it thoroughly, in such a way it is easily understood, by anyone who cares to understand.

    Anyone who finds it a dull subject, might want to check out the hyper-links. For example, Its hard to imagine anyone thinking Fornits was boring – no matter what else they might think about it. That being said, I agree with Mr. Phil Elburg’s thoughts on the matter of the occasional extreme content. But as Maia Szalavitz has explained, there is no other place where the public has such access to the first hand accounts of the victims of this “teen torture” industry.

    Fornits is an important resource, and a valuable internet community, because of the great mix of minds to be found there; as well as the importance of the subject matter primarily dealt with. The idea that anyone could be so selfish, so narcissistic, as to want to harass these forums off the internet, because they have been the subject of joking, as well as serious discussion (brought on entierly by their own history and deeds) is irritating to many. It is especially irritating, when one finds the various media outlets acting as this one woman’s personal puppet show. Its hard to understand why this would be – And especially so, when one considers how very controversial Sue Scheff and her operating of P.U.R.E. truly are.

    I find myself wondering: Is Barbra Walter’s daughter’s “teen help” program one that pays P.U.R.E for putting heads in their beds? Could that be why she has been allowed to frame the slanted content of these articles and news casts? Looking into that might be interesting. . . But anyway, thanks once again to Maia Szalavitz, for explaining so well the realities surrounding this so called Troubled Teen Industry.

  12. There was a kid in my high school who got body-grabbed by a drug treament goon squad after his mother found a joint in his room and went ape-shit. The goons made the mistake of keeping him past his 18th birthday.

    He was home for a day on an “earned visit” shortly after his birthday, and he took the opportunity to throw his mom’s kitchen table through a window, jump out, and run to a friend’s house, where he called the cops and filed kidnapping and false imprisonment charges against his parents and every goon whose name he could remember.

    I never did hear how the whole litigation mess ended up, but the last I heard, he hadn’t spoken to his parents outside of a courtroom since the day he made his escape.


  13. This is a well written accurate summery of events. And you can see in the comments the personal attacks continue.

    I have had 1st hand knowlege of WWASP (and it’s former name Teen Help) from before Sue placed her Daughter in the program and was there with the producers of 48 hour when they first started their new story years ago and came to my town on less then 16 hours notice from the east coast to the west coast to do filming.

    It is to bad that todays news media tells stories and does not look for the truth. SHAME ON THEM AS TRAIND PROFESIONALS. And when you see it first hand you are skeptical about any thing they say….

    If you are a producer of these shows feel free to contact me if you really want to do investigative journalizm it the history of your profession…. But, be for warned I will be asking you hard questions 1st.


    PS: Mr. Litchfield Gilchrest (sp) if you read this have the courage of your Morman/LDS convictions and email me… or if you are his attoney feel free to share this message with him. BTW, I was never in your program but know someone that was and would love to talk to you if you have the ingerity to walk your talk.

    PSS: The same go out to the Presidental canidate that is supported by Mr. Litchfield and his staff.

    PSS: If you are the President of the LDS church or are his reprentative you are also free to contact me.

  14. I have to agree with Maia’s assessment that this shows a media not willing to do any digging. And one of the things I like about reading my news online is that I can quickly search on any topic if I don’t want to take one article’s word for it and most of the time you can easily get several different takes on it. Taking away criticism makes it harder to assess things for yourself.

  15. Maia: Thanks for writing this and for keeping the heat on WWASPS, Scheff, PURE and Reputation Defender. You may safely ignore the criticisms of those who found your article dry — they seem to have attention spans and comprehension skills more in line with the target readership of supermarket tabloids. For those of us who care about these important issues, your article rocks. Also, thanks for punking the MSM on this.

  16. It’s shameful that that such big media outlets could miss the true story! Haven’t they heard of, um, Google? :p

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