1978 Investigation of Straight, Inc.: A couple of parents spoke to investigators.
The first part of this post is a letter that was submitted to the investigators. It was written to the Members of the Board of Directors of Straight, Inc. by parents who wanted them to know very specifically why they withdrew their daughter from the program. Notice not only their opinion of the staff members of the program, but also how they were instructed not to speak with the Hensons. Remember this is the same Henson couple who resigned from the Board of Directors very soon after Straight opened for operation and that was interviewed by a former client in 2001. The Hensons seemed to very clearly see what was going on in the very early days of Straight, Inc. and had no problems voicing their concerns.
Letter from Parents of Child in the Program Addressed To the Board of Directors and the Advisory Committee of Straight Inc.
February 20, 1977
Dear Members of the Board:
This letter is to inform you of the recent removal of our daughter —, from the program of “Straight” on January 20, 1977, and some of the reasons for this removal.
First and foremost in our minds at this time, is the most urgent need for a “drug rehabilitation” program for our children in this area. I also want it clearly understood that I am now and always will be grateful to —‘s foster parents, her oldcomer and the children on the program to whom she related. We feel all the credit belongs to them alone, along with —‘s own desires to become “Straight” and this is the reason she is straight today.
When we first made application for — to join your program, we were very desperate parents. We found Straight through a nun, Sister Mary. After talking to Helen Petermann, Jim Hartz, Carolyn Henson and a staff member, we were very impressed and decided to place —- on the program. It was not until a few months later that we realized that we had been lied to. Straight was not being run by the staff and its administration with love, empathy and sensitivity, but with cruel Gestapo tactics. They are as follows:
Tying certain children’s hands over their heads to the top of the bed and their feet to the bottom
Pouring ice water over their heads
Taking girl’s clothes and making them run naked thru the house to the bathroom, when there were 18 and 20-year-old males in the house. (My daughter, —, refused to take a shower when she was at this staff members home, namely Marci Moore.)
— was told to tell how she felt and when she did, she was put down for doing so.
Being lied against by a staff members and then being put down for trying to defend herself.
Name calling: such as calling the girls, sluts and whores.
Punching, shoving and slapping of the boys on the program.
Keeping a child up 40 hours without sleep. (I would not have tolerated such treatment but was told not to interfere.)
It finally came to a point when — would not relate and if she had a problem she called her oldcomer — She could not depend on or rely on staff, she hated the thoughts of going into the building and she would leave home in a good frame of mind and come home from the building deeply depressed.
I talked with Helen Petermann in her office about a few of these problems. After an hour, the final essence of the conversation boiled down to Helen telling me to “Accept the things we cannot change.”
The day before we withdrew — from the program, she had a “one to one” with Marci Moore and after 2 ½ hours of raking — over the coals, tearing her apart, the only thing they could come up with that — had done wrong was, the selling of donuts within the school building for her speech class without permission of Staff. It was part of her course and she was getting credits for this.
We talked with Ron Solannes, head staff, about this problem, but to no avail. Marci Moore had already talked to him.
Another complaint I would like to voice to the Board, concerns the conversation I had with Jim Hartz and Helen Petermann. I was informed by both of them to stay away from the “Hensons.” (Hap and Carolyn and Toni) Members of the Board were not allowed to associate with us parents on the program. They went on to say that, “People like the Hensons were nothing but trouble and they did not know what they were doing.” Also that we would be real sorry if we associated ourselves with the likes of them. By telling me these things, Helen Petermann said, “They were just trying to keep me from being hurt and degraded.”
I also remember another incident in which my daughter, —, was involved personally. She had been in an auto accident and had found out she was pregnant. Because of this accident, she was trying to abort. When Helen Petermann was told that –should be seen by a doctor, Helen’s first response was to get a scrub bucket and then went on to say, “That is all she needs, let her sit on that.”
On February 4, just 5 days after — had left the program, she was told by Debbie Solanes to call her if she had a problem or just wanted to talk. – called Debbie on the 14th of Feb and asked if she could sit in on a rap at the building with the kids. Debbie thought it was a great idea. The kids could see that — was still straight and strong as ever. Debbie then told — to call Mrs. Petermann. She did and in turn Mrs. Petermann referred her to Jim Hartz. His reaction was, “absolutely no.” She could not come in the building because she was back on drugs. — Again denied this and Jim said, “It did not matter whether she was or not because the kids thought she was.” — wanted to come in to show she was straight and possibly she might be able to help answer some question the kids on the program might have concerning how they may feel after they have graduated from the program. –was upset at Jim’s refusal especially since Debbie Solanes thought it was a good idea. I personally feel that this was a very selfish move on Jim’s part.
I could go on and on but I do not think it is necessary. I am positive, you, the Board members, have received my message. We would also like it understood that we were not talked into, urged or coerced by anyone to remove —- from the program.
After reading this letter I am sure it can be understood why we removed —-. We also feel that if we had not removed — when we did, she probably would have split. Later she told us that she had been thinking about running.
I hope this letter helps to enlighten you as to the way we feel Straight is being run. If this letter has helped just a little, then I am glad I wrote it. If you wish to contact me, I will be glad to answer any and all questions personally, Thanks you for your time and your attention pertaining to the subject.
Two Parent Reports from the 1978 Investigation of Straight, Inc.
Two parents who had formerly had children in the Straight program had consented to interviews with the investigative task force.
Mrs. — entered her two daughters in the program shortly after it started. She reported that both of the girls completed the program (the list supplied by Straight lists only one of the girls as a graduate.) Mrs. — felt very strongly that neither Jim Hartz nor Helen Petermann were qualified to conduct the Straight program. She stated that she had reported this and other matters to Dr. Garby and Dr. Leon Sellers in the hope that things could be improved, but that no change was forthcoming. She reported hearing of many instances where children were mistreated, lies and false stories were told about them, and malicious rumors were spread. She reported that the practice of “putting down” a client was conducted in a vicious and emotionally abusive manner. Jim Hartz and Helen Petermann reportedly practiced character assassination of parents who objected to any aspect of the program. She further stated that Helen Petermann’s previous experience with the Seed program involved intake only, and that she was personally fired by Art Barker. Mrs.— supplied the letter of resignation of Misters Henson, Chapin, and Anderson, as Board members, and a letter by the same three, criticizing Mr. Melvin Sembler for his actions as president of Straight.
