Saturday, June 2, 2007

Over the GW: Compelling film about teen rehabs gone bad – Part 1

I am honored to have been one of the first to see Director Nick Gaglia’s profound film, Over the GW - a film about a world that existed a few years ago just over the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey when Nick was a teen. A world that, sadly, still exists today I. Zehnder

Over the GW is a poignant film based on a real life experience in a cult-like rehab center that preys on vulnerable children, teens, and their parents – programs that are still widespread. It is a frightening look at what went on behind closed doors then - and sadly - what goes on behind closed doors today.

The actors of the film did an excellent job at capturing the essence of what youth endured at KIDS, Inc., New Jersey, a spin-off of Straight, Inc.

One of the first things Kether Donohue (Sofia), the lead actress in the film told me was, “These kids don’t have a voice – they cannot tell anyone what is going on.” She’s right.

Kether was deep in thought when she asked, “How can staff in these places justify calling a girl a sex addict when all she did was cut school and spend time with a guy, something that is just normal teen behavior? How can staff interrogate a grown sibling about whether or not she’d ever had a drink, and then label her a ‘druggy’ when she admitted she drank a little socially? And how could they forbid her to see her two younger siblings who were in the program?”

She said it really troubled her to know that kids actually begin believing things they repeat over and over again. A teen that had never had sex prior to entering the program was forced to talk about his sexual experiences. Frustrated when they would not believe him that he’d never had sex, he blurted out, “OK, I did it with my dog.” He was forced to repeat that so many times that he actually began to believe it.

That’s what mind control is all about. That’s what many of these programs are all about. And they don’t stop with the kids – they use mind-control on the parents. Divided are families where one parent is able to be controlled and the other is not.

Something no one knew and how the film impacted them

I interviewed some of the actors and actresses in the film and was touched by how much compassion they had for Nick and how his experiences truly touched their lives. They expressed a deep desire to help raise awareness through this film.

During my conversation with Nick, he made it very clear to me that the film could not have been possible without the help of his crew. What Nick didn’t tell me was that his crew did not know the film was about him until the film was finished.

Except Kether, that is - she was privy to this information three months into production. In a recent interview Kether said, “At first he didn’t tell anyone the film was about him, not even me. Three months into it we had formed a serious relationship and Nick felt he should tell me. But, he didn’t want the others to know. He did not want people feeling sorry for him because he’s not a person to wallow in self-pity. He wanted it to be about the kids and not about him.” She said he succeeded.

George Gallagher (Tony) said he was the first person after Kether to find out that Kids, Inc. of New Jersey was a real place and that it was based on Nick’s experiences. During his research for post-production George asked Nick the name of the rehab he’d been in. George said, “It was then that I started reading about Kids, Inc. and all of the abuse, and the very specific things that were in the film. That’s when I realized it wasn’t fiction and it wasn’t about research Nick had done on these types of facilities. It was in fact Nick himself who had been exposed to this type of treatment.” He said, “It wasn’t until everything was done that Nick told everyone else that he’d actually been there – that this was actually his story. Thinking about what went on in that place – sexual abuse, sleep-deprivation, ruptured appendix. It was hard knowing that my best friend went through all of this. It’s hard for me to imagine he’s still walking and talking. I don’t know if I could have returned to society after being an inmate in one of these places. I might have contemplated suicide.”

In an interview with Albert Insinnia (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Lt. Pizzelli), he said “I felt a great deal of compassion for Nick. I kind of wished I had known. I felt a new respect that having gone through that he followed through by putting this movie together.” Albert said he was truly touched by this movie and that he had no idea this industry existed.

He said playing the main staff, Dr. Hiller, was difficult because he was not accustomed to “getting in kids’ faces”. “It was a hard role to play, but it was worthwhile. I felt I did something meaningful. And after our conversation today, I feel prouder to be a part of this. You and Nick have really opened my eyes and I feel really good exposing something that’s hurting people.” He said he felt he had to express years into minutes, a very challenging thing for any actor to do. Albert said it’s not the end, he plans to help Nick and I work towards a solution to this growing national problem. He said, “I’m at a point in my life where I’d like to do something to give back. I want to help stop this from happening to more kids.”

Justin Swain played James, a bully in the film. Justin, too, did not know the film was about Nick. He said, “I was just an actor hired to do a job. I found it a challenge to do some of the things Nick was asking me to do. My immediate reactions were ‘I’m playing the character, but what you’re having me do is weird. Like motivating and restraining seemed brutal’. While I played the role I actually began to feel a conviction, like I was actually helping the kids. I could see the allure of the higher staff who wanted to become God-like figures because I could feel it – I had to justify the strange and cruel behavior coming out of my character.” When he found out this was Nick’s story all he could say initially was, “I can’t believe this really happened to you.” Justin told me that before he accepted this role he had no idea these things really happened to kids - certainly not in America.

