50 Years of Gov. Browns and Me.
by Paul Morantz.
Copyright Paul Morantz 216
In 1961, Gov. Edmund (Pat) Brown, Sr. made a mistake that would change countless lives in every decade to follow, almost ending my own life along the way. He signed Bill AR 2626, by State Assemblyman Nick Petris that exempted the Synanon Foundation from needing a license to operate a residential facility treating drug addiction. Brown, Sr. before the cameras, stated: “Synanon may be doing more good than all the penitentiaries and the rehabilitation centers in the world.”
At the time, I was approaching 16 years old and was not concerned about much other than soon getting my driver’s license and enjoying all the teenage life that comes with it.
And now, just recently, without much fanfare, after many years of work by Sen. Ricardo Lara, Jodi Hobbs (CEO of the survivor association SIA), researchers and former victims of Synanon clones, and me, Gov. Edmund Brown , Jr. recently signed into law SB 524 undoing, at least in California, a great portion of the harm that followed AR 2626 signed by his father. Synanon, you see, had gone from emptying prisons to filling them, and the brutal methods as later applied to designated unruly teen-agers were carried forward to cause death and anguish in youth across the nation. And it is still happening.
So what is or was Synanon? In 1958, 44-year-old alcoholic Charles Dederich, broke away from Alcoholics Anonymous to form a club in a rundown Venice storefront dedicated to the then unheard of idea that drug addicts could be reformed by self-reliance, free of doctors or medical care. Members would enter a family-like structure that placed Charles Dederich as the father figure in a treatment consisting of attack-group therapy, discipline and a system of rewards and punishments. He openly defied any attempt to license Synanon per any state or federal laws. His rationale was that the health profession had failed to cure drug addiction, thus Synanon must be free to find its own rules and methods without government interference. And many politicians bought in.
That was and always will be a mistake. We cannot assume any consistency or assumed good nature in any facility we allow to treat the ill and disabled. There must always be laws to protect their rights and the rights of the inspectors to make sure the weak are not abused. And it does not matter if the organization is religious. Some religions belive in corporal punishment and coercion to their beliefs.
As Synanon drew public attention, money was raised that enabled Synanon to move into an old National Guard Armory in Santa Monica. Synanon was proclaimed by criminologist Lew Yablonsky and many professionals as the key to not only the end of drug addiction, but crime itself. One senator described it to President John F. Kennedy as the “Miracle on the Beach.” While statistics did not support such a claim, there is no doubt many people did lose their habit and Synanon did appear as “hope” against addiction.
However, another group of professionals cited it differently. They accused Synanon of using brainwashing techniques and creating an addiction to the house; that it was taking on cult- like features. They argued it was not a cure, but only absorption. They criticized the removal of freedom and normal rights that would be afforded to a patient in a licensed facility.
Santa Monica reacted by arresting “Chuck” Dederich in 1960 for operating without a health license and violating zoning regulations. He was convicted of both and, as he would not leave Santa Monica as a condition of probation, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail. That’s when the Save Synanon Bill was signed by Gov. Brown, Sr. Dederich was released from jail, a hero/martyr to his “dope fiend” followers.
The bill was supposed to place Synanon under the state medical board, which was directed to create regulations for Synanon, but they stopped meetings and efforts to create such regulations when Dederich rejected all rules. Thus the organization continued to exist illegally. Santa Monica’s city attorney never enforced the zoning violation, being overwhelmed by Synanon donor/lawyers filing lawsuits to prevent it. Synanon said it would move. Years later the city attorney committed suicide and the judge who had sentenced Dederich was murdered by his wife.
