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Adult Perspectives From Formerly 'Troubled Teens'

Courtesy of Marcus Chatfield

Listeners may have heard some of our series on Illinois special education students being sent out of state, many to “behavior modification” programs. One response we got was from Marcus Chatfield, currently working toward his PhD at the University of Florida. He has written two thesis papers on such programs.

Chatfield has been interested in this topic since the 1980s, when he was placed in the Straight Incorporated center in Springfield, Virginia, as a teenager. Straight Incorporated was a massive drug treatment program that operated 43 centers across 18 States until 1993, when it shut down facing investigations documenting abuse and multimillion dollar judgments in several lawsuits.


Chatfield spoke with our education reporter.

Marcus Chatfield: I experimented with marijuana as a teenager, and I was having trouble at school. And the program trained me to believe that I had the disease of chemical dependency and trained me to believe that the other kids in the program had that disease too and needed to be treated as well and I believe that was treatment at the time. But now looking back, I see it wasn't treatment, in any sense of the term.

Straight Incorporated operated in warehouses and used marathon "rap sessions" to force residents to confront each other about drug use. Chatfield reconnected with some of his Straight peers as an adult. 

Chatfield: In 2004, I discovered online there was a lot of discussion from people who were in Straight and people who were in, I don't know, hundreds of different programs. And there was a lot of people that had a really similar experience to me.

As a graduate student at the University of Florida, he decided to study their experiences for his thesis. He distributed a survey to adults who experienced therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers and wilderness programs, then sorted their responses into two groups based on whether they rated their experiences good or bad. He then interviewed 15 from each group.

Chatfield: And, you know, I worked to give a balanced representation, and I can tell you that some of the feedback I've received is that it's biased with a positive slant. Because in my sample, the vast majority of people who completed this questionnaire had a really negative experience. And in order to represent, you know, the more positive perspectives, I ended up interviewing every single person who had a positive experience. But because the vast majority had a more negative experience, I did a random sampling from people who had a more negative experience.

Rhodes: I did notice that. It was like to get 15 in the highly positive group and 15 and the low opinion group, you had to take all comers for the high quality and just a random sample of the vast majority. I was struck by the fact that some of the people who found it beneficial were conflicted about that. Can you remind me of an example of that?

Chatfield: There were several adults who, after they got out of treatment, their substance abuse got worse or addictions got worse. Their lives really went downhill. But now looking back on the program, even though it was hard, even though some of them described it as abusive, their strongest feeling or the most prominent feeling was that they were trying to help, or that it did plant seeds that eventually were beneficial, even if it was 20 years after the fact.

Rhodes: I think you said that a state license is no guarantee of the quality of a program? 

Chatfield: Right. A lot of the programs that were represented in my study — most of them — were state licensed.

Rhodes: Do you see any common patterns among places that have more positive outcomes versus places that don't? I mean, do you have any way of telling parents or school districts: Look for these signs; avoid those signs?

Chatfield: Well, I did a statistical analysis of my sampling data. And it's not in my thesis, but I've submitted it to a journal. It's under review. But the strongest predictor of low quality of experience is the totalistic nature of the program. So the more totalistic the program, the lower the quality of experience.

Totalistic programs are designed to change the whole person. To do that, they control all communication, impose strict system of rules and punishments, and provide a ladder of privileges to inspire teenagers to conform. They also harness the power of peer pressure, often using group sessions in which teens are encouraged to confront each other. Many programs use these methods, although they refer to them by different names.

Chatfield: My study did not look at, you know, I didn't explore what program is the best? I didn't do it like that. But what I can say is that when I analyzed the sampling data, the more totalistic the program, the lower the quality of experience. But that's by individual. That's not making a generalized claim. It's just in my sample, that's what was reported.

Rhodes: Did you take your own survey? Did you come out with a score for your experience?

Chatfield: No, I didn't. I didn't. I didn't. That's funny. I didn't do it myself. No.

Rhodes: Well, if you had to ballpark it, where do you think you would fall?

Chatfield: Um, I don't know. I have such a complicated relationship with my program experience, because on the one hand, I'm grateful for it, because it really opened my eyes to so many, you know, really important issues. Like it helped me to communicate. But on the other hand, it's almost inappropriate to feel gratitude for the program that I was in, because so many young people were destroyed by the treatment design. 

I mean, right now, I can count 13 peers that have committed suicide, and most of them committed suicide in the first few years after getting out. And, you know, you can say, well, these kids had problems so they're more likely to commit suicide anyhow. But that's not really true. Like, the program I was in, the parents were expected to recruit families into the program. So it wasn't just that these kids all were so messed up that they were predisposed to suicide. It's that, you know, by today's standards, it was literally torture. It was the intentional infliction of physical and emotional pain in order to produce a response.

Rhodes: Wow. I mean, the number 13 ... out of how many peers?

Chatfield: Straight was a big program. So I don't know how many peers I had over that 16 month period of time. It would've been in the hundreds. But I'm not in touch with all of them, by any means. So just through the grapevine, I've heard of 13 suicides, just among the kids that I knew. And that's just suicide. That doesn't even include, you know, all the other forms of harm. So with something that harmful, it's like, it's not appropriate to feel grateful for it, or to really describe it in positive terms — for me, personally.

Rhodes: I see what you're saying.

Chatfield: But it's because I explored it, and I asked people, and I learned about the harm. I mean, if I hadn't done that, I would probably feel comfortable saying, yeah, it was treatment, you know? I might even believe it was effective treatment — if I had stayed insulated from the amount of harm that caused.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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