Behind the Tallahassee Curtain:
and Suing of State Health Offices;
by Wesley M. Fager (c) 2000
For decades some Straight-based synanons have battled the various state regulatory and prosecuting agencies over the same old issues: foster (host) homes, treating clients with dignity, clients restraining clients; etc. A Georgia health official might be complaining to Straight there about spitting, not knowing that Virginia officials have made the same complaint. This chapter discusses the relationship between the Straights and various state government offices.
Florida: Behind the Tallahassee Curtain.
Straight, Inc. is an extortion racket in which host homes play an essential
role. Confessions are extorted from kids by cajole, by the cult of confession,
by trickery, by barter in exchange for food or sleep, by honesty, by
confusion, by exhaustion and sometimes by sheer torture and terror.
Kids are kept from seeing their parents for as long as possible until
Straight's hold on the child is firm and until, if possible, a damaging
confession is in hand. A confession affidavit is written out in the
student's own handwriting and signed by the student. The confession
is variously called a Moral Inventory (MI), Chain of Command (COC),
FOS for Full of Shit List, or Dishonesty List. Kids are coaxed to confess
about drug use they may or may not have performed; and, more destructively,
about past sexual experiences that they may or may not have engaged
in. Kids who have confessed to embarrassing episodes are less likely
to tell their parents of the abuse at Straight knowing that Straight
could tell their parents about their confession. Thus the kids keep
silent while their unaware parents continue to pay program fees. Also
former clients are less likely to sue. It is forbidden at Straight,
Inc. to discuss any person who is not present. That is called Squawking
or Talking Behind Backs. Thus if a child arrives at a host home in the
evening with a black eye, he can not talk about how he received it unless
the person who gave it to him is present. (One should assume that the
person(s) responsible for the injury would be sent to another host home.)
So while a child is being beaten down both physically and mentally by
day at the treatment facility (and perhaps at a so-called "strong"
host home in the evening) it is imperative that the child not be allowed
access to his own parents.
In the mid 1970s the state of Florida developed new regulations to govern the foster home element of The Seed program (Straight's immediate predecessor). Straight adopted The Seed's concept of a host home and so it was that Straight became subject to the new host home regulations. Almost immediately Straight had problems with the stiff host home regulations which stated, in part,
". . .the foster homes provide the state with written assurance that the homes meet fire, safety, and health standards and provide privacy, freedom of worship, adequate food, adequate sleeping accommodations and 'contact with the natural family' to all those in treatment."
During a routine license inspection of Straight-St Pete on June 3 - 5, 1980 HRS officials found numerous incidences of kids being locked in bedrooms with locked windows. Jim Hartz, Straight's then executive director, was advised that the locks appeared to be in violation of Florida Statue 397.041 and that the situation could present a serious fire or other safety hazard. Hartz agreed to correct the problem. On March 16, 1981 HRS officials met with Miller Newton to discuss a March 5, 1981 finding that Straight was still locking kids in bedrooms at host homes. Dr. Newton indicated to these officials a lack of ability by the program to control what happens in the foster homes. Newton was advised that since Straight had a role in sending kids to a foster home, it seemed reasonable that Straight should have some responsibility for what happens there.
