Suffering Together

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.

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson