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Drug Program's Tough Tactics Draw Fire

March 24, 1990|JOHN HURST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Zak was 19 when he spent about five months in Straight's Springfield, Va., center in 1988. Zak said that when he submitted a written request to leave the program, it was torn up by a staff member and thrown in his face. He said when he tried to escape by climbing out a "host home" window, he was tackled and held by another client.

Zak said of his treatment in the program: "I've had the inside of my nose cracked by being slammed to the floor. A staff member dragged me across the floor by my hair."

Peary denied the allegations.

There are numerous similar accusations. For example, several lawsuits filed from 1983 to 1985 in Ohio by attorney David J. Scacchetti complained that youngsters in Straight's treatment center in Milford, near Cincinnati, were beaten, painfully restrained, held for long periods in small isolation rooms and deprived of adequate sleep and food.

Two of the suits were settled out of court and two are pending.

Straight closed the Milford center in 1987 and denies the allegations in the suits.

In December, 1987, officials of Straight's treatment center near Dallas admitted to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse that "Kotex pads and towels had been placed over the mouths of clients who were acting out," according to a commission report. Straight said the practice was stopped.

"We don't condone gagging," Straight's Margolis told The Times. "One staff member I know of who was guilty of this was fired."

One of the alleged victims of abuse at the Dallas area center was Erica Clifton, who was 14 when she was a client in 1987. Clifton said that because she was strong and rebellious, "They started putting me on the guys' side (during group meetings) and calling me 'butch' and 'bad ass.' " She said she was also held down while boys in the program painfully pulled her legs apart.

"One time I was resisting," she recalled, "and they put a . . . Kotex pad down my throat to where I was gagging."

"We regret things that have happened in the past," Margolis said of Clifton's allegations. "When it has been called to our attention, we have taken proper action."

"It was complete hell," said Gena Golden, 16, of her stay in Straight's Dallas treatment center. Golden, who left the program early last year, said her nose was badly broken while she was being restrained, and that clients were sometimes held down and kicked.

Margolis acknowledged that Golden's nose was broken while the girl while being held. She said it was an isolated incident. She also said that Straight does not condone kicking clients.

The Texas commission found in a report issued last December that abuse of clients continued into 1989 in Straight's Dallas-area program.

The report said that clients were tied up with rope and with an automobile towing strap to prevent escape, that clients were physically restrained for minor infractions such as "failure to sit up properly," and that bedrooms were overcrowded and furnished with "containers to be used for urination."

Margolis said a staff trainee used a rope to tie up a client and was fired, as was an employee who instigated the practice of putting the containers for urine in bedrooms.

After making the allegations of abuse, the state Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse cited "an acute need for (drug) treatment services for adolescents in Texas" and allowed Straight to keep its license. An agreement between the commission and Straight calls for the state to monitor the program every 120 days for the rest of this year, requires Straight to use only trained staff members to restrain clients and forbids the use of isolation rooms.

Straight did not admit or deny violating state regulations in the agreement.

Straight also ran into trouble last year in Florida and Virginia where state licensing officials ordered the organization to stop using clients to physically restrain others.

Martha Lenderman, head of the state's Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Office, said officials were concerned about injuries to clients and about "humiliation" and lack of client privacy.

Straight denies that clients are humiliated in the program and maintains that youngsters restrain others only in self-defense. But Lenderman said the organization had been defining "self-defense" to include preventing escapes.

Last June, the Virginia State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation alleged that clients in Straight's Springfield program were restrained by thumb-bending, were yelled at and spat upon, were deprived of food, sleep, family visits and access to toilets and were strip-searched by other clients.

"These are accusations that we well defended," said Straight's Peary.

Last Oct. 11, after several months of wrangling over the issue of clients restraining clients, Straight officials agreed in a letter to Virginia state licensing officials to stop the practice. But Straight counselor Traci Eng at the Springfield center told The Times about a month later that clients were still being restrained by other clients.

The Virginia State Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation is investigating new allegations made this year of physical abuse of clients at the Springfield facility, The Times has learned.

In addition, in Massachusetts, state police and licensing authorities are investigating complaints of alleged abuse in Straight's Boston-area program.

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