Suffering Together

In Lake Worth's Growing Together, kids don't kick drugs. They're beaten and humiliated.

Vicky Butler, a Jupiter woman who enrolled her troubled, 16-year-old son, John, in Growing Together in the fall of 1999, remembers these sessions well. "The songs they made these kids sing -- and they were teenagers -- were songs intended for 4- and 5-year-olds," she says. "It was degrading. You just had to look at the kids. Behind their eyes, they would be saying, 'This sucks. '"

Butler says she began to wonder, when she attended her first open house, whether she'd made a mistake. "My son was no angel," she admits, "but no one deserves the treatment these kids receive." During the session, Butler remembers, staff passed around a microphone to parents, who would tell everyone in attendance about their children's misdeeds. There were drugs, illicit sex, violence, theft. The microphone would then move to the other side of the room. Assuming a child had behaved well during the week and earned the "privilege" to speak, he or she would then confess.

During one session in October 1999, Butler's son became agitated before she spoke. He stood up and flailed his arms. "He was totally flipping out," Butler remembers. John began to walk off. An alarmed Butler started toward her son. As she did, a large behavioral therapist parents referred to as "The Enforcer" also headed for John. Suddenly, the accordion divider rolled across the room and blocked Butler.

"All of a sudden, I heard my son screaming," she recalls. Butler panicked and confronted Growing Together staff. "That's my kid behind that curtain, and I don't know what's going on," she told them. They assured her that John was fine and that he would see a psychiatrist soon. Butler returned to her suburban home in Jupiter, convinced that John was in a safe place.

Meanwhile, she continued hosting other Growing Together children at night. She had modified her $169,292 home following directions from the program's staff. All pictures and mirrors were removed from walls. Knives were hidden. The bathroom was stripped, leaving only the sink, toilet, and bathtub. The windows and doors of the bedroom where five kids slept were rigged to an alarm system. Once they went to bed at 10 p.m., they could not leave the room until the next morning. "If any of them had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, they would have been in trouble," Butler admits. "It was like a prison."

Before bed, the children would write in their journals about what they had learned that day. Often, their entries involved confessions they had made during therapy. Growing Together refers to these journal entries as "moral inventories." To advance through the phases of the program, children must confess to illicit behavior or abuse they suffered, then describe the incidents' effects on their lives.

Butler recalls asking the kids about their entries. They told her that they made up most of their confessions because Growing Together required such admissions before graduation. Accounts that included sexual abuse or underage sex were particularly encouraged by staff, the kids allegedly told Butler.

The children also claimed staff had beaten and physically restrained them, Butler says. She even met one young girl who claimed a therapist had broken her arm. Other kids asserted that the building was always filthy. Growing Together administrators admitted to Butler (and later in court documents) that the facility had rats and that several urinals had been backed up for days at a time.

In March 2000, Butler and her ex-husband, Stephen, who shared custody, removed John from the program. Stephen Butler was moving to Arkansas and wanted to take the boy. Once free, John told his mother that he had suffered a sprained wrist at Growing Together when a therapist slammed him down on a table. Mickey Bowman, then the executive director of Growing Together, showed little concern for the injury. In a letter to Vicky Butler dated June 20, 2000, Bowman wrote: "Regarding the 'purported injury' to your son's wrist, he was laughing at the issue immediately following."

Soon after, a private psychiatrist examined John and determined that his problem wasn't drugs. He was bipolar. "You would think that, being in the program, someone would have said, 'Oh, by the way, your child is bipolar,'" Vicky Butler says. "Nobody picked up on that because no psychiatrist or psychologist ever saw him."

Butler later refused to pay Growing Together the roughly $5,000 she owed for John's treatment. She claimed the facility had billed her for clinical exams that never occurred. "Kids got more messed up in there than they were when they went in," she says. The facility sued and turned the debt over to a bill collector. Butler eventually forked over a reduced amount.

"My teeth grit every time I hear the words Growing Together," she says. "They used to say, 'What goes on here stays here.' Now I know why. They don't want the outside world to know what's going on."

Growing Together Executive Director Allard says today that she has no knowledge of the "Naked Crusader" incidents or the types of child abuse alleged by Butler. "Could things like this happen in an institutional setting? Yes," Allard says. "Would it blemish the institution? Yes, it would. Would anyone condone it? Absolutely not."

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