The publicity led to attendance at weekly open houses by many in Hollywood, including Charlton Heston, Natalie Wood , Ben Gazzara , Lucille Ball, Steve Allen, and Leonard Nimoy, all curious about what might seem a respite from Hollywood phoniness. In 1965 Columbia Studios made a movie with Edmund O’Brien playing Charles Dederich and also starring Chuck Connors, Alex Cord and Stella Stevens. In 2 years, Synanon would have the wealth from donations and tax exempt businesses to purchase the swank Del Mar Club in Santa Monica. This caused an uproar in that city, which tried wrongfully by force to cut off Synanon’s access to Del Mar’s beachfront by installing fences. The city backed off after lawsuits were filed by Synanon, despite its continued zoning violations.
In 1967, as the minority professionals had feared, Synanon had transformed itself from a drug rehab group to a cultish faux utopian society. It proclaimed no one should ever leave, as the outside world was evil, and instituted “containment”—which meant no one left the property—and recruited middle class “squares” (non-addicts) to run its businesses and build its fortune.
Synanon built cities in Marin County and later in Visalia and Lake Havasu. By the ’70s its wealth soared to $33 million. Babies were removed from the parents and raised in a “hatchery” and later in a Synanon school. Parents were discouraged from visiting their kids. In sum, the exemption from licensing of Synanon by Gov. Brown Sr. and the legislature had allowed it to flourish unchecked and unregulated and to evolve into an institution that did not intend to return those seeking help back to the real world. It became “Hotel California” and its motto might well have been, “You can check out anytime but you can never leave.”
In 1974 the IRS was threatening to vacate Synanon’s tax-free charitable standing on the grounds it was not a charity anymore. Synanon countered by declaring itself a religion and created an allegedly “charitable” Punk Squad that would use Synanon’s unlicensed methods on juveniles considered to be wayward. Because the youngsters were streetwise and not amenable to the process Dederich declared, they could be physically struck, punched in the face or kicked while on the ground. They were also subject to harsh punishments, such as picking up pig feces with carrot sticks, until showing “proper” behavior. Soon, the use of violence spread to people believed to have stolen from Synanon or any child who showed negativity.
Many of the kids begin to run away, and a neighbor rancher in Marin helped many escape and returned them to their parents. For his efforts, he and his family, driving at night, were pushed into a ditch by a Synanon vehicle, and there the rancher was beaten while his family watched. Charles Dederich wrote he was proud of the way his followers dealt with the “pig.” Soon the use of violence spread to attacking people believed to have stolen from Synanon.
In 1975, the same year the rancher was attacked, Edmund Brown, Jr. was sworn in as governor. He enjoyed a good relationship with Synanon and sometimes would drop in at the Del Mar Club for lunch with his then girlfriend Linda Ronstadt. At times they were serenaded by the Sounds of Synanon band.
In October of 1976 Brown offered Dederich an appointment as director of the Department of Alcoholism, which had a $32 million budget, and his wife Betty a director’s position on a state youth board. They declined ( Brown, like other officials, was also taken in by People Temple’s Jim Jones). That same year Dederich banned children in Synanon, ordering mandatory abortions and vasectomies.
In March of 1977 Chuck Dederich started training the Synanon Imperial Marines as a force to go out and get all “enemies” of Synanon. Why not physical violence as a treatment if there are no licensing laws to prevent it? Why not murder?
A month later Betty died of cancer and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared a “Betty Dederich Day”. Chuck selected a new wife and then ordered all couples in Synanon to change partners as he had.
You can’t blame Brown Jr., Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and other supportive politicians. There were enough favorable articles and books on Synanon to fill a library. But the mistake everyone made was not realizing a simple principle—we must never turn over the safety of patients to the private sector without some form of licensing to guard against abuse that can grow when there is absolute freedom from being checked or restricted.
Always, the state must have the power to protect those not in a position to protect themselves. Simply, if Gov. Brown, Sr. had not exempted Synanon from state licensing regulations, it may still have existed today without being referred to as one of the most violent cults in American history.
From Synanon’s own documents and police reports, I found 87 physical attacks, usually accompanied by message, “Don’t mess with Synanon and tell all your friends.”