In 1978 Edythe Mizereck had entered her 13 year-old daughter at Straight-St Pete believing she had been court ordered there. The daughter claims once she was locked in a room for 12 hours and on another occasion a girl tried to grab her breast in the shower. She was made to live with a man and his daughter. In an apparent escape attempt she jumped from the man's third floor balcony and severely injured her back--requiring multiple operations which included the insertion of metal rods. She sued Straight and Straight counter-sued, of all bodies, the state department of Health and Human Services (HRS). Apparently, Straight had taken the position that, after all it was HRS who had granted them a license to operate in the first place and also Straight claimed it was the state that had led the girl to believe she had been court ordered there. Straight settled in 1981.(1)
In April 1981 Florida's Health and Rehabilitative Services Department (HRS) issued a report finding that Straight's clients "indicated that they were threatened with being court-ordered into the program or being committed to a mental institution if they did not voluntarily sign into the program." Around this time Florida state Republican Representative from Saint Petersburg Robert Melby introduced a bill (at the request of "people with children in Straight") that would allow parents to force kids into treatment with the force of a court order.(2) Now Straight's detractors claim that once Straight got a prospective parent in the door, the parent would hear testimony from kids at Mic Talk laying claims to exaggerated drug use and the parents would be shown pictures of dead kids from drug related fatalities---thus making a prospective parent fearful not to put their child into Straight. There are further claims that once one kid was placed in Straight, undue pressure was placed on parents to enter their other children as well. In 1984 after a federal jury awarded Fred Collins $220,000 for being falsely imprisoned by Straight (Mr. Collins had paid his brother a visit only to be shanghaied into Straight himself) Florida state health officials found 13 youths who were enrolled in Straight against their will and another 15 who said they had been coerced or tricked into enrolling. HRS told Straight to stop doing this, so Straight sued HRS for the right to keep kids in treatment with their parents consent. Despite its deplorable record for child abuse Straight won its case in Tallahassee Circuit Court in a decision made by Judge Charles E. Minor, Jr.(3) His decision was subsequently upheld in an appeals court.
Florida Courts on Straight, Growing Together and SAFE. Growing Together is an active Sembler-based synanon in Lake Worth, Florida. In 1990 allegations of abuse surfaced about Growing Together.(4) In 1990 John Haven told the Sun-Sentinel that he was always plotting ways to kill himself when he was in GT while a 15 year-old kid reported that windows in host homes were bolted shut or locked preventing escape.(5) In the spring of 1990 after seven GT clients filed abuse charges against GT with the state's Child Abuse Registry state health officials marched in there and demanded the removal of 11 clients to be taken off-site and interviewed. Growing Together refused the state officials' access demanding instead the children be interviewed on site. GT's attorney Jack Scarola, who was also a GT parent, got a court hearing to delay the removal. But a few days later a circuit court judge ruled that state officials had the right to interview the kids without their parents being present--they were "witnesses, not suspects." Barbara Griffith, then GT's director, argued that "Honesty is not their [the kids] most famous trait. They would grab at anyone who offers them a thread of hope that they might not have to stay in treatment."(6) On May 10, 1990 the 4th District Court of Appeals put a hold on the interviews and on July 18, 1990 ruled that the kids could have the right to an attorney or advocate ad litem present to protect them from self incrimination. So seven kids said they had been abused at GT and in total named 11 kids who were being abused. The state sought to talk to the 11 free of intimidation by Growing Together's staff, GT's attorneys and even their own parents. With allegations of child abuse on the board Florida appellate judges let these 11 kids sit in that facility from May 5 to July 18.(7) Growing Together then accused HRS of harassment and the state gave GT its license. In early 1994 a boy named Nathan fled Growing Together, was caught and pleaded with his parents not to send him back to Growing Together. They sought an attorney to court order Nathan to GT but then in mid February 1994 Growing Together, represented by its board member Jack Scarola, filed a petition to West Palm Beach Circuit Judge Richard Burk who ruled that parents could force their child into treatment with the force of a court order.(8) While all this was going on in Florida, Virginia health authorities were interviewing clients at Straight-Springfield about alleged abuses. According to former student Tim Ashley, when he was interviewed the state official sat at a desk and he sat opposite the official in a chair while [name with held], a Straight graduate student-turned counselor, sat behind the state official nodding his head left-to-right or up-and-down coaching Tim on the answers to give. That Straight counselor now works for the state with the Fairfax County substance abuse program.
