Program Dates: October 1976 – June 1977
Exited Program: by Escape
Information obtained by Investigator in 1977-1978.
The Florida District V investigators spoke with those no longer participating in the Straight, Inc. program and revealed many complaints about Helen Petermann.
Executive Staff Lacked Sufficient Education
In an earlier post one of the former Board Members said she heard Mel Sembler tell her husband that Jim Hartz was hired for his B.A. degree in psychology, but Helen Petermann was hired to run the place. Helen Petermann did not have a college degree, she hadn’t even complete high school.
Petermann’s qualifications were that she was had worked in the Seed, Inc. the previous adolescent program in St. Petersburg, Florida, from which she was eventually fired, and once had a daughter enrolled in the Seed, Inc.
Some of the interviews didn’t include the former clients’ dates in the program but of those that did include intake dates and exit dates, the earliest enrollee that was interviewed was a girl who went into Straight the second month that their doors had been open for business, October 1976. She spent eight months in the program before she ran away from the program in June 1977.
Physical Abuse: Helen Petermann grabbed her by the jaw and jerked her head around.
She told the investigator that she rarely had breakfast in her foster home and only had a dry sandwich for lunch and dinner most of the time that she was there. She felt she was both physically and verbally abused when Helen Petermann grabbed her by the jaw, jerked her head around, and screamed abuses at her. Robin (a staff member) also threatened to hit her, but didn’t follow through. Helen Petermann also repeatedly ‘cut down’ Client A’s parents, and they were glad to see her out of the program.
When this former client ran away she was subsequently sent to the Juvenile Detention Home and then placed in Pinellas Marine Institute where she got along very well. Even though she reached fourth phase, she maintained that she got nothing from the program and that she just “conned” her way through the program to get by.
Information from a recent interview conducted with a former client whose time in Straight, Inc. overlapped the program dates of the interviewee above.
I recently spoke with another female who was enrolled in Straight, Inc. from March 1977 to early or mid-1978 and learned some interesting things about the program from that time period.
No fifth phase and shorter operating hours in the early days.
In March of 1977, Straight’s operating hours were 10:00am – 8:00pm, rather than 9am-9pm as they became later.
Also during this time frame there were only a total of four phases, and fourth phase was slated to be 90 days/three months. However, sometime during the summer of 1977, fourth phase was extended to a six month minimum.
My interviwee described the change as extremely demoralizing (as those who were there can imagine). It was also around this time when marathon ‘come down’ raps came into existence. These ‘raps’ were group meetings of program kids, which were particularly heavy on physical and verbal abuse, as a method of ‘therapy.’ (We will describe these ‘group therapy sessions’ in further detail in a future post).
Client A from the investigation was probably one of many fourth phasers who, as my interviewee described, began “screwing up” during this time. (“Screwing up” can refer to any action that goes against the program up to and including “copping out” or escaping/running from the program.)
It was also during this time when some of Staff’s favorite former clients wrote an article for the Pinellas Park High School about the marathon raps/abuses at Straight, Inc. Staff was shocked by the unrest of many of these former Staff favorites and seemed to be an impetus to create a fifth phase with slightly more freedom than fourth phase and to shorten fourth phase back to its original three month minimum time period.
This was horrible news for the fourth phasers who had done their full six months on fourth phase and now had to pretend to be happy about doing even more time on a new fifth phase. My interviewee remembers the day Jim Hartz walked into group to announce this ‘amazing new opportunity’ to become fifth phasers.
My interviewee was one of the original fifth phasers. Even in the early days of the program, the fifth phasers stood around the group for the entire day when they were in the building participating in raps (or group meetings) and wrote notes in the Observations Book (Obs. Book for short) about group members. Often these notes were used by Staff against members of the group.