Suffering Together

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

Three months later, Straight went under. But some former staffers went on to form new facilities based on the program's model. Newton, for instance, formed KIDS of North Jersey, which closed in 2003 after the psychiatrist settled a lawsuit that alleged abuse for $6.5 million.

Growing Together is one of about a dozen facilities nationwide that continues to employ the controversial Straight model. The program's parent-patient manual and treatment method are similar to Straight's. The terms that Straight developed -- oldcomer, newcomer, and moral inventories, among others -- are used by Growing Together.

"If they had to go to the bathroom in the middle of night, it was trouble. It was like a prison."
"If they had to go to the bathroom in the middle of night, it was trouble. It was like a prison."
One parent described Growing Together as a "concentration camp."
Colby Katz
One parent described Growing Together as a "concentration camp."

In 1989, two years after Growing Together had gone into business as an offshoot of Straight, Rik Pavlescak began to receive complaints of abuse. The state's director of substance abuse services in the West Palm Beach regional office of DCF, Pavlescak inspected the facility during two days in March 1990.

"As a state employee, I had access to all client files, interviews with staff, and clients," the 42-year-old Pavlescak explains. "I could make unannounced visits to the program at any time and review their records for compliance with state laws."

New Times requested all Florida records about Growing Together, but the state appears to have purged papers related to the investigation. Luckily, before leaving his job in 1990, Pavlescak made copies of records related to the program. Among his findings: A female client complained that she had severe cramping and bleeding. Staff did not refer her to a medical doctor. Only days later, when her mother became aware of the condition, did she see a physician. The girl was pregnant and miscarried.

Another female client was forced to stand in front of a mirror and yell, "I am a whore, a slut, and a druggie."

When asked what would happen if he reported child abuse, a 17-year-old male commented, "I'd be ignored and told to shut up." That boy said he had restrained other children at least 15 times. Once, he allegedly witnessed a staff member punch a child.

A 16-year-old boy told Pavlescak that he regularly killed cockroaches during mealtimes and was not given privacy when showering or using the toilet. The boy said he did not want to be "brainwashed." Pavlescak wrote in his report: "He believes that is what has happened to other clients."

An oldcomer told him: "I sleep in front of the [bedroom] door... [to keep] newcomers from escaping."

A 15-year-old boy attempted suicide while in the program, and staff never referred him to a psychologist. "The [suicide] issue appears to have been dropped by the program staff," Pavlescak wrote. Months later, the boy said he still had suicidal thoughts.

Children were given lessons on how to restrain other kids. (Using patients to restrain patients is a violation of state law.) "They said to kick in their knees to knock them down if you have to," one girl said.

Following his visits in March, Pavlescak issued a probationary license that required the facility to address the state's concerns and undergo another site visit within 90 days.

Also in March, Karen Weiss, whose teenaged daughter Dana had been committed to Growing Together, complained to Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Michael Gersten. Weiss, who then lived in Coral Springs, said Dana had been a newcomer for 15 months. Two psychiatrists who examined Dana alleged the girl had suffered severe psychological trauma.

Stephen E. Moskowitz, a Coral Springs psychiatrist, told Gersten that Dana was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "When discussing returning to the program," Moskowitz wrote, "she seemed quite fearful and seemed to project an image of a child whose spirit and sense of confidence had been totally crushed." Growing Together's psychological reports on Dana were "incomplete and really lacked a professional type of organization and presentation," Moskowitz stated.

What's more, Moskowitz recommended that Judge Gersten talk to Dana privately. "One must use the analogy of people who were part of a cult and felt indoctrinated into the cult and were fearful of repercussions," Moskowitz advised.

Gersten ordered the girl out of Growing Together, saying in court that he would refuse to send more children to the program unless its treatment improved. "Everything I see smacks of child abuse," Gersten said.

Growing Together refused to yield to either Gersten or the DCF. In a letter dated March 30, 1990, then-Board President Warren Blanchard appealed the probationary license. Blanchard also disputed nearly all of the state's findings. The only actions Growing Together had taken, according to Blanchard's letter, were to stop giving classes to children on restraining their peers and to define more clearly when staff should use physical restraint.

That's when Pavlescak discovered that Growing Together held sway in Tallahassee. The group's request for a review hearing went to Pavlescak's boss, program supervisor Linda J. Giesler, and then on to Pam Peterson, the state chief of alcohol and drug abuse in Tallahassee. Both of Pavlescak's superiors attended the licensing hearing with Growing Together's attorneys. That was unprecedented, he says. (Neither Giesler nor Peterson could be reached for comment.)

"We licensed over 90 different treatment centers in the area, and this was just one," Pavlescak says. "But the entire team was never involved with any of the issues with any of the other treatment centers."

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