Mrs. — supplied the following information:
She personally saw Helen Petermann kick a client, name unknown, very hard, in December of 1976. She stated that Helen Petermann was extremely crude and vulgar in her dealing with female clients. Mrs. Petermann was reported as frequently speaking disparagingly about some parents in front of the clients. Mrs. — reported that her daughters, —, was involved in actions that kept one of the female clients awake for approximately 72 hours. The girls involved would also take turns in seeing that the victim of this action was awake. Daughter — also reported to her mother a case where a female client was tied hands and feet to a bed as punishment for some activity. Marci Moore was reportedly the person who did this. Mrs. — feels that her daughter’s treatment in Straight brought about an attempt at suicide and subsequent psychiatric treatment. She also reported that — witnessed Mike S., a counselor beat up a client who insulted his wife.
[Originally posted on Jan. 16, 2016. Updated May 12, 2017]
January 1978: Report from 1977-1978 Investigation of Project Straight Inc.
Straight Inc. filed papers for incorporation on April 22, 1976. Straight Inc.’s doors opened for operation on Sept. 1, 1976. By November 1977, Straight was being investigated in response to complaints from the community.
Straight Inc. is referred to as Project Straight, Inc. because it was considered a project that was funded by LEAA and local contributions.
Project Straight, Inc. is a private non-profit organization licensed as a day care program with foster homes.
An investigation was initiated in November 1977, concerning Project Straight, Inc. in response to reports from various people within the St. Petersburg community that there were problems with Project Straight, Inc., a private non-profit organization licensed as a day care program (yes, a day care program!) with foster homes.
How the investigation was conducted.
During this investigation, the task force conducted interviews with the following people:
9 members of the current Board of Directors
5 former member of the Board of Directors
13 members of the current staff
4 previous employees of Straight, Inc.
5 foster home families
9 graduates of the program
48 current clients (24 selected at random by Straight Staff and 24 selected at random by the task force team)
6 clients who, for one reason or another, had left the program prior to completion
2 parents who earlier had children in the Straight program
9 clients and/or their parents who we had reason to believe were either involved in or observed physical or verbal abuse.
A review of records and files was also carried out.
This blog post contains the information uncovered from the investigation interviews of current and former members of the Straight, Inc. Board of Directors.
Five Former board members were interviewed during this investigation.
In 2015, I sat down and thoroughly combed through a couple of reports written on January 11, 1978, by task force members. The task force was chaired by J.B. Holley and formed to investigate allegations being made against Straight, Inc. The interviews and documents collected by this task force corroborate the statements made in the telephone interview with Mr. Henson in November of 2001. (Mr. Henson’s 2001 telephone interview is here.)
The Henson Interviews.
Mr. & Mrs. L. A. Henson were interviewed together, with the following points being made by one or the other.
Important decisions being made without the Board of Directors’ input.
Mr. Henson felt that important decisions were being made without the Board of Directors’ input; e.g., certain aspects of the LEAA grant, hospitalization for staff, the decision to move from the Anderson Building, and the establishment of the Straight court. He also said that for a time there were no written minutes of the executive committee or the Board. After the issue was forced the practice of writing up the minutes was resumed.
Concerns about safety.
Mr. Henson had several concerns about safety; e.g., appliance left plugged in at the facility overnight, transportation of large numbers of clients in one car at one time, and foster home situations. He said that young, inexperienced persons do the investigations into foster homes, and he felt that a great deal of professional expertise, experience, and judgment, is needed in visiting and evaluating a foster home.
No written accepted procedure for handling grievances and/or complaints.
There is no written accepted procedure for handling grievances and/or complaints, and he feels the present procedure is not responsive to complaints of parents or staff. Although there is an advisory board, Mr. Henson states that they do not meet and function regularly.
Mrs. Helen Petermann is not qualified to serve as the staff supervisor.
Mrs. Henson feels very strongly that Mrs. Helen Petermann is not qualified to serve as the staff supervisor. He said that the decision to hire her was made at a Board meeting which he could not attend.
It was his feeling that originally no board member would have been willing to hire her, and then the Board took action to hire her. It puzzles Mr. Henson that this reversal took place.
He understands that Mrs. Petermann was fired from her position at the Seed. Mrs. Henson stated that she had observed Mrs. Petermann kick a client and that there were other witnesses.
Clients were told they could not discuss the program or even mention ‘Straight, Inc.’ to outsiders without receiving serious consequences.
According to the Hensons, the clients were told they could not discuss the program, or even mention “Straight, Inc.” to outsiders or they would be started over again in the program. Also a staff member was told he could not visit the Henson residence.
Mr. Henson thinks the program will fail eventually because of mismanagement, poor staff, autocratic decision making, personnel problems, and the lack of appropriate response to grievances and charges of abuse.
It was a critical issue with the Henson’s that the task force interview persons who are no longer with the program. They felt the task force would get only a partial picture of the program if they interviewed only those persons currently involved in Straight, Inc.
Another interview was conducted with Mrs. L. A. Henson and Mrs. Rose.
Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose were formerly intake-mothers with the Straight, Inc. program and Mrs. Rose was the mother of a former staff member in Straight, Inc.
Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose were involved in the formation of the Straight, Inc. program.
Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose advised that they were involved in the formation of the program as they and several other parents felt there was a definite need for a program of this nature in the community.
Mel Sembler said Jim Hartz was hired for his degree, but Helen Petermann would operate the program.
Mrs. Henson said she heard Mel Sembler, the president of Straight, Inc., tell her husband, Hap Henson, that Jim Hartz was hired for his degree and that Helen Petermann would operate the program.
Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose both said that they had no idea Helen Petermann would be involved in the program at the level she is now involved or they would not have supported it from the beginning.
Mrs. Petermann presses [the kids] a great deal for details involving anything related to sex.
Both ladies feel Mrs. Petermann has some problems, one of them is that she presses a great deal for any detail involving anything related to sex. Henson indicated that the ——‘s daughter had been in a group at one point in the program where she observed Mrs. Petermann down on the floor, in front of the group, demonstrating various sexual positions used throughout the world. This was in a female group conducted by Mrs. Petermann.
This coincides with information received from Diana Shanahan, a former staff member, in a previous interview.
Mrs. Petermann repeatedly kicked a new intake boy while he was being dragged out of an intake room by two young staff members.
Mrs. Rose stated that during one of the first intakes she conducted, she noted the youth was unusually quiet which was very alarming to her. She went to Helen Petermann and other staff members and told them of her fears with the youth. Mrs. Rose told them she did not want to be left alone with him because she thought he was going to go off the deep end.
Helen Petermann and young staff members Ron Solanas and Mike Shanahan went with Mrs. Rose back to the intake room. Mrs. Rose advised that when they entered the intake room Helen Petermann began to talk to the youth and the youth went off the deep end. The boy went rigid and was drug from the room by Ron Solanas and Mike Shanahan in that condition. She said each of the boys grabbed the new intake by his arms and dragged him with his heels dragging along the floor while Helen Petermann walked along behind the boy kicking him.
Mrs. Henson confirms this. She states she was an eyewitness to this incident and would swear to it in court. Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Henson also said that at the time this incident took place, it was also witnessed by Jim Hartz and [Solanes’s] wife, Debbie, who came in as it was going on.
Staff uses obscene language and ostracization to the detriment of the children’s welfare
Both Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose feel that some of the more negative aspects of the Straight program are the obscene language used by members of the staff toward clients and the practice of coventry. [Ostracizing.] Both feel this is very detrimental to the children’s welfare.
Mrs. Henson and Mrs. Rose feel that such a program is very definitely needed in this community, however, they feel the program needs to be cleaned up and operated as it was in the beginning.
Mrs. Bob Chapin’s interview:
Bob Chapin was involved with the Seed Program and helped get Straight started.
He resigned because he did not feel that he and his wife wanted to devote the time necessary to be members of the board. He feels that Straight is a good program, and would place his child there if needed. He personally feels that the staff supervisor, Helen Petermann, should be a younger person who could relate more to the children in the program. He feels that a follow-up program is needed for graduates from Straight, Inc.
Mr. Ted Anderson’s interview:
Kangaroo courts and tracking down runaways
Ted Anderson stated that the final straw that caused him to resign was when Jim Hartz reported on the establishment of what Mr. Anderson called “kangaroo court” consisting of clients trying other clients who break rules and setting their punishment. He said that Hartz reported that one of the punishments imposed was to make the client clean the bathroom floor with a toothbrush; he further said that the heard that the client was forced to drink the bucket of wash water.
He also disliked the practice of sending staff to track down runaways and felt that such clients should not be forced to return to the program.
The original concept of one-to-one attention has been lost with the extensive, no-control expansion of the program.
He feels that with the extensive, no-control, expansion of the program, the original concept of one-on-one has been lost. He feels that a distance restriction should be imposed and the client census should be held to a workable level.
Clients are kept out of school for too long.
He feels that the clients are kept in Phase I and II, and thus out of school, for too long a period of time. He is concerned about the lack of any definitive standards on which a client is moved from phase to phase.
Poor fiscal management
He is also concerned about what he considers to be poor fiscal management. He claims that he had never seen a full and accurate treasurer’s report. He feels that major decisions are made by the president and the executive director, rather than by the board.
Jim Hartz is power hungry, staff time records are falsified, and Helen Petermann
is totally unqualified for the position of staff supervisor.
He feels that Jim Hartz is power hungry and is asking for more and more authority to act unilaterally.
He states that staff time records are falsified in that only forty hours of work are shown, whereas fifty and sixty hours are actually put in.
The original intention of the founders of Straight was to bring the staff on board and train them before any clients were accepted. This did not happen.
He feels that the staff supervisor should be a young person and that Mrs. Petermann is totally unqualified for the position.
Letters from former Board members, which were included in the task force report:
This letter is dated Aug. 8, 1977, addressed to Mr. Melvin F. Sembler, President, Straight, Inc. P.O. Box 40052, St. Petersburg, Florida 33743
Dear Mr. President:
As president of Straight, Inc. you are bound by its charter and by-laws and said charter and by-laws do not confer upon you the authority to make a unilateral decision.
The by-laws provide that decision making authority rests only with the Board of Directors and/or its executive committee and that decision making grows out of a majority vote of said duly authorized decision-making bodies.
To the extent that you continue to make and implement decisions without majority approval of said governing bodies of Straight, Inc., I am becoming concerned that said unilateral acts on your part may expose me to loss or damage and/or expensive litigation. Hence, I am placing you on notice that should such a contingency occur I will then demand that you indemnify, defend, save and hold me harmless from the consequences of your unilateral acts. Should you then fail to do so I shall bring an action for indemnity against you.
Further, I disclaim any responsibility for your unilateral actions during your term as president of Straight, Inc. both in the past and in the future.
This letter of resignation was attached to the above letter.
This letter is also dated August 8, 1977. This one is addressed to Mr. Melvin F. Sembler, President, Straight, Inc., 6539 Central Avenue, St. Petersburg, Florida 33710
Dear Mr. Sembler:
We, the undersigned, submit our resignation as members of the Board of Directors of Straight, Inc. for the following reasons:
It is our feeling and belief that as far as we are concerned, Straight, Inc., by no stretch of the imagination, follows the guidelines we envisioned prior to its inception.
We do not feel the present Executive Director or Program Director have the necessary qualifications to rehabilitate preteens or teens, who have a drug or alcohol problem. Furthermore, we feel we cannot recommend Straight Inc. to our friends or citizens of our community.
