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After Reports of Abuses, State Closes Drug Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

State social service officials, citing allegations of physical and mental abuse, have denied an operating license to Straight Inc., a nationally known adolescent drug treatment program that has come under fire for its confrontational methods.

The Florida-based organization, one of the largest live-in drug programs for youth in the nation, had opened its first California treatment center a year ago in Yorba Linda and had applied for a license as a foster-family agency. The license had been pending since its opening in July, 1989.

But in a letter sent to Straight’s St. Petersburg headquarters in June, California officials ordered the facility closed, citing evidence of “unusual punishment, infliction of pain and humiliation, mental abuse and withholding (of) medication,” and other violations.

As recently as July 19, the Yorba Linda program was served with notice that it was violating state law because it had continued to operate the facility, a misdemeanor that carries a fine of $200 per day and possible criminal charges.

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However, Straight officials said this week that the program has been shut down since the July 19 notice and that they are complying with Department of Social Service orders. Straight officials also strongly denied allegations of abuse and said they are mystified by the state’s action and will appeal the license denial.

“We have not seen any of the documentation they are referring to, so we have no idea what they mean,” said Joy Margolis, Straight’s vice president for communications. “In the letter that was sent to us, they are in error in a lot of things they said. We have been meeting and working with the department since July of 1989 to make sure that we complied with state laws, and as far as we knew everything was going fine.”

Margolis said 68 people, most of them minors, were enrolled in the Straight program at Yorba Linda when it closed.

Kathleen Norris, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said the state’s action was based on an extensive investigation and complaints about Straight’s tactics. She would not detail the investigation, citing concerns about confidentiality.

Straight officials have not been told details of the alleged abusive incidents, Norris acknowledged, “but that type of thing will be included in the grounds for denial, and they will have a chance to be fully heard and respond in front of an administrative law judge.”

While Straight has garnered praise for its program from President Bush and Nancy Reagan, among others, it has run afoul of licensing officials in several states on allegations of abuse. Investigators in Virginia and Massachusetts are checking allegations of abuse at Straight’s Springfield and Boston centers; the Dallas-area program is being monitored; the group was on probation in Florida last year, and it has been sued in Ohio.

Margolis said the Yorba Linda treatment program was opened at the request of parents whose children had been left untended when another rehabilitation program, KIDS of Southern California, went out of business.

Both programs, run out of the same Yorba Linda warehouse, used similar confrontational techniques, according to former patients and Social Services officials.

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At the heart of Straight’s treatment program are daily rap sessions, at which patients are required to sit straight up in plastic chairs for up to 10 hours. They must confess their drug abuse at the sessions; if uncooperative, they are verbally attacked.

At night, the youngsters are taken to “host homes"--usually parents of patients who have agreed to house them for up to a year and who are also expected to equip bedroom windows and doors with alarms and other security devices to prevent escape.

Straight officials say such “positive peer pressure” has had greater success in treating patients than conventional rehabilitation.

California authorities allege that Straight has failed to comply with several state regulations and has violated Health and Safety Code requirements.

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According to a June 27 letter to Straight signed by the Santa Ana district manager for the Department of Social Services, Fred Dumont: “Documentation on file indicates that there have been incidents where children have been subjected unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threat, mental abuse or other actions of a punitive nature, including . . . interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping or toileting, or withholding of medication.”

The state also alleges that “certification of host homes, placement of children and social work practices” fail to follow standards established by the department.

Public records on file at the Santa Ana office contain several complaints from former Straight patients and a physician at a San Bernardino County hospital who treated a 17-year-old female patient. The doctor’s name was blacked out on his complaint by state officials.

According to the complaint, filed July 19, the girl was taken to Straight for a substance abuse problem, but the doctor said it was “questionable” whether she actually had one. She was accompanied by her father and a female “guard,” who was later identified as a Straight staff member, according to the complaint.

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“She related to me that she was being ‘held against her will’ at Straight . . . that there was ‘a code of silence’ where people at Straight were unable to talk with either their families or with anyone on the outside about what transpired in the program,” the doctor wrote.

“She reported to me,” the doctor said, “that if she did not sit up straight she would be restrained forcibly and rather violently on the floor with her face down. The staff would then pin her arms and legs up behind her back.”

The doctor also expressed concern that, according to the girl, no counseling was taking place and she was not allowed to go to school, read or communicate with her family while in the program. “I was gravely concerned for her well-being upon her return to that facility,” the physician wrote.

In another complaint, dated July 23, a former patient relates being “restrained by my mouth being covered and my arms held down, not being able to breathe. I advised Straight that I was in pain several times but was denied medical treatment for 2 1/2 weeks. . . . I was denied bathroom privileges for up to two to three hours. I was afraid to say or do anything wrong for fear of being restrained, yelled at or having my mouth covered.”

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Margolis said she is not aware of the incidents and knows of no complaints “lodged against the California program.”

“To our knowledge the (state) has not investigated the situation by going to Straight and asking us about it. There are two sides to every story. How much of this is accurate?”

As to restraint procedures, she said: “Clients are not allowed to restrain other clients, only staff members and only when it becomes necessary; for example, when a client is physically violent.

“Our treatment is based on structure, there are safeguards. If they are minors, we don’t want them to run away and literally play on the streets when the families have placed them in treatment. They are watched carefully, because they are druggies and they are sometimes volatile.”

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Straight attorney Carol D. Scott Los Angeles said the group will cooperate with state officials, but she complained that the state allowed its allegations “to be opened up to the public without my clients having a fair opportunity to respond. My clients have the best interests of the kids at heart,” Scott said.

State officials have not scheduled a hearing on the closure, but Norris said Straight might end up with a license to operate in California: “Typically, if they express an interest in conforming to guidelines, the department would be willing to work with them.”


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