The Politics of the Troubled Teen Industry

“Money is the Mother’s Milk of Politics.” – Jesse M. Unruh, 1966

Without massive campaign contributions from major industries and special interest groups, politics as we know it today would be a completely different battlefield.  Today’s politicians are not only expected to produce results for their constituents, but also to protect the interests and financial gains of the various groups who helped pave the way for their election.

The troubled teen industry as we know it today would never exist without political influence and protection.   If you were to ask the average citizen if painful electric shock therapy, isolation in dog cages, or reinactments of traumatic sexual abuse in front of other peers were therapeutic or effective methods of treating troubled children or teenage addiction, they would likely say no.  Re-word your questions and ask those same individuals if they support involuntary drug treatment for youth or the War on Drugs and you may get a different answer.

Politicians and corporations have long embraced the power of spin and public perception.  What can be called abuse can just as easily be called “intensive therapy” or “tough love.”   The art of playing off fear is nothing new and has been exploited in politics and advertising since the beginnings of each.  What we fear most we seek to be relieved from.  The one who offers us the quickest alleviation of our fears is the one we trust to receive our money, votes, and agreement that whatever methods they employ are necessary to keep us safe.

Setting the Stage:  The War on Drugs

The War on Drugs began with the formation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the 1970’s when President Nixon declared drug-use to be “public enemy number one.”  Though America had been fighting against drug use before the official start of the “war,” Nixon’s policies greatly strengthened the government’s power to take action.  Originally focused on heroin use, the war on drugs would eventually expand to include additional substances and offer harsher sentences for offenders.

In the 1980’s, Nancy Reagan‘s “Just Say No” campaign began to reshape America’s attitudes towards drug use and teens, helping to pave the way for additional legislation and laws.  According to a War on Drugs timeline by, her efforts focused on white, middle class children and were funded by corporate and private donations.  As new campaigns and initiatives were launched nationwide to raise awareness of teenage substance abuse, America became gripped with fear.

In 1982, Phyllis York, David York and Ted Wachtel published a book entitled “Tough Love.”  Selling millions of copies worldwide, the book helped to form a new perception of teenage behavior and its causes, stating that, “The common denominator is rotten behavior.  Despite a wide range of geological, social and economic backgrounds, our young people behave with stereotypical predictability.  Like clones stamped out in some satanic laboratory, they share an underlying selfishness and similar ways of demonstrating it.  If youthful destructive behavior were a manifestation of individual family problems or pathology, then the dillema would be manageable….But exactly the opposite is true. Looking for family problems and pathology which “cause” this behavior distracts from the real issue: the responsibility of each young person for his or her own actions.”

The setting was ripe for a new industry.  Parents could now relieve themselves of responsibility for their children’s actions.  Teenagers had become identical beings, rotten creatures who were in no way a product of their environments.  Businessmen and politicians saw a new opportunity.  Everyone was desperate to get on board, to spread the message and offer a quick fix for society’s newest enemy: its children.

The Founders

Charles Dederich – Founder of Synanon

Synanon was the first doctor-free drug treatment facility to exist in America.  Founded in 1958, the program began its first facility in California.  Over the next several decades, Synanon grew into what is now considered to have been both a cult and a quasi-religion.   Synanon’s methods involved the Synanon Game, a highly confrontational method of treatment.  In “the game,” addicts were forced to endure hours of harsh criticism and attack therapy in order to gain self-awareness.  Eventually, graduation from Synanon was no longer an option.  Members and their children lived communally within the program, attracting the attention of celebrities and non-users seeking an alternative way of life.  Within the program, Dederich created a series of seminars that would eventually develop into EST training.  These seminars were designed to produce personal break-downs followed by mass euphoria.  Inside the Synanon community, Dederich led as both a patriarchal figure and a sort of semi-god.  His followers obeyed his every command.  Shaved heads, strange styles of dress, forced abortions and vasectomies, open marriages, and lack of contact with children became the norm for those living within Synanon.  Though Synanon stopped all operations in the 1990’s, the methods  developed within the program and the influence Dederich held over his followers still has repercussions on the industry today.

