What is Mitt Romney’s position on torture?
Romney, Torture and Teens
In right-wing Republican circles, abusive authoritarianism without due process is endemic – and profitable. By Maia Szalavitz
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said he’d support doubling the size of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he was trying to show voters that he’d be tough on terror. Two of his top fundraisers, however, have long supported using coercive tactics that have been likened to torture for troubled teenagers.
As the newspaper The Hill noted recently, 133 plaintiffs filed a civil suit against Romney’s Utah finance co-chair, Robert Lichfield, and his various business entities involved in residential treatment programs for adolescents. The umbrella group for his organization is the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS, sometimes known as WWASP). Lichfield is its founder and is on its board of directors.
The suit alleges that teens were locked in outdoor dog cages, exercised to exhaustion, deprived of food and sleep, exposed to extreme temperatures without adequate clothing or water, severely beaten, emotionally brutalized, and sexually abused and humiliated. Some were even made to eat their own vomit.
But the link to teen abuse goes far higher up in the Romney campaign. Romney’s national finance co-chair is a longtime friend of the Bush family named Mel Sembler. Sembler was campaign finance chair for the Republican party during the first election of George W. Bush, and a major fundraiser for his father.
Sembler currently heads the Scooter Libby Defense Fund, in addition to his work for Romney, and has worked tirelessly to keep the Vice President’s former Chief of Staff out of prison, even after his conviction on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Like Lichfield, Sembler also founded a nationwide network of treatment programs for troubled youth. Known as Straight, Inc., from 1976 to 1993 it variously operated nine programs in seven states. At all of Straight’s facilities, state investigators and/or civil lawsuits documented scores of abuses, including teens being bound, beaten, deprived of food and sleep for days, restrained by fellow youth for hours, sexually humiliated, abused and spat upon.
According to the L.A. Times, California investigators found that at Straight teens were “subjected to unusual punishment, infliction of pain, humiliation, intimidation, ridicule, coercion, threats, mental abuse… and interference with daily living functions such as eating, sleeping and toileting.”…
However, to this day there are at least eight programs operating that use Straight’s methods, often in former Straight buildings operated by former Straight staff. They include Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center (Canada), Pathway Family Center (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio), Growing Together (Florida), Possibilities Unlimited (Kentucky), SAFE (Florida), and Phoenix Institute for Adolescents (Georgia).
Sembler has never admitted to the problems with Straight’s methods. In fact, when he recently served as ambassador to Italy, he listed it among his accomplishments on his official State Department profile. Although all of the programs with the Straight name are closed, the nonprofit Straight Foundation that funded them still exists, though under a different name. It’s now called the Drug Free America Foundation, and it lobbies for drug testing and in support of tougher policies in the war on drugs.
One of the plaintiffs in the current case against WWASPS, 21-year-old Chelsea Filer, spoke to me when I was researching a TV segment on the industry. She told me that she was forced to walk for miles on a track in scorching desert heat with a 35-pound sandbag on her back. “You were not allowed to scratch your face, move your fingers, lick your lips, move your eyes from the ground,” she said. When she asked for a chapstick, “They put a piece of wood in my mouth and I had to hold it there for two weeks. I was bleeding on my tongue.” …
WWASPS has been linked with facilities Academy at Ivy Ridge (New York), Carolina Springs Academy (South Carolina), Cross Creek Programs (Utah), Darrington Academy (Georgia), Horizon Academy (Nevada), Majestic Ranch Academy (Utah), MidWest Academy (Iowa), Respect Camp (Mississippi), Royal Gorge Academy (Colorado), Spring Creek Lodge (Montana), and Tranquility Bay (Jamaica).
Although it has settled several lawsuits out of court, the organization has never publicly admitted wrongdoing. However, the U.S. State Department spurred Samoa to investigate its Paradise Cove program in 1998 after receiving “credible allegations of physical abuse,” including “beatings, isolation, food and water deprivation, choke-holds, kicking, punching, bondage, spraying with chemical agents, forced medication, verbal abuse and threats of further physical abuse.” Paradise Cove closed shortly thereafter. That same year, the Czech Republic forced the closure of WWASP-linked Morava Academy following employees’ allegations that teens were being abused. …
Police in Mexico have shut down three WWASP-linked facilities: Sunrise Beach (1996), Casa By The Sea (2004) and High Impact (where police videotaped the teens chained in dog cages). …
In 2005, New York’s Eliot Spitzer forced WWASP to return over $1 million to the parents of Academy at Ivy Ridge students, because the school had fraudulently claimed to provide legitimate New York high school diplomas. He fined Ivy Ridge $250,000 plus $2000 in court costs. A civil suit has been filed for educational fraud in New York as well, by a different law firm. …
The Romney campaign is aware of the WWASP suits, and should be familiar with the Straight suits. If not, it’s worth asking: does Romney support these types of tactics for at-risk youth? Or does he take the line the organizations founded by his fundraisers take—that these dozens of lawsuits are merely from bad kids who make up lies?”
Maia Szalavitz is the author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids (Riverhead).
Thanks to Carol F. in Amherst, MA for calling my attention to this article.