There is no method whereby a member of the board can determine how effective or ineffective the program is being administered. Factual information is not available to us. Roberts Rules of Order has not been followed at board meetings as contemplated by the original by-laws. Therefore, we cannot function effectively on a non-functional board and hereby submit our resignation.
Interview with former Board Member, Mr. Ray Bourgholtzer:
Mr. Ray Bourgholtzer resigned due to a conflict of interest due to a new position with the City of St. Petersburg. He indicated that he was unhappy with the administration of the program. He felt that the program was excellent and he enjoyed working with the children. He did feel that Mel Sembler was autocratic in his position as president. This member resigned in September 1976.
Interview with former Board Members Mr. & Mrs. Bauknight:
Mr. & Mrs. Bauknight feel that the president, the executive director, and the staff supervisor make all of the important decisions without Board participation.
They felt that the staff supervisor should be a younger person and that the incumbent was appointed without Board approval. They felt that the Board was a “rubber-stamp board” and did not, in fact, set policy. They reported that one of them witnessed Helen Petermann actually kicking a client for a minor infraction of the rules.
What task force member, John Bustle, wrote on January 11, 1978, about his interview with the Bauknights:
[Mr. and Mrs. Bauknight were] Former members of the Board of Directors with Straight, Inc. During my interview, I learned very little that we don’t already know and that is not already listed in the reports by other members of the team, therefore, I did not find it necessary to record very much of the information given by the Bauknights. I did find, however, that the Bauknights were able to furnish me with several documents. One document was represented by Mr. Bauknight as the original by-laws of the corporation. Mr. Bauknight also gave me a copy of his letter of resignation from the Board of Directors and a copy of the resignation from the Board of Directors submitted by his wife, and finally a copy of the resignation submitted by Hap Henson, Robert Chapin, and Theodore Anderson, also former members of the Board of Directors. With these documents in hand and information which helped me gain some insight into the inner-workings of the corporation, I concluded my interview with Mr. & Mr. Bauknight.
Letters of Resignation from the Bauknights:
Dated July 20, 1977
Dear Mr. Sembler:
I submit my resignation as a member of the Board of Directors of Straight, Inc. for the following reasons:
Straight, Inc., in my opinion, does not operate along the guidelines envisioned by its founders.
The Board of which I am a member is largely non-functional and exercises no control in the nature of establishing and enforcing rules and guidelines for the conduct of the purposes and functions of Straight, Inc.
There is no method whereby a member of said Board can determine precisely how said program is being administered or the program is being conducted. To the contrary, program direction is entirely in the hands of the Executive Director and his staff without the benefit of Board monitoring as contemplated by the original by-laws.
Major decisions involving the operation of Straight, Inc. are made without consultation of Board members or their approval.
Finally, I disclaim any and all responsibility for decisions which have been made outside of the framework of the Corporate Chapter and the original by-laws of Straight, Inc.
Mrs. Lila L. Bauknight
September 22, 1976
Dear Mr. President:
This will confirm our conversation of Monday last in which I advised you that I would not serve further as Executive Vice President of Straight, Inc. I want to alert you now so you can handle my replacement.
I have advised you and others of the Executive Committee that said committee and board are not operating as required by Florida Statutes, it’s Charter and By-laws. It is the function of the Board of Directors to set guideline parameters for the supervision, control, and direction of the affairs of the Corporation. On the advice of Counsel, I am advised, informed and believe that each member of the board has dangerous personal exposure to monetary loss for errors and omissions in failing to adopt those rules and regulations for the conduct of its corporate affairs that reasonable directors and officers would have under the same or similar circumstances. Further, for failure to audit the operations of said corporation to the end that it functions as intended.
There are voids in your insurance coverage. Money is being handled by non-bonded employees and officers. The value insured on the building is understated. There is no coverage for the Director’s and Officer’s errors and omissions. There is no coverage for Malpractice and as simple a thing as cutting hair, (malpractice item) is excluded under the General Liability policy. This is not intended to be a full list of your insurance needs. I suggest you employ an agent to survey your needs. Until last Monday I have not been requested to do so and now I would prefer not to do so.
We have not promulgated basic safety rules to protect others from unreasonable risk of bodily harm, loss or damage. This failure exposes the Board to possible claims for damages.
The Executive Committee has not functioned as required by Florida Statute. It has not been in executive session since August 18, 1976, and this despite the fact that you have been urged to comply with the By-Laws and hold such meetings. The By-Laws require weekly meetings or meetings as deemed required by its members (plural, not singular). To the extent, we have not met and errors and omissions have occurred I believe that the Executive Committee is guilty of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance. I disclaim any responsibility for the unilateral actions of any officers or board members of Straight, Inc. which are ultra vires and without color of legality under Florida Statutes, the corporate charter or the By-Laws of the Corporation.
On further consideration, I respectfully tender my resignation as a member of the Board of Directors of Straight, Inc. as of the close of its special meeting on September 22, 1976.
Arthur W. Bauknight
Nine Current Board Members were interviewed during this investigation.
Here is the information that was gathered from nine members of the current Board of Directors who were interviewed:
There seemed to be an awareness of the state licensing regulations, however, board members did not appear to be familiar with these regulations.
All were familiar with the Straight rules and regulations.
While it was reported that the board met frequently, there was no set date or time for such meetings.
Most of the board members reported attending board meetings regularly.
There appeared to be functioning committees of the board.
Several board members had a family member or a close friend in the program.
It was reported that the board establishes or approves all program policies.
All board members were deeply involved in the program.
The program does have an advisory board.
It was reported that there was no written formal procedure for the board to handle grievances and/or complaints related to the program. Certain board members have been involved in handling such grievances or complaints.
Only one board member reported knowledge of any violations of program rules or regulations. This board member felt that such incidents were primarily errors in judgment by junior staff.
