By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
The history of Growing Together begins 28 years ago and more than 200 miles from South Florida. In 1976, Mel Sembler, who made millions developing strip malls throughout the Sunshine State, opened a nonprofit juvenile drug treatment center in St. Petersburg called Straight Inc. His reasons were altruistic: The only adolescent drug treatment facility in the Tampa Bay area had shut down, and Sembler wanted to give back. One of his own sons had been rehabilitated in such a program.
During the late '70s, Straight became a well-known and apparently effective drug treatment center. Its methods, which were designed by psychiatrists Miller Newton and George Ross, were a kind of hybrid of the common 12-step model used by Alcoholics Anonymous; but there were only six steps and a hierarchical system. Children who had been in the program for a few months graduated to higher levels and became "oldcomers." They were then put in charge of new attendees, known as "newcomers." Newcomers weren't allowed to move around the facility unless oldcomers held them by the belt in a technique known as "belt looping."
Privacy was elusive. Newcomers were watched at all times, even in the bathroom. Boys had to keep their hair cropped close to the scalp. Girls were not allowed to shave their legs or armpits. During the day, children attended hours of group therapy. At night, they went to host homes run by parents of other children in the program.
At its height, Straight operated three facilities in Florida and others in California, Georgia, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas. They were based on a "tough love" philosophy that required a minimal staff because children did some of the disciplining and restraining.
The facility's success, coupled with Sembler's wealth, helped raise the developer's political profile. In 1980, he donated $100,000 to the Republican Party and exploited his network of wealthy friends to raise millions more. Eight years later, though Sembler had no political or diplomatic experience, President George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Australia.
Ross, who would later write about his theories in a book titled Treating Adolescent Substance Abuse: Understanding the Fundamental Elements, left Straight in 1980 and formed two similar programs: LIFE in Osprey, near Sarasota, and Possibilities Unlimited in Lexington, Kentucky. Soon after Ross' departure from Straight, allegations of malfeasance surfaced. A state attorney's investigation shut down Straight-Sarasota in 1983 amid charges of child abuse. The organization also paid out substantial sums in settlements and judgments, according to court records and news reports. One former patient, Karen Norton, won a $720,000 jury verdict in St. Petersburg after she was strip-searched and humiliated by staff, then slammed against a wall by Newton. "Dr. Ross left Straight because he didn't like some of the shenanigans," Allard says, alluding to these abuse charges.
One of Straight-founder Ross' new programs also had problems. In 1985, the psychiatrist, who declined to comment for this article, was charged and acquitted of falsely imprisoning teenagers in Kentucky.
In 1987, two of Ross' top assistants from LIFE started Growing Together in Lake Worth. "In the LIFE program, there were so many people from the West Palm Beach area that were traveling across the state that they basically asked if they could start their own program on this side," Allard explains. To this day, Allard cites Ross' theories as the foundation of her program.
Children generally attend for 18 months. Parents pay a flat $14,000 fee, and financial aid is available. Additionally, a public school teacher visits every day so children in the program can progress to the next grade level.
Straight's militant style of drug treatment piqued the interest of Barry Lane Beyerstein, a professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Colombia. In 1992, Beyerstein penned a scathing report on Straight's methods for the Drug Policy Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates changes to U.S. drug policy. He compared them to the mind-control techniques used by communists on American POWs during the Korean War.
"Straight tried to break down individuality," Beyerstein recalls. "That's what the Koreans succeeded beautifully in doing, making people dependent on their captors and removing any individuality and any ability to think about what they're being told. They never give any time alone. They keep them frantically busy all the time so they're always exhausted and hungry. That makes people more malleable. Straight was like a cult."
The same year Beyerstein released his report, Richard Bradbury, a graduate of Straight-St. Petersburg who had become a staff member after spending two years in the program, started collecting evidence of child abuse. In December 1992, the insider provided his findings to the state Inspector General's Office.
"I was brainwashed," the 39-year-old Bradbury says today. "As children, we believed it was for our own good when we were beaten or stabbed. We believed we were pieces of shit."
In April 1993, one month before Acting Inspector General Lowell Clary was to release his report, Straight closed its Florida clinics and moved the headquarters to Atlanta.
According to Clary's five-page account, Ambassador Sembler's political influence had kept Straight in business despite evidence that staff withheld medication and food, used excessive force, and deprived children of sleep in an effort to control them. "It appears that some [state regulators] experienced some degree of pressure to grant Straight a license," Clary wrote. That pressure included calls from Sembler and state senators, though the report does not specify which senators. Additionally, according to the Clary report, a top state official named Dr. Ivor Groves made it clear to his underling, Linda Lewis, that she should not take action against Straight. According to the report, when Lewis expressed concerns about child abuse, Groves told her, "If you do anything other than what I tell you to do on this issue, I will fire you on the spot." Groves then reportedly made the same threat to another state inspector.