A Florida HRS site visit report of SAFE (a Sembler-based synanon in Orlando, Florida) conducted between July 6 - 8 and July 13 - 15, 1993 found that during the 30 day period leading up to the state investigation there had been approximately 29 "reported" incidents of restraint while only 1 reported incidence of restraint at all other juvenile drug rehabs in the district combined! In 1993 HRS notified SAFE that the state would impose fines on SAFE for violations of administrative code in particular those revolving around excessive use of restraints. SAFE felt it was being harassed by the state's health inspectors and sued the state. 1-28-02 Subsequently, in 1994, the state of Florida came into an agreement with SAFE which includes, in part, the following stipulation:
On April 2, 1996 Administrative Hearing Officer Mary Clark, basing her decision in part on the Growing Together vs HRS decision of January 22, 1994 and on Straight vs HRS in 1986 ruled in favor of SAFE.(9a) Today Florida has the infamous Marchman Act which allows for kids to be placed into a rehab for a 90 day observation period with the force of a court order. Lucy Moore, a former SAFE client, told this writer that she had been ordered into SAFE under four separate Marchman Acts! SAFE has been endorsed by Florida Governor Jeb Bush. It is interesting that the state legislature in Pennsylvania has also passed a bill similar to Florida's Marchman Act. Interesting because a former high-level Straight official is in that area.
The Clary Findings. Straight closed on April 13, 1993 amidst an investigation of Straight being conducted by Lowell Clary, Acting Inspector General for Florida�s Department of Health and Human Services (HRS). Mr. Clary had begun his investigation back in December because of damaging documents about Straight's operations which he had received from Richard Bradbury. Mr. Clary released his findings on April 19, a month after Straight, Inc. had closed. His report, which is presented below in its entirety, insinuates that Melvin Sembler and "unnamed state senators" probably pressured HRS to grant Straight-Saint Petersburg a license when an on-site inspection team was preparing to deny the license. According to the report Harry Moffitt, an HRS senior program specialist, said that deputy assistant secretary Linda Lewis questioned why Florida would continue to let Straight operate in spite of allegations of withholding medication and food from clients, depriving them of sleep and using excessive force against them. That when Ms. Lewis brought this up to Ivor Groves, an assistant secretary to HRS, she had been told that she would be fired on the spot if she did not do as told. Groves denied the conversation and Lewis did not recall it. The report also revealed a definite pattern of abuse or excessive force used against clients at Straight facilities. See the five page report here:
04-07-02 Donald C. Sullivan, MD is a respected orthopedic surgeon in Saint Petersburg, Florida. In 1992 he was successfully elected to the Florida state Senate as a Republican. One thing that former Senator Sullivan can be credited for is making Saint Petersburg Community College a full four year college. [Betty Sembler sits with Florida's drug czar Jim McDonough on on the advisory board of the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training (MCTFT)--a program funded by the U.S. Department of Defense through the Florida National Guard and hosted near Betty's house at Saint Petersburg Junior College. MCTFT is the federal government's program to train law enforcement officers, nationwide, in counter drug task force efforts.] Besides his work in education, Senator Sullivan served on the state Senate's Children and Families Committee. Former Senator Sullivan says he had been persuaded into running for the state Senate in 1992 by his friend, then state Senator, John Grant, a Republican from Tampa. Interestingly, Wesley Pennington, the president of Straight, ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the state assembly in 1992. Interesting because according to a document submitted by Straight Foundation to the IRS as part of its tax package, in May 1992 Donald Sullivan, MD was the secretary of the board of directors of Straight Foundation, Inc. Check out the 1996 annual report for Straight Foundation, Inc. (which now calls itself the Drug Free America Foundation, Inc.) in which the state's office of corporations is instructed to remove Donald Sullivan from its list of officers.
The Clary finding is not the only time Mel Sembler's cronies put heat on state licensing officials either. Straight had opened in 1976 and by 1978 was in danger of being shut down because of numerous allegations of serious child abuse. The man who led the investigation had been Robert G. Marshall, district director of the state's licensing authority for drug rehabilitation programs in Pinellas County for the state office of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS). Naturally, a special citizen's committee called Parents Associated Inc. had been created to investigate--the investigator, Bob Marshall. Prominent on that citizen's committee had been Pinellas County Judge Jack Dadswell and Mack Vines who would be the chief of police by 1980. (Terry Hensley, another Saint Petersburg Police Chief, would later become the executive director of the Straight Foundation under its new name the Drug Free America Foundation.) A spokesperson for HRS Secretary William J. "Pete" Page, Jr. has admitted that Straight officials had called to complain about Marshall. Straight board member John White said that on one occasion a Straight official complained to Page about Marshall, but he did not know who it was. Even Melvin Sembler confirmed that some Straight officials had contacted Mr. Page about the HRS investigation of Straight, but, according to a newspaper account of the time, he can't remember who they were. In any event Straight did not close but the investigator Bob Marshall was fired!