The Straight, Inc. program was founded on and perpetuated by deceptions and dishonesty, which is why it was ‘controversial’ from its inception. Of course, Straight, Inc. was born from The Seed, Inc., the controversial program that came before it. We will visit The Seed Program in future posts. But first, we will look into some of the other interviews that took place during this initial investigation.
Please leave your comments about this story below.
We’ve touched on pseudo-psychology/pseudo-science (also known as junk science, which is not science at all), and we’ve stated that Straight Inc. operated on pseudo-science and pseudo-psychology.
So the next logical question is what was Straight, Inc.?
What was Straight, Inc.?
Straight, Inc. was most well known as “the premier adolescent drug rehabilitation program in the U.S.” Legally it was considered an adolescent ‘day care program with a foster home component.’ The program was so controversial that the answer to this question will vary depending on who you ask.
There have been many stories that have been a part of the Straight, Inc. folklore. The most prominent story that was portrayed inside the program and in the media was that a group of concerned parents from the community got together and decided to do something about the teen drug problem, so they opened a program that operated on peer pressure. Their tagline was “kids helping kids, parents helping parents, and families helping families.” A sliver of this folktale is truth, but it doesn’t begin to touch on the full background story of this program.
It is true that the people who founded Straight, Inc. were parents, and most were concerned about the teen drug problem, but that wasn’t the entire story. This group of parents had met when they enrolled their own children in another controversial program called The Seed, Inc., the first adolescent drug rehab of its kind. There was a story that when the Seed, Inc. program left the St. Petersburg, FL area, it left a need for another adolescent help program.
This group of parents were supposedly going to start a new program which was a ‘kinder and gentler’ version of the Seed, Inc. This was the reason for the logo being a heart created from two ‘S’s. It was going to be like the Seed, only with more heart.
One former client decided to conduct a phone interview with one of the original board members of Straight, Inc. to find out how and why Straight, Inc. was opened.
My title for this interview is:
The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
(Edited only for clarity)
November 24, 2001 at 6:30pm
What were the original principles of Straight, Inc.?
We wanted Straight to have a heart. We felt the Seed had lost that, they had forgotten they were dealing with children. We wanted to take the good from the Seed and leave the bad. The problem was that Mel [Sembler] brought most of the troublemakers from the Seed with him.
That was the whole idea behind the heart logo. We wanted Straight to have a heart.
You see, at the Seed if you didn’t do right they would shun you, the kids at school and stuff. We wanted none of that. No shunning. We wanted the kids to know we cared. We wanted Straight to have a heart. But then all of the sudden the building wasn’t good enough.
What was your opinion on Straight?
You see, what was beginning to happen in Straight was the same thing that happened in the Seed that made it close down. They were moving away from what we wanted. You see, the first building, well, it was not in the upper middle class section of town and we all thought that was good because we wanted all kids. You know blacks, whites, rich or poor. We wanted to take all kids. If the principles originally installed had been followed it would have been a viable program.
You said the suddenly the building wasn’t good enough, what does that mean?
I guess the idea started about April of 1976. We had a goal to move into the building by September 1, 1976 and myself and another parent worked hours and hours with cleaning up this building. When we got it, it had all kinds of music stuff in it. It had been used for storage and we had to clean it up, build walls, bring it to code, and stuff like that.
I was in charge of that. I kept a log book of everything we did to that building. I remember one day Laura, Charlie Morgan’s wife walking in while I was writing in my book and she said to me,
“What are you doing?”
“I keep a log of all that we do to the building and I’m writing down item number 71. See, we have completed these seventy one things.”
She said, “Good Lord that is not a log, that’s a book!”
I just tossed that logbook out about three or four years ago. I didn’t think I would ever need it again. You know how you go through your house and do a thorough cleaning, well, I was moving into a condo and had to get rid of some stuff.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before they started pulling dirty stunts.
Who was pulling dirty stunts, and what dirty stunts were they pulling?
Suddenly the building wasn’t good enough. Suddenly they wanted a different building, in a different neighborhood. Now I’m not saying that Mel [Sembler] is prejudice, I’m just saying it felt like all they started to want was white kids.
Did you donate the original building?
No, I worked closely with ________of _______ Lumber who donated the building. He donated most of the material for the building too.
What was your position at Straight Inc.?
Well, I was the first Vice President in charge of the building. That would be the physical building. I was in charge of getting it ready and all.
How long were you there?
Were you one of those that left within the first year?
What prompted you to leave your position after such a short period of time?
Well, one thing was the “Come-Down” raps were getting way out of hand.
Can you explain what you mean by “out of hand”?
In the Seed, only the Senior Staff could do ‘Come-Down’ raps because they were trained people, or were kids in the program that had been through the program and knew what they were talking about. I started to hear from some of my foster children that they were letting everybody do the ‘Come-Down’ raps. You know, like even newcomers who had no idea what they were talking about, the whole group was doing it and it didn’t matter if they knew what they were saying was true or not. That bothered me a lot. You have to be careful with the “come-down” raps because they can destroy someone’s mind for good.
You said that was one thing that bothered you, was there more?
Yes, a lot of us were starting to get the cold shoulder, like we didn’t matter to the other executives. We didn’t like that. We didn’t want any part of that shunning business. We wanted Straight to have a heart. I also started getting feedback from other kids that they weren’t getting anything out of the program.
Mel use to call me ‘boy’ like he was some master or something and the building was not being maintained. They wouldn’t clean up at night or they would leave coffee pots on which is a fire hazard. We would put up light fixtures and soon there would be no light fixture again, just a bulb hanging from the ceiling with wires exposed. We were trying to teach these kids to take pride in themselves, take care of themselves and they weren’t taking care of the building.
So you are saying that the building was not properly maintained?
No, it wasn’t being maintained. I’ll be honest with you, one night they called me and asked me to go to the building to see if I could fix the safe because they couldn’t get in to it that day. So, I went to the building and when I walked in I saw this light that was left turned on and just dangling from the ceiling. It was one of the few that we had just put a new fixture on and I’m not so sure that we wouldn’t have had a fire that nigh if I hadn’t walked in. So, I turned the light off and went about fixing the safe. Well, I finally got the safe open and what do I find? A big bag of marijuana that was supposed to have already been turned over to the police. You see we had a policy that any drugs found on kids would be turned over to the police within three days.