As the result of a woman’s ordeal, as her attorney, I began investigating Synanon in June 1977. In a few months, I was advising the Health Department on requiring Synanon to have a health license for taking in mental disabled people and specifically regarding its abuse of children without parental care. Dederich announced he would not allow the Health Department to inspect its facilities and wrote to Gov. Brown, Jr. for assistance.
In March 1978, with my assistance, the Marin County grand jury issued a report concerning the child abuse and licensing issues, among others Synanon wrongs. Two journalists, Narda Zacchino of the Los Angeles Times and Dave Mitchell of the Point Reyes Light wrote of Synanon wrongs. Connie Chung brought it to the attention of Television viewers.
In September 1978, Synanon members tried to murder former member Phil Ritter, followed three weeks later by an attempt on my life by placing a rattlesnake, sans rattles, in my mailbox. I survived its lethal bite. Finally, Gov. Brown acted, instituting a statewide Synanon task force. But when his attorney general filed a lawsuit to take over the Synanon organization because of its use of charitable funds—reportedly as high as $305,000—to purchase a large cache of weapons—and money Synanon paid to Dederich, Petris offered another “Save Synanon” bill that took away the state’s right to interfere with the finances of a religion. Brown signed it and Synanon lived on.
Finally, the same issues were raised, some at my suggestion, by the IRS, and legal rulings by the courts struck its charitable status retroactively resulting in a $55,000,000 judgment that forced Synanon to close in 1991. I thought then this was all now a matter of history, but I was wrong.
Due to all the publicity Synanon had received since its inception, it was being copied everywhere. Not all were with bad results. Many of its ideas on drug addiction, stripped of its cultish aspects and mixed with proper licensed psychotherapy and graduate programs, have become the basis for drug addiction clinics universally—a $1,000,000,000 industry.
Unfortunately, the Punk Squad concept also was replicated. It was cloned into wilderness groups and private foundations collecting money from scared parents afraid their children needed help being guided onto the right path, including choosing the proper sex for copulation. Cashing in on early Synanon favorable publicity, many of these institutions, some run by churches, some government supported, bragged of using the Synanon methods. Some of them were like Synanon on steroids.
And so for decades, I would receive letters and phone calls from past victims of all ages still suffering from the abuse underwent as teenagers.
I provided the following information and allegations to Gov. Brown and the legislature that was publicly reported in books, investigative reporting, and legal cases over the years:
In 1970, Art Barker founded The Seed, a residential treatment program for teens in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Barker, whose own teen rap sheet included arrests for burglary, robbery and assault, joined the Army to avoid prosecution, but eventually deserted. Barker got his psychology degree from a mail order house. The Seed received a $1.8 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)—headed by former White House drug czar Robert DuPont—soon after it opened. By 1975, The Seed was operating in five locations.
In both houses of Congress, The Seed’s tactics were compared to those of the Communists who brainwashed our soldiers during the Korean War; techniques Synanon admitted it applied to its program. A unique aspect of The Seed’s program was the Spanking Machine, which fathers were urged to use to publicly whip their children before large groups of their peers.
Hounded by critics, The Seed soon vanished, to be replaced by Straight Inc., which shared much with Seed, including ownership and a paid consultant, DuPont, who had by then left government service. At Straight, writes researcher Wes Fager, children were forced to endure 12-hour, nonstop group therapy where as many as 200 other kids would scream and spit on them, where they were physically restrained and beaten. The “treatment” continued nearly every day for years.
In 1984, a federal jury in Alexandria, VA, awarded $220,000 to a man who was falsely imprisoned by Straight Inc., whose founder had written a book calling for prison reform based on the Synanon model. The reviewer of that book’s section on Synanon’s merits was none other than Robert DuPont. Facing seven-figure legal judgments, Straight closed in 1993.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it went out of business. Controlling the bad actors here is difficult because the industry is like a giant game of Whack-A-Mole: pound down one and a successor pops up elsewhere, often with the same management, staff and philosophy.