An interesting thing happened after the man destined to be the chief of police for Saint Petersburg investigated HRS' Bob Marshall. One of his assistants, Lt David Milchan, who had headed the Youth Services Division of the St. Petersburg Police Department, had frequently referred families to Straight. In fact he was on the Straight Advisory Committee. Well it seems he just got tired of being a police officer after all those years of service. No he didn't bother retiring. He just up and quit and took a job with HRS. So now Straight had managed to get Bob Marshall fired for investigating Straight and get a former board member working for HRS to boot. Well after a bit David Milchan decided that he wanted to be a policeman after all, and so he went back to law enforcement. But not as a mere lieutenant. He went to Saint Petersburg Beach which is the city of residence for Straight co-founder Joseph Zappala and, in 1981, was given the job of Chief of Police! The Saint Petersburg Beach Lions Club annually awards the Joseph Zappala Policeman of the Year Award.
If you readers from the Florida Department of Families and Children (today's name for HRS) think that Buddy Sembler plays hardball with you, he's a wuss compared to Chuck Dederich at Synanon Church who dreamed up the Straight confrontational method in the first place.
Massachusetts: Straight-Boston. Straight just popped open in Boston in 1985, the same way it just popped open in Maryland and in California without first seeking a license from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, Office for Children (OFC) which regulates foster homes in that state. When the state finally caught up with Straight, OFC issued a provisional six month license on July 9, 1987. Six months later OFC refused to renew the license because of disturbing regulatory violations. Also OFC was beginning to receive complaints of physical and emotional abuses at Straight from the Department of Social Services. Straight employed attorneys who argued that Straight ran host homes, not foster homes, and thus should be under the Department of Public Health (DPH), not OFC. But DPH was receiving disturbing complaints against Straight too. The state was receiving the same old complaints: improper restraints, denying education, failing to tell parents of suicide attempts, a staff member punching a kid in the face, admitting kids without chemical dependency problems including one 12 year-old who had sniffed glue once, allowing two pieces of toilet paper to wipe themselves, sleep deprivation, spitting on kids. Finally on November 11, 1991 Straight agreed not to operate foster homes and the state agreed that OFC would not regulate Straight. Straight then refused a hearing with and administrative judge and closed down. Thus Straight had managed to operate improperly in Massachusetts for six years on the basis of a provisional six month license.(10)
Virginia: Straight-Springfield. Straight-Springfield operated from a warehouse in northern Virginia from 1982 to 1991. Immediately after opening in 1983, Fred Collins, Jr. was awarded $220,000 for false imprisonment. Fred had to throw a table through a window to escape from his parent's home as the windows were nailed shut and the doors to the house were dead bolt locked by key. Afterwards Straight informed parents to use alarms on bedroom doors--not locks. By 1988 parents again were being told (verbally) to lock kids in bedrooms. When the state learned of this Straight scolded parents for locking kids in bedrooms and told them to use door alarms--not locks! At Straight-Springfield Chelsea Square Apartments, Apt 101 was a special host home where newcomers went for indoctrination, and recalcitrant old comers went for special handling. "Spit therapy" was conducted regularly there in a bedroom closet. Chelsea Square was only two blocks from the main camp. In 1989 Apt 101 was known officially by Straight as a COOP APARTMENT. It was run virtually by three old comers known to the kids as THE WALL. The kids were told that one of its inhabitants was a golden gloves boxer, that another was a high school wrestling champ. Newcomers were whipped before they walked in the door. Even if 100 kids were assaulted by The Wall Straight would always have three witnesses against one to each event. [Chuck Dederich had done it this way at Synanon Church. He kept a picture of his friend and fellow Synanite Jimmy Middleton who had boxed in a Michigan prison over his desk.] The apartment was rented, at least ostensibly, by three out-of-town, old-comer parents, with one of the mothers living there full time. Directly above 101, Apt 201 was another special COOP APARTMENT. Thus screams above and below would be received by Straight ears. A third was in Woodbridge, Virginia though there appears there were plans to move this apartment to Chelsea also. The above photo-copy is from a Straight-Springfield host home list from October 1989.