Mel Wasserman and Bert Brown  – Founders of CEDU and the Brown Schools

CEDU was formed by Mel Wasserman, a former Synanon attendee, in 1967.  Hugely influenced by Mel’s personal experiences in the program, CEDU utilized a watered-down version of the Synanon method.  CEDU schools implemented similar seminars as the ones held at Synanon, titled “Propheets,”  inspired by Mel Wasserman’s interest in the works of Khalil Ghibran.  Eventually, CEDU would be purchased by The Brown Schools, another chain of troubled teen institutions originally founded in 1940 by Bert Brown and his wife.  Eventually, both the Brown Schools and CEDU would be purchased by McCown, DeLeeuw & Co., a Menlo Park,  Calif., holding company  In 2005, all CEDU operations ceased after a multi-million dollar lawsuit from parents alleging abuses against their children.  Accusations against CEDU and the Brown Schools included physical abuse, rape, failure to properly restrain students from running away, emotional abuse and brainwashing.  Some of the former employees and leaders of these schools went on to form Camelot Schools and other CEDU/Brown-based facilities.

Art Baker – Founder of Seed

In the 1970’s, the SEED became the first children-only program to utilize some of the harshest methods developed at Synanon.  The program was founded by Art Baker and was wildly popular with American parents upon opening.  In 1974, the US Government published a study that compared SEED’s methods to that of North Korea’s detention camps.   SEED ceased operations shortly after due to negative publicity, however the need for a quick “fix” for troubled teens still existed and parent’s sought new methods of treatment.

Mel Sember and Betty Sembler – Founders of Straight, Inc.  

In the late 1970’s, Mel Sembler and Betty Sembler formed Straight Inc, filling the gap that SEED had left behind.  Straight Inc marketed largely to white, middle-class American families and admitted both users and non-users into it’s programs.  Straight Inc quickly became the largest scale treatment center of its kind, lauding praise from celebrity figures such as Nancy Reagan and Princess Diana.  According to an article published in May 2002 by Radley Balko for Fox News, Straight was directly influenced by the SEED model.  Despite the negative attention and eventual loss of funding for SEED, Florida Congressman Bill Young convinced the Sembler’s to invest in and form Straight.  The programs would operate under the Straight name until 1993, when they would eventually close after a series of lawsuits and allegations of abuse.  Criminal accusations ranged from false imprisonment, sexual abuse, food and sleep deprivation, forced abortions, physical and mental abuse, and brainwashing tactics.  In 1996, Straight reopened under the name “Drug Free America Foundation,” another organization founded by Betty and Mel Sembler.  Though the DFAF does not operate residential programs, it does offer advice to parent’s seeking residential treatment for teens and opposes all legislation towards decriminalization.  Straight Inc is widely considered to be the most influential program of its kind, helping to pave the way for future “troubled teen” facilities to utilize its methods.

Dr. Miller Newton, Dr. George Ross, Helen Gowanny and Terri Nissley – Founders of Second Generation Straight Facilities

Dr. Miller Newton, a former national director of Straight Inc’s St. Petersberg, Florida facility, formed Kids of North Bergen County in 1984 following investigations into abuses at his Straight facility.   In 1990, investigations into abuse at Kids of North Bergen County inspired Dr. Newton to rename the program Kids of North Jersey and relocate again to Hudson County.  The program followed the same principles developed by Synanon, SEED, CEDU, and Straight Inc.  He also founded the Kids Center of America, which operated similar franchises across the country.  Again, a series of lawsuits would lead to the eventual closure of Kids facilities.  Accusations included physical abuse, denial of medical treatment, false imprisonment, fraudulent insurance charges, and hazards to health and safety.  Allegedly in 2001, Dr. Miller Newton changed his name and relocated to Florida following a massive $4.5 million dollar civil suit from a former patient.

Dr. George Ross, another former clinician from Straight Inc, went on to form LIFE Inc in 1980, a Straight-based program in Florida.  Following the founding of LIFE, he would move on to form Kids Helping Kids of Hebron, Kentucky,  along with Possiblities Inc, another Straight spin-off.  Again lawsuits would follow, though all charges would be dropped.  Charges included unlawful imprisonment, threatening to kidnap the 2-year old child from a would-be patient, and various physical and mental abuses.  Though unsuccessful in regards to the verdict, the charges are largely attributed to the eventual closing of Possibilities Inc.  Dr. George Ross now offers private counseling services and motivational speaking appointments.  By the early 1990’s, Dr. Ross’ programs had all closed their doors.

Helen Gowanny, former Straight director, and Terri Nissley, former parent of a Straight student, opened The Pathway Family Center in 1993.  They operated locations in Detroit and Indianapolis and were modeled after the Straight program.  Both facilities would eventually close and continue to face allegations of abuse, invasive thought reform, brainwashing, and psychological torture.