Straight was survived by a spinoff, Kids of New Jersey Inc. In 2003, insurers for the center paid Lulu Corter $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging long-term abuse. Corter, left at the center by her parents in 1981 at age 13, remained there for 13 years, enduring what other victims called “a living hell.” Founder Mel Sembler, who had been involved in both The Seed and Straight, again closed the doors. Sembler was then appointed ambassador by President George W. Bush. He has worked with Mitt Romney. How about dem Republicans? Even Vice-President-elect Pence has aided a fundraiser for a group who several owners have been accused of running a highly complained of offshore “teen boot camp” in the Dominican Republic (see http://deirdresugiuchi.com/suffer-little-children-mike-pences-disturbing-connections-teen-treatment-industry/).
Oregon’s Mount Bachelor Academy in 2009 had about 75 employees supervising about 90 students, who were charged $6,400 a month for treatment that was punitive, humiliating, degrading and traumatizing, according to a report by the Oregon Department of Human Services. Oregon shut it down.
Several youngsters died at a Tennessee facility operated by a California-based provider of behavioral health care services. The Elan School, in Poland, Maine, was run by Joseph Ricci, an ex-heroin addict turned psychiatrist turned school operator turned harness racetrack owner.
Elan, writes a former member, “is best described as a ‘sadistic, brutal, violent, soul-eating hellhole.’” Its therapy included a boxing ring—recalcitrant students surrounded by peers and beaten until they confessed to accusations. “I was forced to watch twenty men and women beat a 14-year-old girl in what we called a cowboy ass-kicking for ten to twenty minutes,” the former student writes.
Former CeDu student Liam Scheff writes on his website, Elam utilized a philosophy that “had grown out of various self-help movements of the 1960s and ’70s, such as Lifespring, Werner Erhard’s est, and most directly, from Charles E. Dederich’s Synanon cult, ‘church,’ and street-level heroin-cure program.”
By the ’90s, Ms. Maia Szalavitz, in her book Help at Any Cost (2006) writes tough love had become a cottage industry, spawning military-style boot camps and wilderness programs that thrust teens into extreme survival scenarios in remote mountain or desert locations. Some of them seemed like old-style chain gangs. Some children, she wrote, were taken to foreign countries, or islands. Some children have been shipped out for nothing more than marijuana smoking and some because the programs told the parents they would expel one sibling if the parents didn’t commit the other one. Ms. Szalavitz reports incidents in which children in these camps were punched, kicked and forced to eat dirt for minor infractions such as failing to stand up straight. Campers told her they had bruised ribs from an exercise in which they were ordered to lie on their backs while counselors ran across their chests in boots. She traced the industry’s roots to Synanon’s Punk Squad.
At least three dozen teens have died in these programs, she reports, often because the camp leaders frequently viewed medical complaints as a sign of malingering. Some of the victims were placed in the programs by ex-Synanon parents who still believed in Synanon methods.
Reports further claimed:
Anthony Haynes, 14 years old, died due to severe dehydration from standing in 114-degree weather for five hours. The head of the camp had a violent history that included punching his former girlfriend and breaking down her door with a sledgehammer.
The harsh conditions at Vision Quest allegedly led to nine deaths. Youngsters were subjected to forced marches in triple-digit temperatures while wearing black uniforms. Their daily diet consisted of an apple, a carrot and a bowl of beans. Vision Quest’s leader was convicted of smuggling cocaine.
A 15-year-old boy died from a staph infection at a Colorado wilderness program. His family claims his pleas for help were ignored. In his final letter to his mother, he wrote, “They found my weakness and I want to go home.”
A 1998 Time magazine article, “Is This a Camp or Jail?” by Adam Cohen, chronicled several deaths at “wilderness camps.” They include:
In 1990, Michelle Sutton, a 15-year-old, died of dehydration at Summit Quest in Utah after she ran out of water. A counselor allegedly told the other hikers not to share, and joked that Michelle’s parched mouth was so white ‘it looks like you’ve been eating marshmallows.”
