Straight: Treatment Or Abuse For Young Drug Users?

Program Seeks State Ok Amid Loud Protest

August 11, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

Ross Herring, 20, became furious this week when he saw six people picketing Straight Inc., a controversial drug treatment program he sayssaved his life.

"I felt rageful. I felt out of control and I started crying. It was like a personal insult to me and for the people who care about me," said Herring, who said he has remained drug-free and sober for 10 months in the Straight program.

Another Straight client, Jason, 17, who asked that his last name not be used, told his peers at a Straight counseling session that "I almost died from alcohol. If Straight doesn't help me, I don't know who will."

But despite the support of recovering substance abusers like Ross and Jason, the past week has been a particularly tough one for Straight, which has been accused by opponents as being abusive tochildren.

The program has applied for certification in Maryland after being forced out of Virginia by state regulators. If the Columbia facility -- which opened July 29 in the Oakland Ridge Industrial Park -- fails to receive state certification, it will be forced to cease operations in Maryland.

Eugene J. Nieto, a Straight executive who is fighting to keep the program's doors open in Maryland, watched television coverage Monday of protesters' claims that Straight deprived clients of sleep, food and personal dignity.

"I thought, 'My God, they've got to be kidding,' " Nieto said. "You think we put these kids in a cell and keep food from them morning, noon and night? That we stand over them and shake them if they fall asleep? It's absolutelyludicrous. Why are they saying it?"

Nieto acknowledges the program has made mistakes, and he said key changes have been made in Straight's policies.

Chief among them, Nieto said, is that the program no longer uses restraining force against clients. It also will begin on-site education for school-age children.

"We believe we're on thecutting edge of a highly successful rehabilitation technique that isgetting better as we go along," Nieto said. "I think Maryland is a progressive state that will accept our unique modality."

Straight, which currently treats about 1,000 youngsters in eight locations across the country, claims the highest success rate -- about 70 percent -- of any rehab program. The private, non-profit enterprise uses Alcoholics Anonymous' 12 steps to recovery, but places heavy emphasis on peer pressure.

Nieto and other Straight administrators are confident the program, which costs $6,000 to $18,000 per patient annually, will pass certification. They have high hopes for the Maryland facility, which will serve about 70 clients from the Mid-Atlantic region.

However, program officials say they will stand firm on their controversial policy not to allow parents to speak to their son or daughter without a Straight counselor present -- a policy that has prompted a firestorm of criticism since the program began in 1976.

Opponents point to the policy as indicative of how Straight refuses to let parents hear the true story behind the therapy their child is undergoing.

"They know that we'd leave if we could, or that we'd tell our parents what's really going on," said Laura Faehner, 18, of Olney, who spent two years in Straight.

Straight, however, contends that therapy focuses not only on the adolescent, but parents as well. Parents are required to attend "rap sessions" with their children every Monday and Friday night.

"These families have been in a destructive confrontation mode before they've come here. They have to learn to talk tothese kids all over again," Nieto said.

"We approach the problem from the perspective that the family is dysfunctional. The heat between parent and child is intense, and we try to dissipate that."

Butfor the protesters, who expect to picket the Straight office in Columbia twice a week while state inspectors determine the program's fate, there is still rage and mistrust in Straight.

"There's no other way to run Straight other than the way they run it now," said Brian DeCunzo, 18, who spent 101 days in Straight's Springfield, Va., facility when he was 15. "They run it like a jail and they'll tell you thatit has to be that way to work.

"I once watched a kid get his facebashed in. Does that sound like therapy?"

Leading the local opposition in Howard County is Families Against Destructive Drug Rehabs, asmall group of parents and former clients of Straight.

"I don't pretend to have the final answer. I just don't want them open," said Greg Reight, a member of the group whose son spent 128 days in Straight four years ago. "They starved my kid. What does denial of food haveto do with drug rehabilitation?"

Straight officials say they do not impose food restrictions on clients and argue that opponents are looking for someone to blame.

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