Additional schools were formed by former Straight employees, often in former Straight facilities, including the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center (AARC), and  Growing Together, along with many other less-known facilities.  Some of these programs are still operating today and more continue to open across the US and abroad, following the same methods utilized by Straight.  The following article and corresponding flow chart  offers a look at the impact Straight has had on other facilities.

Robert Lichfield – Founder of the Word Wide Association of Specialty Schools (WWASP) 

Robert Lichfield, a businessman with no clinical training in psychology, formed the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs in 1998.  The Utah-based organization promoted itself as an umbrella company that linked independently run programs operating under WWASP guidelines to families in need.  Further investigations have revealed however that all programs were operated and run by family members and business associates of Robert Lichfield.  WWASP operated programs both in the US and abroad.   Multiple lawsuits have led to the closure of all official WWASP facilities, though rumors persist that several schools have reopened under new company names.  Accusations include locking children in dog cages, severe physical beatings, food and sleep deprivation, pepper spraying of minors, isolation, lack of communication to parents, unreported sexual abuse, unsanitary living conditions, and brainwashing/emotional abuse.  Treatment modules within WWASP run facilities were directly influenced by those created within CEDU, Straight, Kids Inc, and the SEED.

Elliot Sainer and Bain Capital – Founders of Aspen Education

In 1997, Aspen Education Group was founded in part by Elliot Sainer.  A subsidiary of CRC Health Group, Aspen Education is owned by Bain Capital Group, founded in 1984 by Mitt Romney.  Aspen Education Group provides therapeutic programs for youth including wilderness therapy, residential treatment facilities, therapeutic boarding schools, and weight loss facilities.  Aspen Education is one of the most profitable teen treatment chains, boasting annual revenue of $150 million plus.  According to an article by Keith Chu of The Bulletin, many of Aspen Education Group’s programs – including now defunct Mount Bachelor Academy – were based directly on the CEDU methods of treatment.  Lauding support by celebrity figures such as Dr. Phil and several other TV programs including “Brat Camp,” “I Know What You Ate Last Summer,” and “Intervention,” Aspen Education has become one of the most revered and successful programs of it’s kind.  Recent lawsuits and scrutiny, however, have led to the closure of multiple facilities and a total restructure announced in March of 2011.  Mount Bachelor Academy, once one of Aspen Education’s top programs, closed in 2009 after lawsuits alleging sexual reenactments of past sexual abuse in front of peers, sleep deprivation, forced lap dances as part of therapy, and emotional and physical abuse.  Sagewalk, one of Aspen’s top wilderness therapy facilities, was called “reckless” by State authorities following the death of 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen.   At least four other teenagers have died under Aspen’s care.  Criticisms of Aspen’s weight loss facilities have also indicated child abuse, noting that children within it’s care were subjected to diet plans of under 10 grams of fat daily.

Alan B. Miller – Founder of Universal Health Services

In 1978, Alan B. Miller founded Universal Health Services, a for-profit hospital holding company.  In 1983, Universal Health Services entered the behavior health sector of the market where it remains a power player to this day.  A full list of their current behavioral health facilities – including those for minors – can be found on the Universal Health Services Website.  Since their emergence in the behavior health market, Universal Health Services has quietly purchased many of the closed facilities of former troubled teen industry founders and reopened them under new or slightly-different names.  The Psychiatric Crime Database reports a litany of abuse, death, and negligence beginning in 1991 and continuing to this day at UHS facilities.  UHS relies heavily on State and Federal assignments to their programs, though they also accept and operate private payment centers as well.  In recent years, more agencies have shied away from placement with UHS due to growing concerns over abuse and neglect within their care.

The Politicians and Financiers

Betty Sembler and Mel Sembler – Contributors to the Republican National Committee, Newt Gingrich, Rudolph Guiliani, Jeb Bush, George Bush (Sr. and Jr.), Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Joseph Lieberman and Mitt Romney.

Betty Sembler is a current board member of D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).  She has also participated in the White House Conference for a Drug Free America, as a member of Florida’s Drug Policy Task Force, and is the founder of S.O.S (Save our Society from Drugs).  In 2008, she received a lifetime achievement award from the DEA Museum Foundation for her work fighting drug addiction.  Additional recognition of her efforts has been given by The Jewish National Foundation, The Houston Drug Free Business Association, the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame, and the NNAOC, a foundation of narcotic officers nationwide.