04-10-02 By 1990 the violations that Straight-Springfield had be written-up for would fill up a volume. You can view but a sample of the abuses here. Yet, strangely, Virginia Health Officials continued to grant Straight a license. Finally on March 26, 1990 King E. Davis Commissioner Mental Health informed Straight it's license would not be renewed. Straight balked, sought legal council, and managed to sign a consent agreement with the state on July 6, 1990 agreeing to correct outstanding deficiencies. In late 1990 Virginia's Commissioner of Mental Health, Secretary of Health and Human Resources, and the former Commissioner were all sued by a former client for not revoking Straight's license. The child had been sexually abused by an old comer who had previously sexually abused another kid in his charge, but had been allowed to continue in the program. On January 29, 1991 the state informed Straight that it's license had been denied. Straight demanded a hearing before an administrative judge, but the day before the hearing Straight just closed down, took its kids and just popped open in Maryland. Some of the mounting complaints about Straight--breaking a girl's finger because she would not admit to having a drug problem she did not have, raping a girl with a curling iron for failure to write her moral inventory, spitting in people's faces, food and sleep deprivation, un-warranted restraints. Of course Straight announced that Straight-Springfield had closed for economic reasons.
04-10-02 There is clearly grounds for the state of Virginia to share in the damages done to its young citizens. It can not be understated that state health officials allowed Straight to operate and only got real serious when they were personally sued for not taking action. Former clients from Straights in Virginia should seek out legal advice in getting the state of Virginia to pass a claims bill to help reimburse the you for the damage done to you due to negligence on the part of Virginia state health officials. The author can assist attorneys or researchers in gathering documents detailing the full scale of abuses of which Virginia state authorities were aware but failed to do the right thing.
04-10-02 New Jersey: KIDS. In 1983 Straight's national clinical director, Father Doctor Miller Newton, left Florida on the heels of a barrage of criminal investigations and civil suits to found his own second-generation Straight in New Jersey which he called Kids of Bergen County. By 1989 Dr. Newton was on the New Jersey Substance Abuse Advisory Council and he was running expansion programs in Texas, California, and Utah, and was looking to expand into Canada. James Florio, a Democrat, was governor of New Jersey then. But by the late 1980s the same charges of abuse that had plagued Father Newton in Florida were being charged against his New Jersey and all of his expansion programs leading to a raid of his program by Bergen County prosecutors. (KIDS closed in California under a criminal investigation and Straight, Inc. moved into the facility taking over the clients. Within a year Straight itself was closed by California authorities for citations of child abuse.) In 1989 West 57th Street, a CBS news magazine, did a blistering expose of KIDS leading the New Jersey Department of Health to ask Newark Administrative Judge Edith Klinger to do a study of KIDS for them. Around this time Dr. Newton withdrew his application for a license for Kids of Bergen County (just days before a public hearing) because he claimed that he intended to move to new location in Bergen County. Judge Klinger's 53 page study of KIDS was released in 1989. In it she stated, "Many of the deficiencies . . create hazards to health and safety." She recommended against licensing KIDS without a Certificate of Approval as a Drug Abuse Center and until it could be demonstrated that KIDS was willing to comply with state health regulations. The Bergen County prosecutor's office did another raid on KIDS this time removing some clients.
