He was 16 and scared. Jason was a newcomer at Growing Together, a boot camp-style drug treatment center for adolescents in downtown Lake Worth. During the day, he attended group therapy at the program's two-story, banana-yellow building, which is equipped with security gates and barred windows. At night, he'd sleep at a private home endorsed by the facility.
In February 1997, during one of Jason's first days in the program, George Johnson (not his real name) arrived to pick up five boys who were to stay at his place in Palm Beach Gardens that night. Among them were his son, George Jr., and four others, including Jason.
On the ride home, the boys began to discuss what they would do to Jason that night. "The Naked Crusader was going to appear," Jason later remembered one of them saying. It frightened him; he pretended not to hear.
That night at 10 o'clock, after doing chores and eating dinner, all five boys went to the bedroom where they were to sleep. They wore only underwear. The rest of their clothing was kept in a different room. Three of them lay down on mattresses on the floor. Jason and another boy wriggled into sleeping bags.
Several hours later, Jason suddenly noticed some noise. The other four boys were masturbating. "The Naked Crusader is coming," one of them said.
Then George Jr., naked, suddenly jumped on Jason's back, according to a statement Jason gave to police. Another boy held down his legs. Two others slapped Jason in the face with their erect penises.
"Stop!" he pleaded.
They did. But the boys weren't finished. They returned to their beds and masturbated again. A few minutes later, they assaulted Jason once more. Again, two boys slapped Jason with their penises. One of them tried to put his penis in Jason's mouth. Jason clenched his jaw shut. Then he felt warm liquid on his back. One boy had climaxed. Another ejaculated in his hand and rubbed the semen in Jason's hair.
Finally, they were finished.
If he ever told anyone about the incident, the boys warned, they'd do it again. And worse. But three months later, Jason could no longer stay silent. He told his father what had happened. Together, they filed a report with the Palm Beach Gardens Police Department on June 18, 1997.
During the one-month investigation that followed, two of the boys told the detectives that they too had been victims of "The Naked Crusader" soon after entering the drug treatment facility. The Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office filed misdemeanor battery and indecent exposure charges against the four boys but later dropped them. The records have since been purged, so there's no more explanation.
Growing Together's 17-year-old, nonprofit facility treats 25 to 40 children at a time. It rakes in roughly $1 million annually from donations and fees paid by parents of drug-addicted kids, some of whom are ordered by judges to attend. It has powerful friends and donors, including West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, banker Warren W. Blanchard, attorney Jack Scarola, and Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley.
Yet physical and sexual abuse appears to be common there, according to a New Times investigation that included reviews of state records, police reports, and interviews with about two dozen former patients and parents. Kids rioted at the facility in April 1997, and last year, state investigators found that Growing Together was too quick to use physical restraint on children. Moreover, police have written more than 800 reports related to the program since 1995.
"I still can't get the screams out of my head from hearing kids dragged down the hall by the hair on their heads," says a former graduate of the program who asked to remain anonymous. "The crimes that were committed there have never been told in public. Nobody has ever put these people on trial."
Rik Pavlescak, a former investigator with the Department of Children and Families (DCF), wrote reports on the program in the early '90s that detailed beatings, restraint, imprisonment, and systematic humiliation. He alleges that influential outsiders have undermined investigations of the group.
Growing Together Executive Director Pat Allard denied a request to tour the facility, citing laws that protect confidentiality of patients. In three phone interviews in November, she maintained that children are not abused and claimed not to be aware of any of the evidence uncovered by New Times. "We would never beat any child," Allard said.
Every Friday evening, 50 to 100 adults and children, most ages 13 to 17, gather inside Growing Together's facility at 1000 Lake Ave. The open house begins the same way every week. Parents sit in chairs at one end of a large room. Their children, who are enrolled in the program, sit at the opposite end. At first, an accordion divider separates the two groups.
Then the session begins. The partition is pulled back. The music starts. The children sing:
I am a promise, I am a possibility
I am a promise with a capital P
I am a great big bundle of potentiality
And I am learning to hear God's voice
And I am trying to make the right choice.
I am a promise to be anything that God wants me to be.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.