It was the end of another day in the Straight, Inc. warehouse. Day 347 to be exact. By now things were somewhat easier than they were initially. Living my days inside a large, windowless, fluorescent lit, and (with the exception of rows of blue plastic chairs for ‘clients’) mostly empty warehouse room had become my new normal.
I had finally assimilated to this tiny alternative society that was within, but separate from, the larger “normal” community outside of the warehouse walls.
What used to seem foreign became familiar. (And the formerly familiar had become foreign.) Each day I was with the same people, doing the same things, for the last 346 days, which is what made this day, Wednesday, May 11, 1983, seem all the more bizarre.
At the end of each day, staff announced host-home changes. Since there was no way of knowing when or why staff would choose to shuffle newcomers in between different host-homes, I listened closely to find out if the same two newcomers who were with me last night would still be coming home with me tonight. I wasn’t too surprised when I heard one of my newcomers’ names called and assigned to a different oldcomer’s home, then I heard my second newcomer’s name called and reassigned. After that, I waited patiently to learn who would be coming home with me in their places, secretly hoping it would not be any of the newest girls who were still trying to come to terms with being placed in this radical program. This was because I had to worry more about brand-new newcomers than those who had been there longer. The people newest to the program were the most likely to run and if they succeeded, I would pay the price the next morning when I returned to the warehouse.
When Staff finished announcing the host-home assignments, they began calling people to line up for dismissal. It seemed they had forgotten to assign replacement newcomers to my house and I panicked. It was not that I didn’t welcome the break from taking care of newcomers and finally having some alone time, but an oldcomer whose newcomers were removed from their house and not replaced with others typically meant the oldcomer was getting set back to newcomer status and everything awful that went along with being new to the program, including the loss of all freedom.
Staff dismissed everyone from group just as they did every other evening, except they left me sitting in a blue chair and one other girl standing in front of a door. Angela* had been in the program for a few months longer than I had but we were both on the fourth phase of the five-phase program, which meant we were more than half way towards getting out of that crazy place.
What on earth was going on? I searched for a reason for being left behind. What kind of trouble could I be in? I retraced every movement I made earlier in the day and for the past week but I couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong. I had no idea what was coming my way but I suspected I was about to get ambushed.
Angela remained standing in her position as guard at one of the doors and I remained seated alone in one of many hard plastic chairs, as the other kids lined up heal-to-toe, with their noses in the necks or hair of the person in front of them. Like every other night, Staff made the group stand like that for what seemed like hours (probably ensuring everyone’s rides had arrived, but back then it seemed like just another power play) then finally said, “Group dismissed!” Everyone silently filed out of the building to the vehicles waiting for them in the gravel parking lot behind the building. Each oldcomer held tightly on to two newcomers by their waistbands to ensure they didn’t run away.
When the warehouse became still and most of its fluorescent lights turned off, only Angela and I remained. I was left to wonder if the staff members had forgotten they left us in this room. I looked over at the Angela to try to detect what was going on, but had to turn away when she turned to look at me. We were not allowed to talk to, or look at each other, or communicate in any way in this ‘big group’ room. I didn’t want to do anything to cause myself any more trouble than it appeared I might already be in, and no one ever knew who might turn you in to staff for a rule infraction, real or imagined, in order to save themselves from trouble, or further their own progress in the program. Trust no one was the only rule I had set for myself while in that program.
Finally the young female staff member, Patti,* walked back into the room, and with her best poker face, she motioned to me with her hand to come follow her, and as we walked by Angela she motioned for her to do the same. We followed Patti out of the main warehouse room and up the hall to the front office. This walk, though it lasted less than two minutes, felt like hours, as I searched the deepest corners of my mind to prepare myself for what might be happening, even though I couldn’t come up with anything. We finally followed Patti over to the door of one of the two conference rooms located right off the lobby of the front office.
Because it seemed as though only the three of us were left in the building I was surprised to see that there were rows of chairs set up in this conference room in a horseshoe shape filled with silent people facing me, mostly adults, some I recognized from the program and some I didn’t.
I scanned the horseshoe from left to right and front to back until I spotted my sister and mother in the front row towards the right side of the horseshoe. Patti directed me to sit in the empty seat next to my mother. My eyes widened, and continued to scan the room waiting for an explanation. I half hoped Mom finally came to her senses and decided to withdraw me from this place, yet I was not completely sure I still wanted out of this place, which by now was all that was familiar to me. All of my old friends, and old familiar places and happenings from my pre-program days now seemed as though they had existed only in a dream.
My sister’s face looked stone cold as usual while she stared at the floor, but the expression on my mother’s face was one I had never seen before and it annoyed me. Would someone just say something? I finally heard one of the executive (a.k.a. adult) staff members behind me speak up, “Mom, do you have something to tell Kathy?” It seemed the executive staff were always in charge of communications between the family and the kid in the program. My mother’s face contorted and she weakly spoke, “Dad died today.”
Instantly, it felt like my mind detached from my body and spun around faster and faster doing a reconnaissance of the room and the people in it while trying to make sense of where I was and what I was hearing. The sight of my mother’s face twisting in a way I never saw before infuriated me, was she pretending to cry? Meanwhile, the voice in my head that was previously interrogating me by saying, “What did you do wrong now, Kathy? You do realize you are never going to get out of this place, don’t you? Did you do something? Or did someone falsely report you so they could score points with Staff?” switched to saying more protective things like, “What? What are all of you people looking at? What do you want me to say? What do you want me to do? I’ve never been in this situation before and I don’t know how to react!”
Finally, I heard a voice from within the room, I think it was the same executive staff that had spoken earlier, “Kathy, what are you feeling right now?” I continued to stare forward as my brain functions seemed to operate separately from my body. “How do you think I feel?” I thought silently. I was enraged, but I couldn’t say that. Now was not the time to get in trouble or I wouldn’t be allowed to go to my own father’s funeral.
Oh my god! Would I even be allowed to go to his funeral? I had seen several people prevented from attending family funerals by the program. By now my rage was off the charts and even though I knew I had better answer when spoken to by executive staff I just couldn’t. Thankfully, my mouth would just not cooperate. I heard the talking continue in the room, but I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. Thankfully they let me go to my own home that evening.
The next thing I remember is walking in to my house alone for the first time in a long time without holding on to newcomers. I was vaguely aware that Angela had been sent home with me, not holding on to my pants, but sent home with me nonetheless for whatever reason I didn’t know or care. As I walked through the kitchen, my mind flashed to just twenty-four hours earlier in that same spot when my father tried to quietly say good-night to me without interrupting me, while I was tending to newcomers. But I asked him to please wait just one minute. He did. A minute later I gave him a big hug and kiss good-night and told him, “I love you.”
He was fine just last night! This can’t be real! If this is another one of the program’s sick lies, I might just kill somebody, I thought as I mindlessly walked up to my parents’ room hoping for proof that this was just a completely distasteful hoax (which wasn’t out of the norm for this program). But when I turned on the bedroom light instead of seeing my father, I saw a bed without its usual bedspread and an imprint on my mother’s normally military tight bed sheets. The indentation in the sheets outlined where my father took his last breath.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
So the next logical question is 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:
(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?
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.
Are you there?
Yes, just a moment please….. (Crying)
(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.