But rather than moving to another Bergen County facility, Father Newton changed the name to Kids of North Jersey, hopped the Hackensack River into Hudson County, and continued to operate for another 10 years under Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman. Ignoring the findings of a judicial report that it had requested in the first place, amidst criminal proceedings against some KIDS counselors, following an expose by a major TV network and other exposes by two local TV stations, exposes by the Bergen Record, and Father Newton's agreeing to pay $45,000 in return for not being prosecuted by federal officials for 254 counts of insurance fraud, KIDS continued to operate in New Jersey under a "special" certificate to operate from Commissioner of Health and Human Services! Why did the Department of Health bend over backwards to give father Newton a special certificate to operate and does the state of New Jersey now owe any sort of compensation to the kids who were ultimately abused in that state because the Department of Health ignored the study that it had requested. Former clients of the KIDS program in New Jersey should seek out an attorney to get the legislature of the state of New Jersey to pass a claims bill to compensate you for the suffering you had to endure because of negligence on the part of the Department of Health.
Texas: Straight-Dallas. In 1987 the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) forced Straight to stop strapping sanitary pads and towels on kids who were "acting out." In 1989, David Tatum, a TCADA administrator, says he started receiving complaints for allegations like: staff member choked and kicked a client, a host-home father tied up a client with an automobile towing strap; a client received a broken nose but was not given medical treatment. During an investigation ending in Oct 1989 he received 15 complaints including: 5 incidents of kids restrained for trivial reasons like 'failure to sit up properly' and 'failure to move.' One staff member allegedly tied a client with a nylon rope to prevent him from escaping; another did nothing while kids scratched themselves with pieces of metal. A parent reported that a staffer hit client Chad Barnes in the face. As a result of the investigation Straight fired one paraprofessional counselor and signed an agreement order in December 1989 that only trained staffers would be allowed to restrain clients, that time-out rooms would be banned, and that host homes would be required to provide better living arrangements. In return Straight would not have to admit to any of the allegations of abuse. But in January a reporter witnessed a client being restrained. There were 2 adults and 3 kids watching 100 clients. In August 1991 TCADA informed Straight that its license would not be renewed for consistently violating the law and for failure to abide by the 1989 agreement order. Among the citations cited in the order were the unsupervised dispensing of medications, treating clients who did not meet Straight's criteria of being chemically dependent, forcing clients to sleep in beds with other clients, failing to provide medical care to injured clients, and restraining clients with nylon rope. One finding was for a foster home which gave the kids only a container to urinate in the evening. Straight announced that it was closing for economic reasons.
1. St Petersburg Independent, 4-10-80, p. 18a.; 4-12-80, p. 12a. St Petersburg Times 6-24-83. Her attorneys were Julian Piper and Eric Ludin, (813) 344-1111.
2. St. Petersburg Times, 4-24-81, p. 4b.
3. St. Petersburg Times, 1-31-86, p. b1.
4. The Palm Beach Post, 3-9-90, p. 8A.
5. Sun Sentinel, 3-26-90, p. B1.
6. The Palm Beach Post, 5-5-90, p. 1B
7. The Palm Beach Post, 7-25-90, p. 3B
8. The Palm Beach Post, 2-27-94, p. 2F
9. Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, Orange County, Florida, March 17, 1994, Case No. CI 94-407, paragraph 9, pp. 9 - 10.
9a. Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, case numbers 94-0093 and 95-0659RX
10. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Div of Administrative Law Appeals, # OC 91-1293 and SC 2-87. OFC letter to Straight dated May 3, 1991, Subject: Notice of Action to Refuse to Renew Foster Care License. Letter from DPH to Straight, dated March 6, 1991 concerning DPH deficiency order against Straight. Letter from DPH to Straight, dated July 5, 1990 concerning DPH deficiency order against Straight. OFC letter to Straight dated Mar 15, 1990 concerning OFC deficiency order.
This web page is offered as a public service and as an educational resource to those interested in learning about the potential dangers of abusive Straight-based synanons. The page is the on-line publishing arm of the Oakton Institute for Cultic Studies.