Mel Sembler went on to form the Sembler Company.  He also served as U.S. Embassador to Italy from 2001 to 2005 and as Ambassador to Australia and Nauru from 1989 to 1993.  He served a leadership role in generating funds for George H.W. Bush beginning in 1979, and  was Finance Co-Chairman of The American Bicentennial Presidential Inaugural, raising the dollars needed for the nation’s 41st inauguration of the President of the United States. Sembler served as Finance Chairman for the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2000.  He also served as Florida’s National Committeeman to the Republican National Committee after his election in 1994 until 2000.  In addition, Sembler  has serves on the board of the Drug Free America Foundation, the Florida Governor’s Mansion Foundation, , and is a member of the Florida Council of 100, a business advisory group to the Governor of Florida.  Politicians who have directly profited from campaign contributions from Mel Sembler and Betty Sembler include Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Rudolph Guiliani, Jeb Bush, and Mitt Romney.

In the current 2012 election cycle, the Sembler’s have contributed a total of $24,000 as posted on the Huffington Post, to a variety of Republican candidates.  Mel Sember has also served as the chairmen of the Scooter Libby Defense Trust.  In April 2000, Mel Sembler raised an astonishing $21.3 million dollars at  single campaign dinner.  In 2005, he became the first person to have a U.S. Embassy named after him in Rome, allowed through legislation passed by former Congressman Bill Young, the same individual who encouraged him to start Straight Inc.  Despite the license revocation by the U.S Senate in 1993 for Straight, citing that the government should not be funding “cruel and inhumane behavior modification,” Sembler went on to form the Drug Free America Foundation along with his wife.  Former Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, the brother of President George W. Bush, Former Drug Enforcement Administration Administrator Karen Tandy, and Congressman Dan Lungren of California are on the advisory board. Additional details on the Sembler’s contributions to various Republican campaigns can be found here.  Mel Sembler has also directly served as national campaign finance director for Mitt Romney.

George E. McCown, CEO of MDC Partners (former owners of Brown Schools and CEDU) – Contributor to Mitt Romney, Scott Brown, John McCain and The National Republican Committee

McCown De Leeuw and Co’s CEO George McCown, former owner of the Brown Schools and CEDU directly contributed to Mitt Romney’s and Scott Brown’s current political campaigns, as noted by lists past donations to the McCain/Palin Presidential run and  The National Republican Committee.

Dr. George E. Ross, former owner of  LIFE, Inc., KIDS HELPINGKIDS, Inc. and POSSIBILITIES UNLIMITED,Inc – Contributor to Fred Dalton Thompson

While little information can be found on Dr. George E Ross’ current political donations, does show him contributing to the Fred Dalton Thompson Political Action Committee.  Thompson served as the campaign co-chairman for John McCain and was a long-term lobbyist in Washington.  He also assisted in the defense of Scotter Libby.  George Ross co-starred on Thompson’s “Focus on the Family” radio show, as noted in Dr. Ross’ brief online biography.

Outside of his donations, George E. Ross has participated in the White House Conference for a Drug Free America and offers private counseling in Kentucky.  His research and writings are currently centered around “Building Comprehensive Mental Health Strategies”

Robert Lichfield – Contributor to Mitt Romney, George W. Bush,  Robert Bennett, Orrin Hatch,  Richard Burr, John Swallow, Utah Republican Committee, Arizona Republican Committee, National Republican Committee, and the 2001 President’s Dinner.

Robert Lichfield, the founder of WWASP, served as Mitt Romney’s campaign finance adviser until 2007, resigning after a major lawsuit against his chain of schools gained public notoriety.  He is noted for having collected over $300,000 for Mitt Romney at one campaign event in St. George, Utah.   Further investigation reveals that Lichfield and assorted family members donated over $1 Million in campaign contributions to various GOP candidates between 2001 and 2002.  Additional details on Robert Lichfield’s campaign donations can be found through searches on NewsMeat.  Narvin Lichfield, Robert Lichfield’s brother and former owner/operator of several WWASP facilities donated to Mitt Romney’s campaign in 2007.  Ken Kay – one of the heads of WWASP – donated to John Swallow, and J. Ralph Atkin, former program director and member of WWASP’s advisory board who served as Coordinator of Business and Economic Development for the State of Utah.