How do you know the drugs had been in the safe for longer than the three day maximum?
The first fifty kids in the program were screened with their parents very thoroughly for about five hours or so. We insisted on parental involvement because if the kid didn’t have the right environment to return to or the parents weren’t involved, then it was a waste of time. We screened all the kids and I imagine that the pot was found when those kids were first brought in. That just won’t fly. I mean here we are a drug rehab and they are keeping pot in the safe.
Did you say anything about the drugs?
Yes, that is what prompted my leaving. I had these complaints and then I drafted a letter.
Oh, and Helen Petermann. She was another problem. She was, well, I don’t know how to put it. Hitler is the only way to put it. She was very dictatorial and she had no warmth. She came in there like these kids are rotten and she didn’t care how they felt. They were going to do what she said. She loved the ‘come-down’ raps. You could see that she loved every minute of it. That bothered me. We wanted Straight to have a heart and to remember these were children we were dealing with. In fact, the vote to bring her on board was just one short of a denial.
What were Helen Petermann’s credentials?
I don’t think she even had her high school diploma. I think she was a drop out. Then they brought in this guy Jim Hartz. He was introduced to us as someone who was a good youth administrator. I think the only reason Helen voted him in was because she could control him. I think that was Jim’s problem because he was basically a good guy, but Helen had him wrapped around her finger.
Earlier you mentioned you wrote a letter with your complaints. What happened when you wrote the letter?
The letter I wrote prompted an executive meeting. In fact, I remember telling one of the executives that we better leave because if they continue like this we are going to be in court more times than we can count, because they will get sued.
They had my list of issues and there were a lot of people on the board on my side. I’ll never forget it. Betty, Mel Sembler’s wife, started out with “Pleased to see you again.” Then she read the issues and then she started “You son of a bitch who do you think you are to question anything my husband does?” Well that was it for me, I got up and walked out and she was still yelling when I walked out of the door. I think a few others might have walked with me too. I walked out and never looked back.
We’ve heard eleven of the board members left very early on, is this true?
Yes, it’s true. If they didn’t leave that day, it was shortly after that.
So that was the day you left, correct?
Yes Do you remember what day that was?
Well let’s see, I was only there about a year, year and a half, so if I started in April of 1976, it would have been either in 1977 or early 1978.
Are you aware of the number of suicides among the children that were in Straight? Some that are directly related to Straight and others we can’t prove are because of Straight, but a lot of circumstantial evidence points to that in my opinion and some of these suicides happened either while on staff or shortly after leaving the program. Were you aware of any of this?
Hello? Are you still there?
Yes. (Crying) I’m here. Suicides? Oh my God…………………….I didn’t know……………..Oh God…………..I’m so sorry………..
Are you aware of the past and present allegations against Straight for abuse?
Abuse? Like child abuse?
Yes, like lack of food, liquids and sleep and not receiving necessary medical treatment. People getting pinned to a floor with other people sitting on every part of their body. Girls got raped by executive staff, and boy newcomers got raped in their foster homes and it never got reported. In one case a girl watch her brother’s head get slammed through a wall and when she jumped out of group to go save him, she was tackled, restrained, and then pinned to the floor by several other enrollees while she listened to her brother scream. No privacy, not being able to use the bathroom by yourself. Not being able to read anything including the Bible until second phase and that would include a billboard sign on the way into the building. (Pause) Are you there?
Yes, just a moment please….. (Crying) (Pause) (Still crying) Oh my God…………….I’m so sorry………….I’m so sorry……………..Oh God……………I didn’t know……………..when I left I left and never looked back. Every time I saw an article in the paper on Straight I would just throw it away. Over the years I may have hear one or two things but you know when kids get into group they brag about the drugs they did. I thought maybe it was just a few kids going overboard or something.
Oh….My…. God…..abuse…..oh, God…….
I don’t usually share this with the people I interview but you have been very honest with me. The reason the [Straight, Inc.] survivors have me doing these interviews is because I am a survivor.
So you know first-hand that it is true.
Yes, I do. In fact, the stories I just mentioned were my own except for one. (Crying) Oh my God…….I’m sorry……..I’m so sorry…..Oh God…….I wish I had never completed that building……I feel like I built a building that killed kids…..I’m sorry…..
It’s okay, I applaud you for having courage to leave. You weren’t there when the abuse happened to me or when most of the abuse started or got way out of control. (Still crying) … Maybe I should have done or said something when I left……Oh God…..I just left and never looked back. We never dreamed it would end up like that…None of us expected it to get like that…..I’m so sorry…..maybe we should have done more than just walk out.
It’s okay, you are talking to me now, and… you know I’ve been fighting Straight, Inc. since I was seventeen years old and I am 37 year old now. In all those years, in all of those court cases, civil suits, articles and interviews, NOT ONCE….NOT ONCE…. did I ever hear anyone say they were sorry. You don’t know how healing that is to hear, even though you weren’t there when it happened to me. Just you talking helps. (Still crying) You know, that was always an unfinished chapter in my life. I just walked. Maybe this is God’s way of helping me to close that chapter. I’m a very religious man. I’ll help any way that I can. I will do anything I can to help you survivors. You know I have a lot of church projects going on but maybe this God’s way of telling me what I’m supposed to be doing.
Thank you. You know, if you’re just willing to tell people what the original intentions were, that helps. A lot of us survivors have been walking around for years thinking, “Who dreamed up this hell?” “What kind of sick person starts a program like this?”
I’ll be happy to talk to any of them. That was not the original intention. We wanted to help kids, all kids. We wanted Straight to have a heart to remember they were dealing with children….Oh my God…. How many kids went through the program?
Close to or over twenty thousand
Oh….my God…..NO…..OH God…….
