By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The state ignored Pavlescak's reports and gave Growing Together full license. The buzz at the West Palm Beach DCF office was that the political push had come from the top. Gov. Bob Martinez was one year away from becoming the nation's drug czar under President George H.W. Bush.
"It wasn't until later that I learned that Martinez had ties to the program," Pavlescak explains, "and that some strange things had happened." During his investigation of Growing Together, Pavlescak had personally reported one complaint to the state's child abuse registry. Upon inquiry, a state official later told him that no complaints existed.
Pavlescak left state employment in April 1990 following an unrelated dispute with one of his bosses, who was later chastised for a financial conflict of interest by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Even after Pavlescak left public service, the state continued to document abuse at Growing Together. An August 1993 investigation by Pavlescak's successor, James Kouba, documented that "there appears to be a lack of clinical supervision" at Growing Together. Some staff members couldn't identify their supervisors, state officials learned, and the children complained about the "lack of adult supervision."
Growing Together also failed to correct the violations Pavlescak had cited three years earlier. Among DCF's findings in 1993:
Teenagers would restrain fellow patients by sitting on them.
In two instances, a group of parents who called themselves the "restraining fathers" kidnapped runaway girls and returned them to Growing Together. One girl's aunt reported that several men had pulled up to her house and dragged the girl into a van.
Kids of both sexes were forced to use a jar or pot in the bedroom if they needed to relieve themselves in the middle of the night.
The rigorous program is also associated with a suicide. Travis Stone, a 20-year-old African-American who had successfully graduated from Growing Together and become a staff member, told peers as early as January 23, 1993, that "he was feeling helpless and overwhelmed." Those remarks were not passed on to clinical or executive staff members, Kouba alleged. Six months later, on July 27, 1993, Stone took a combination of pills and alcohol and then put a plastic bag over his head.
Kouba blamed Growing Together, claiming that the facility did not send Stone to a psychiatrist or psychologist. "His feelings were discounted by peer staff as merely 'manipulative,'" the report stated. "Only a trained professional should be in the position of making this evaluation, which, in this case, may have been a life-and-death assessment."
The state ordered Growing Together to stop using children to counsel other children. "They are still involved in their own early recovery process and cannot be expected to take on the role of counselor while they are clients themselves," Kouba wrote. Allard claims that today, kids have easy access to licensed mental health professionals.
In the past ten years, Growing Together has filed roughly a dozen lawsuits to collect fees that parents have refused to pay. In nearly every case, the defendants have cited Growing Together's lack of therapeutic value and abysmal treatment of children as reasons for not settling the debt.
In two cases, parents described a prison-like facility that emphasizes revenue over kids' needs. Ellen Decter, a single mother in Jupiter, said her son was examined by a psychologist in October 1999 only after she agreed to fork out the $14,000 tuition upfront. By then, Growing Together had a financial interest in seeing her son diagnosed as suitable for treatment, she alleged. The program was "a concentration camp for clients and parents," Decter wrote in a letter submitted to the court April 3, 2002.
Cathy Snyder of Fort Myers Beach told the Palm Beach County Circuit Court on May 21, 1997, that Growing Together misdiagnosed her son's problems. Rather than being drug-addicted, he had a chemical imbalance that an independent psychiatrist discovered after she removed the boy from the program.
Reports from the Lake Worth Police Department, which is located across the street from Growing Together's building, seem to substantiate parents' claims. Since 1995, police have written more than 800 reports related to 1000 Lake Ave. for incidents including assault, drugs, noise complaints, and runaway juveniles.
On April 27, 1997, at 8:30 a.m., teenaged patients rioted inside the facility, according to police reports filed that day. Three boys took chairs and shattered the second-story windows, spraying glass on construction workers and pedestrians. They then barricaded themselves inside a room. Police later barged in to regain control of the facility.
Since 2000, police have written 28 reports related to battery and 22 to missing juveniles. In some cases, officers documented instances of abuse or violations of state law but declined to pursue charges:
On June 1, 2001, an oldcomer beat a newcomer because he was reading a book.
On July 6, 2001, an oldcomer slapped a newcomer after finding that the newcomer had been innocently drawing.
On October 23, 2003, police reported that a teenaged patient was "enforcing the rules with other patients" -- the same violation Pavlescak cited in 1990.
On January 2, 2004, police observed Growing Together's 54-year-old clinical director, Laura Hughes, restraining a teenaged girl on the ground after she "had been disrespectful and disobedient to Growing Together staff throughout the day."
While DCF's investigations of Growing Together are less aggressive than they were ten years ago, the state agency continues to find significant problems. During the most recent inspection, on December 19, 2003, investigators discovered documents that suggested staff was too quick to use physical force and that children continued to sleep on mattresses on the floor. State law requires children to have a full bed and frame.