On June 27, 1990, six weeks later, 16-year-old Kristin Chase died at the Challenger wilderness camp in Utah of hyperthermia and dehydration after a five-mile forced march in 105-degree heat.
Aaron Bacon, 16, was denied food and water and beaten while with North Star Expeditions in Utah in March, 1994. He was denied medical treatment, for what turned out to be, according to an autopsy report, a perforated ulcer.
Dawnne Takeuchi, 18, was killed when she was thrown from a semi-truck near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in June 1994.
Gina Score, 14, was forced to run until she collapsed in 1998 at the state-run juvenile prison camp at Plankinton, South Dakota. She was left lying in the hot sun until she died. Michael Wiltsie, a 65-pound 12-year-old at Camp E-Kel-Etu, a private Florida facility, was suffocated to death in 2000 by a 320-pound “counselor” who sat on him until he stopped breathing.
On January 6, 2006, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson was murdered within three hours of his arrival at a Florida boot camp that was run by Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen. They forced him to inhale ammonia.
Added to this, many kids are subjected to “treatment” to “cure” homosexuality.
For years I have been pushing legislation requiring licensing, and prohibitions. And when Gov. Brown, Jr, recently signed it into law, he undid Pat, Sr.’s long ago mistake—at least within California’s borders.
It was not so easy. And while you think the government might be thanking me for my assistance, I don’t believe I am considered a friend by the bill’s author, Sen. Lara. More than a year ago I discovered legislators put into the statute a religious exception. Worse, it was unconstitutionally phrased saying “well recognized religions” are the ones excused; we can’t recognize or not recognize any given religion.
This clause would have turned the statute from prohibiting to enabling, as all offending organizations would join ranks with the existing religious ones already offending. They all would soon be singing, “Give me that Old Time Religion.” Thus the statute would make the conduct legal, rather than illegal as intended. I threatened to go to Sacramento to defeat the bill unless the exception was removed. I made other corrections but this was the key. It authors agreed and did take out the exception, and I in return wrote letters to legislators requesting passage. Then this year, at the last moment, the religious exception clause was put back in the bill. I wrote to Brown’s office explaining the history and commitment to delete the religious exception. I heard from Sen. Lara’s office my letter to Gov. Brown was not appreciated but that the exemption language was a “mistake” and would be taken out. But I have never heard from that office again nor received a thank you from Sen. Lara for my help, particularly as to keeping out to religious exception.
I also advised Lara’s office that the bill needs to prevent the sending of California children outside our borders to similar camps and institutions that the new licensing law cannot reach. I was told they would look into that. But no one has ever responded.
However, the answer to that is Rep. Adams Schiff’s federal bill, which would apply licensing and prohibitions nationwide. In 2008, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) documented more than 1,300 reports of maltreatment by staff at a variety of programs spanning across 34 states, including substantiated accounts of starvation, excessive use of physical restraints and isolation, severe verbal abuse and intimidation and neglectful medical practices. The GAO made clear that the lack of federal oversight and a loose patchwork of state regulations failed to properly license and monitor residential facilities.
It had been our hope that the passing in California of SB 524, an expected majority of Democrats in Congress would lead to that result with Schiff’s bill. In the past Republicans have voted it down, although now some support it As we know, the latter did not occur and inexplicably Republicans have repeatedly voted this bill down. At least, however, Sen. Schiff’s office sent me a thank you for my work in helping the California law pass even if Sen. Lara, the bill’s author did not. The federal version had no religious exception.
Society has no greater obligation than the protection of its young, and that’s precisely what Schiff’s bill will do, if passed. And its passage is way overdue, the need for such legislation going all the way back to Synanon’s creation of the Punk Squad in 1974.
I thank Gov. Brown Jr. for his signing the bill, and just as important, a long needed right- to-die statute. Now if he would only let former Manson-family member Leslie Van Houten—a victim in her own right of something Synanon-like—out of prison, he would be my all-time favorite Gov. He would certainly fit in former President Kennedy’s Profiles of Courage.