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Both issues are misunderstandings, Allard says. She contends her staff does everything possible before using physical force. "I think what was happening was that the staff wasn't putting down [in their paperwork] everything that happened before a child was restrained," Allard says. As a result, Allard says, Growing Together started using a form that provides additional space for the narrative. "There are times when a kid needs to be restrained if they are a threat to themselves or others," Allard explains. "If a child picked up a heavy chair and was going to throw it at another client, I can tell you that they would be restrained... Restraining is the last resort. No one wants to restrain anyone. You don't want that for the child, and you don't want that for the adult."
Allard refuses to alter her policy on bed frames, claiming that children could use the metal to cut themselves. "We can't do that in good conscience," she says.
On July 27, Piotr Blass, a computer-science professor at Key College in Dania Beach, sued Growing Together after his 16-year-old son, David, was court-ordered into the program. In his lawsuit, Blass alleges that Growing Together "often kidnaps children from their parents and then employs draconian, sadistic, destructive, and highly damaging psychological techniques to destroy the relationship between parent and child, all for their own benefit and financial gain."
These types of allegations can also be found on an Internet bulletin board (www.fornits.com/wwf) used by former patients of Growing Together and other Straight-based clinics. Most of the messages detail physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Allard claims the allegations are "made up" and written by "people who are still involved in the druggie scene."
It's noon on Friday, November 19, and Jessica Norris sits quietly on a bench near the fountains at the end of Clematis Street in West Palm Beach. An anxious, pretty 18-year-old with long brown hair and a disarming smile, Jessica (not her real name) considers herself a survivor. At 14, she experimented with cocaine. Her parents placed her in Growing Together, where she says she endured 18 months of physical and psychological trauma. "When I first got there, the other girls were telling me about Naked Crusader," she says. "Everyone in Growing Together knew there was abuse. But no one said anything. We were all too scared."
Inside the facility, Jessica says she witnessed beatings and child neglect. In the "white room," where children were sent to calm down, clumps of hair lay on the floor and blood was smeared on the walls, she claims. Every day, staff interrogated the kids, making them give more and more outlandish confessions about their past. "I made up that my uncle molested me," Jessica says. "It was the only way to move up."
Now a student at Palm Beach Community College, Jessica is still adjusting to life on the outside. During her time at Growing Together, she claims she couldn't take a shower in private. She believed she was worthless. She became accustomed to the sight of staff members throwing children to the ground. To this day, she hears the screams that rolled through the halls like thunder between buildings.
"I've tried not to look back," Jessica says, brushing a string of hair behind her right ear. "What we went through was a terrible thing."