Aspen Education Group and Elliot Sainer (AEG’s Founder) – Contributor to Mitt Romney, Adam Schiff, National Association of Psychiatric Health Services Political Action Committee, and the California Hospital Association Political Action Committee.  Additional ties to Jim DeMintJohn McCainGeorge W. Bush, and Rick Santorum

After being acquired by Bain Capital, Aspen Education Group became a direct source of revenue for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  Elliot Sainer, the founder of Aspen Education Group personally donated to several California politicians as well as Psychiatric and Hospital Political Action Committees.  Aspen Education Group itself has also donated directly to the IECA Foundation, a group providing grants and assistance both to struggling families and educational consultants who refer student’s to various facilities.  The National Association of Psychiatric Health Service PAC lists several known teen treatment facilities as direct contributors to their cause in 2012 and has directly provided funding to political candidates sympathetic to their causes.  Mitt Romney, the former owner of Bain Capital, has made personal contributions to Jim DeMint, John McCain, George W. Bush, and Rick Santorum in past election cycles.

Alan. B Miller and Universal Health Services  – Contributor to Rick Santorum, The Republican Committee of Pennsylvania, and the Universal Health Services Political Action Committee

Rick Santorum worked with Universal Health Services from 2007 to 2011, according to Jason Cherkis’ 2012 article in The Huffington Post.   Not only has Santorum profited directly from his employment with UHS, but the Universal Health Services Political Action Committee donated $5,000 in 2012 towards his current campaign, as noted by  Alan B. Miller, the CEO of Universal Health Services has made contributions to the Republican Committee of Pennsylvania and other candidates through UHS’ Political Action Committee.

The Consequences

There is currently no Federal legislation that has been passed to regulate the troubled teen industry.  New bills have been introduced into the House and Senate that seek to add additional oversight to the industry.  The major players in the industry have used lobbying and campaign contributions in the past, as noted in this 2004 article, to stop the passing of both State and Federal reforms on private residential treatment facilities.  Without additional reforms and the loss of political clout for the founders of these abusive institutions, the troubled teen industry will remain a threat to America’s children and vulnerable parents.

Though tedious work, tracking the campaign financiers of today’s politicians may help us to change the face of this horrific industry in the future.  It is time for our voices to be heard.  No child deserves to be abused in the name of treatment, nor should anyone profit from the blood and tears of helpless children.  Before you head to the ballot box, remember who is paying for these politicians flashy ads and lengthy campaign trips – and imagine what they will be expected to give in return.

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10 Responses to “The Politics of the Troubled Teen Industry” Subscribe

  1. watchinguhs January 22, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

    Reblogged this on Watching UHS.

    • Dan January 8, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      After 40 years, troubling questions still remain about child abuse in Maine.
       New book seeks justice for former residents of  Elan.
      They are souls still seeking justice, if not vengeance.
      The former residents of Elan, tortured as teenagers at a center for troubled adolescents in Maine, want reparations for their abuse.
       Elan operated for nearly 40 years in Poland Spring until it voluntarily closed in 2011 because many of its former residents – now adults referring to themselves ” survivors” – waged a campaign to tell their experiences via social media and anti-Elan websites. Their negative publicity resulted in declining enrollment and the eventual shuttering of the facility.
       Author Maura Curley hopes the survivors of Elan will find the resolution other victims of child abuse are granted, often belatedly. Her updated book,  Duck in a Raincoat, sheds new light on a story that has never been fully explored or explained, and it raises even more questions about for profit residential centers for teenagers, their origins and the people who run them. 
      Look Inside Duck in a Raincoat at Amazon

  2. the child left behind January 23, 2012 at 1:38 am #

    I don’t know why it surprises me every time I see it all broken down like this … I guess a part of me still holds on to the hope that what I went through was isolated and far from the norm. KIDS and Straight were all I knew of until a few years ago. The continued growth and support of these places is repulsive.
    Thank you for putting this out there … I am passing your posts along.

  3. Carol January 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm #

    Politics have become a game for money and prestige. Orrin Hatch has been in Washington for half a lifetime, 36 years. He’s voted to increase our debt 17 times, 7.6 trillion dollars. He voted for the NDAA- a tyrannical bill. He’s just received millions for trying to control the Internet with SOPA/PIPA.
    He’s even said he’d blow up computers without due process:

  4. Carolina Hatfield October 8, 2013 at 12:59 am #

    SUPPORT H.R. 1981 (113th): Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2013 is NOT about taking away a profit; it is about protecting a child. If a residential facility makes a profit by helping children without being abusive, then there isn’t a problem. What program that is meant to help teens would not want teens to have these protections? In theory, programs that operate safely would make MORE PROFIT because the programs that are abusive would not be operating as competition. –

    Learn more at:

  5. Nadine December 4, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    Great blog! I was in Challenger back in 1989 and really appreciate all the information you have about the industry.


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