You know I’ve talked to about 150 survivors or more. Not one that I know of has not attempted suicide.
HOLY….Oh my God…..I’m sorry….. I wish I had never, ever finished that building….
It’s okay, you can help now, just by talking to the survivors or even talking to the original eleven or so that left and ask them to share their story with us. Yes hang on, I think I have some names and numbers for you. (He gives some information)
I’ll do anything I can to help.
If you could help us with that original eleven that would be great. A lot of survivors are real attached to that Morgan Yacht building but we think the current owner is somehow tied to Sembler so it might be hard for us to get it. Maybe someone in that original eleven can help us get that building. We want to put a memorial in the big group room. (Tearing up again) A memorial…..oh wow….that would be great…..I’m so sorry for what happened to you and everyone. You can give my phone number out to any survivor. I’ll try to talk to the ones I know and see if we can’t do something. You give my number to anyone that needs to know what the original plan was or needs to hear that at one point it was an idea about helping and caring NOT destroying. Have you talked to Charlie [Morgan]?
Yes, I spoke with him last night. I didn’t go into all the details about the abuse. I just wanted his advice on the building. I’m supposed to call him back. He said he would help any way he can.
You should tell him. Charlie Morgan is a great guy and he will help.
You call me anytime. ANYTIME.
Thank you, I really appreciate you talking to me.
It’s the least I can do and if I can talk to the others I will.
The interview ended with discussing the Bucs game that was on television at that time.
Straight, Inc. operated using pseudoscience (as do many of the current tough love teen programs)
I was definitely drawn to study psychology to try to get answers to the questions I had from the moment I ended up in Straight, Inc. back in 1982. Of course I had just turned fifteen years old at the time, but I knew that I had experimented with drinking and drugs less than most in my high school. I drank a few times and tried to smoke pot a few times, but I never understood the thrill of ‘partying’ and it wasn’t anywhere even close to being central in my life.
When I first realized that my parents had tricked me into an adolescent drug rehabilitation center thousands of miles from home I was angry, insulted and glad at the same time. My mother in particular always seem to think I was an awful person. I always remember wondering what she would think if she had some of the other kids I knew as her child instead of me. Upon realizing where I was I figured, “she’ll finally realize I’m not this terrible person that she seems to think I am,” since I knew no drug rehabilitation center would ever accept me.” I rather enjoyed the thought of how humiliated she would be for making such a ridiculous mistake. However, that obviously wasn’t the way this whole thing turned out.
Straight, Inc. operated in a perfectly pseudo-scientific fashion, with plenty of its own folklore and clichés on top of using theories that could not be falsified. For the quickest way to understand ‘falsifiability‘ and the important part it plays in legitimate sciences please see the quick 2 minute video above this post. Those who were in any pseudo-scientific teen programs will instantly recognize how none of the theories posed in the programs were falsifiable. Those who weren’t there, will understand more as this story unfolds.
If “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”?
Straight, Inc. definitely should have worn this label.
According to Merriam-Webster, pseudoscience is defined as a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific.
‘Psychology is a young science and is often in conflict with folk wisdom’ (Stanovich, 2010, p.18).
Often a person uses some folk proverb to explain a behavior even though, on an earlier occasion, this same person used a directly contradictory folk proverb to explain the same type of event. For example, most of us have heard or said, “Look before you leap.” Now there’s a useful, straightforward bit of behavioral advice—except that I vaguely remember admonishing on occasion, “He who hesitates is lost.” And “absence makes the heart grow fonder” is a pretty clear prediction of an emotional reaction to environmental events. But then what about “out of sight, out of mind”? And if “haste makes waste,” why does “time wait for no man”? How could the saying “two heads are better than one” not be true? Except that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” If I think “it’s better to be safe than sorry,” why do I also believe “nothing ventured, nothing gained”? And if “opposites attract,” why do “birds of a feather flock together”? I have counseled many students to “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” But I hope my last advisee has never heard me say this, because I just told him, “cross that bridge when you come to it.”
The enormous appeal of clichés like these is that, taken together as implicit “explanations” of behavior, they cannot be refuted. No matter what happens, one of these explanations will be cited to cover it. No wonder we all think we are such excellent judges of human behavior and personality. We have an explanation for anything and everything that happens. As British writer Matthew Parris (2007) has said, “Folk wisdom is such a cowardly thing” (p. 28) By this he means that it takes no risk that it might be refuted (Stanovich, 2010, p. 13-14).
Psychology is a scientific discipline
A lot of people misinterpret psychology as common sense, but contrary to popular belief psychology is a scientific discipline. ‘Psychology provides conclusions about behavior that it produces from scientific evidence. Practical applications of psychology have been derived from and tested by scientific methods’ (Stanovich, 2010, p. 6).
According to Stanovich (2010), the three most important principles of the scientific method are:
That science employs methods of systematic empiricism.
Systematic empiricism is systematic, structured and controlled observations.
That it aims for knowledge that is publicly verifiable.
Publicly verifiable includes peer review and replication
Peer review is having a group of experts in the field review your experimental methods and conclusions to make sure it meets the necessary standards before it is published or accepted.
Replication means you have completed an experiment in such a way that other scientists can perform the exact same procedure and preferably come away with the same results. If they come away with the exact same results, this strengthens the evidence of the theory, if they come away with different results then review and revision may be needed.
It seeks problems that are empirically solvable and that yield testable theories.
The theory must have specific implications for observable events in the natural world; this is what is meant by empirically testable. This criterion of testability is often called the falsifiability criterion (Stanovich, 2010, p. 12).
I will dedicate a future post to further explanation of the falsifiability criterion.
‘Many people are drawn to the discipline because it holds out the possibility of actually testing “common sense” that has accepted without question for centuries’ (Stanovich, 2010, p. 18)
Straight, Inc.: Lessons Learned from a Generation Exposed to Pop. Psychology Therapy.
I’ve collected volumes of information about Straight, Inc. and the pop. psychology phenomenon over the past fifteen years and I want to share this significant information with the public.
