Straight Inc. opened its drug treatment center for adolescents in Orange County last summer at the request of frantic parents whose children had been stranded in mid-treatment when another rehabilitation program went out of business.
KIDS of Southern California ran its program out of the same Yorba Linda warehouse now used by Straight and employed similar confrontational treatment methods, according to former clients. KIDS operated for more than a year without a state license and was under investigation by state Department of Social Service officials and local police for alleged abuse of clients when it closed.
KIDS of Southern California was run under a franchise granted by Virgil Miller Newton, who was formerly the national clinical director of Straight. KIDS treatment centers in several states have been accused by former clients of alleged abuses similar to the allegations made against Straight.
"That's the same dog with a different leash," said Florida attorney William Chastain, who has filed several suits alleging client abuse against Straight and taken testimony from Newton in a deposition.
Newton maintains that "starry-eyed" social workers and other gullible public officials are deceived by "manipulative" drug addicts who tell "wild stories" about KIDS' treatment methods. He also contends that disgruntled former clients and their parents spread false accusations from state to state.
Both Straight and KIDS owe their beginnings to a drug treatment program for adolescents called The Seed, which operated in Southern Florida in the 1970s.
The Seed was founded by Arthur Barker, who was profiled in newspaper articles at the time as a dynamic and flamboyant recovering alcoholic and former nightclub comedian.
The charismatic Barker's program combined elements of Synanon, Alcoholics Anonymous and Marine boot camp. The Seed, like Straight and KIDS, involved intense peer pressure at highly confrontational, all-day mass meetings. Clients were coerced, cursed and belittled by other clients, who punctuated their harangues with "Love ya," according to news accounts.
After a few stormy years, The Seed went into decline, closing most of its treatment centers. But in 1976, a group of St. Petersburg-area residents, some of whose children had been Seed clients, formed Straight and borrowed some of Barker's methods.
Straight officials bristle at any comparison of their program with either KIDS or The Seed, maintaining that similarities are "superficial."
Page Peary, Straight's vice president of operations, said of his program's founders:
"What they did (was) take a good deal of the design and implementation that was already existing in The Seed and other therapeutic communities--the basic core, if you will--and over the last 12 years now have put layers of professionalism on it."
Among Straight's founders were Florida developers Melvin F. Sembler and Joseph Zappala, who contributed more than $125,000 each to the Republican Party during President Bush's 1988 campaign. Bush has endorsed Straight and appointed Sembler ambassador to Australia and Zappala ambassador to Spain.
In 1985, Nancy Reagan, with Princess Diana, paid a well-publicized visit to the organization's treatment center in Springfield, Va., where youngsters described the torment of their drug addictions.
Newton left Straight in 1983 and the next year opened his own drug treatment program for adolescents in Hackensack, N.J. He called it KIDS of Bergen County and used techniques similar to those employed by Straight.
Using a franchise system, Newton later authorized the opening of KIDS treatment centers in El Paso, Orange County and Salt Lake City.
KIDS has been accused of serious abuse of clients wherever it has operated. For example, the Bergen County prosecutor's office said last March that recurrent complaints have been made against KIDS in that jurisdiction since 1985. Allegations included use of restraining practices that caused clients to suffer blackened eyes, bloody lips, a broken nose and a dislocated elbow. Former clients also complained of strip searches conducted by other clients, deprivation of sleep and toilet facilities, lack of schooling and crowded bedrooms.
Former clients at KIDS' Orange County, El Paso and Salt Lake City programs have complained of similar abuses.
Newton denies such allegations.
The KIDS centers in El Paso and Orange County closed last year because of financial difficulties, but the facilities in Hackensack and Salt Lake City are still operating. In addition, Newton has authorized the opening of KIDS of the Canadian West in Calgary this spring. The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission has agreed to allocate $600,000 toward setting it up. Private donors are expected to match the government grant. More than 40 Canadian youngsters are currently under treatment at KIDS of Bergen County in Hackensack.