This is an important story that explains how we are often (usually unintentionally) mislead to believe erroneous and often damaging information. This has become even more prevalent in this “information age.”
During the 1970’s and 1980’s erroneous but popular information spread quickly. Now with the advancements in technology, our society is even more susceptible to being exposed to what seems to be generally accepted as sound psychological (religious, political, insert your favorite social institution here, etc.) advice, but is often unscientific, unproven, and even worse harmful.
The same pop. psychology of the 1960’s and 1970’s which enabled a huge spike in cult popularity, still exists today only in a more subtle way. Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development, writes in his book How to Think Straight About Psychology, that “many pseudosciences are multimillion-dollar industries that depend on the lack of public awareness that claims about human behavior can be tested. The general public is also unaware that many claims made by these pseudosciences have been tested and proved false.”
The stories you will find on this blog are very specific examples of some of these pop. psych. movements which duped thousands of highly educated, well-respected, well-meaning families into spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours on therapies that turned out to be nothing but pseudoscience (‘junk science’) No true therapy took place. Straight, Inc. was one of the earliest and most well-known adolescent-focused ‘teen therapy programs’ and was the precursor to today’s “troubled teen” industry, or what I would rather start calling, the teen program industry (TPI).
If you think you couldn’t or wouldn’t fall for any junk science claims then this blog is especially for you.
My own naturally-skeptical father, who spent the better part of the 1970’s warning us against the dangers of the Moonies and other cults that sent their members door to door to recruit new members, fell for this particular scam.
Many parents who never previously considered their child might be struggling, suddenly began wondering if their child was having problems after when they listened to the testimonials, given by children who were in the program.
My parents fell for the pseudoscience (also known as junk-science) that was displayed as proof that this one particular ‘tough love’ program (Straight, Inc.) worked for kids who had been struggling in any way.
Believing junk science claims is problematic because of the harm that comes to the families who are believers in the program.
My family was involved in the first story (about Straight, Inc.), but this isn’t just my story, this story belongs to many people and the lessons learned can be applied to a myriad of people in numerous circumstances.
While reading this blog you will learn:
What junk science/pseudo-science is and how to detect it in its many forms.
How the seemingly well-intentioned spread of untested, unproven popular psychology can ruin lives and entire families.
How coercive persuasion occurs even among the most educated people.
Where and how this institutional persuasion occurs.
How situations you are in can overpower your natural individual thought processes without your awareness.
As Stanford University psychology professor Zimbardo has written, “How good people turn evil.” And “How ‘good’ people are seduced or induced to engage in violent, or “evil” deeds by situational forces in which they find themselves, and the psychological justifications and interpretations.
(https://zimbardo.socialpsychology.org/) Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect can be found here.
The above concepts will be demonstrated though the story of Straight, Incorporated, a business that billed itself as a program for struggling teens and was even endorsed by two Presidents of the United States of America, all the while being based on nothing but so-called ‘Pop. Psych’ or ‘common sense.’
After a brief hiatus, I am very excited to have the opportunity to re-embark on one of my greatest passions, advocating for evidence-based behavioral health care. I have a special spot in my heart for ensuring adolescents receive proper care, but after more than fifteen years of research I have come to realize that there is a need to publicly support proper care for all ages.
This morning I was saddened to see that the need for this advocacy, especially for the adolescent population, is just as urgent today as it was when I first decided to speak out about the prevalence of adolescent programs based on pseudo-psychological (non-evidence-based) claims in 2000.
Boy Who Died at Lord of the Flies Bootcamp was the headline from news.com.au that came across my desk this morning, accompanied by a video of an interview between Matt Lauer and the couple who runs the wilderness camp called Tierra Blanca Ranch in New Mexico, where the boy died.
These residential treatment programs and camps have been in existence in one form or another since the early part of the twentieth century. The popularity of these programs for teens grew in the 1970’s after President Nixon declared war on drugs which precipitated the Parent Movement, led by Marsha ‘Keith’ Manatt Schuchard and her husband, Ronald Schuchard, and was followed by the ToughLove Movement created by Phyllis and David York.
While there may be adolescent residential treatment programs out there that are based on sound scientific research, the majority of the programs that I have encountered for young people are based on nothing more than junk science (untested or unproven claims).
Keith Stanovich, Professor Emeritus of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto, in his eye opening psychology book, How to Think Straight About Psychology, states “Many pseudosciences are multi-million dollar industries that depend on the lack of public awareness that claims about human behavior can be tested. The general public is also unaware that any of the claims made by these pseudosciences have been tested and proven false.”
Unfortunately when parents become confused by their adolescent child’s behavior, it is sometimes followed by frustration, or fear for their child’s well-being. This frustration, embarrassment, and desperation often leaves highly intelligent, well-intentioned parents vulnerable to bogus statistics and false claims of programs that want to take their hard-earned money in exchange for fixing their kid.
As a result the parents are often happy when they first get their ‘newly repaired’ teenager back home after an average stay of at least a year away from their families. Parents are often heard saying things like, “I’m so happy, I’ve got my baby back!” or “We’re so glad to have our sweet child again.”
The parents are usually so pleased with the outcome of the program that they don’t realize how much harm has come to the child during the time that s/he was away from home. They don’t understand how much psychological and often physical trauma their child has endured to become this shadow of a child that s/he once was. At least the lucky parents don’t learn about the trauma their child experienced. Unfortunately, there are too many parents just like Bruce Staeger’s parents who get a phone call to pick up their dead child from the program. Sometimes the child has committed suicide, but often the child has died due to severe neglect or physical abuses.
This is not an easy subject, but it is one that must be broached so that not only parents, but care-givers of all kinds, can become better equipped to evaluate psychological health care claims and information. There is an urgent need for the general public to recognize that we all should learn how to navigate through the maze of psychological information available to us. Everyone could benefit from learning how to evaluate the validity of the claims being made, especially when they might seem too good to be true.