GR Johnson (Mr. Morris) said Nick didn’t tell the crew the film was about him. GR suspected it was. He said, “When I read the script, and the reason I loved it so much, was that it seemed so real to me. I knew nothing about this world and the very specific things written in the script made me believe Nick somehow knew what he was talking about. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s not, maybe it was someone close to Nick who was in this situation.’ But I never had the urge to go up and ask him, ‘What was it really like in a program?’ I didn’t need to – it was all in the script.” GR said that for him it makes the movie more powerful knowing it is about Nick’s experiences as he remembers them.

John Presnell (composer) said, “I came on board toward the end so there wasn’t much time. I watched the film and dreamt about the imagery overnight. The film was disturbing and a creepy theme rolled over in my head. I met the others and shared the music. They all loved it right away.” John said he’d never written music to a film before but had hoped that this opportunity would come his way. He said, “Nick was able to create an atmosphere and I was able to create the music to go with it.” John shared with me that he never knew something like this existed and that he does not believe a person can be changed through intimidation. “I felt it was very disturbing when the counselor grabbed the girl by the hair and when they were restraining a guy on the floor.” John believes these types of programs should be abolished – it’s that simple.

John’s final comment was, “The film was harrowing.”

Megan Ribera (Jennifer) said Nick never disclosed to her that the film was about him. Megan didn’t realize it was real and thought Nick had a very good imagination to come up with such a script. She said, “When I found out it was his story, after the film was completely done, it all started to make sense. I wasn’t completely shocked by it, but I wondered why he hadn’t told us sooner. It made everything click and made me understand Nick better. I feel a level of respect for Nick that he could take his experience and put it into a film – it is amazing. I wish I could take my life experience and do something like this.”

Why am I not surprised?

Over the past four years I have spoken to a great number of victims and their families who have been abused in teen rehab programs or other programs that sell themselves as “boarding schools” and “residential treatment centers.” Yet I had never spoken to anyone who attended KIDS, Inc. of New Jersey – not until last week when I interviewed Nick Gaglia, the Director of the film.

So why, then, was I not surprised at the things Nick told me? It was disturbing and painful – it just wasn’t anything new to me - kids who are psychologically and mentally abused and broken down by staff, brutally restrained, made to lie on floors for months, parents and kids who are brainwashed, to name but a few. Families that were torn apart on the guise they would be brought back together again.

Why? Because as the Founder and President of the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse (CAICA), and as a Child and Family Advocate, I receive calls on a near-daily basis from people whose stories mirror Nick’s.

Straight, Inc. - KIDS, Inc. – WWASPS

One might ask, since the program Nick attended is closed why would I be interested in his story and in this film? And why would Nick, a victim who endured years of severe abuse, spend countless hours, days, weeks, and years recounting the abuse, writing the script, and producing this film?

Because Nick and I know something – we know that years ago there existed a world for children and teens - a world most people know nothing about and if they do they are reluctant to admit it has touched their lives. We also know that while these programs are closed others have taken their place. Children and teens today continue to be abused, neglected, and continue to die behind closed doors of what parents believe are “boarding schools” and “behavior modification programs” for their kids.

It is a world that defies the very core of the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a world that allows torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. A world subjected to exile, where its victims lose their ability to communicate with the outside world, and where they are kept from their home and family. A world where they are often denied proper medical attention and access to a proper education.

A world where there is not liberty and justice, for all!

Tens of thousands of children and teens each year are being sent away to Residential Treatment Centers, Therapeutic Boarding Schools, Wilderness Programs, Boot Camps, and other programs. While some parents send their children and teens to these programs because they are at their wits’ end and feel they can no longer cope, it is important to note others are simply looking for a “boarding school” experience for their child. Some parents simply don’t have time in today’s busy world to deal with their children and teens and they are looking to others for help.

In their haste parents have turned to the Internet for help. What they don’t know is there are literally hundreds of websites leading parents to the same umbrella group of programs that are affiliated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS). Google Teen, Help for Teen, Troubled Teen, Teen Drugs, and you will be directed to hundreds of websites that lead back to WWASPS programs.

For example, Teen Revitalization does not mention they are affiliated with WWASPS yet it is obvious the programs they promote are WWASPS-affiliated or have been WWASPS-affiliated in the past. Programs that want no affiliation with WWASPS yet still have the same directors overseeing their operations.

The Costa Rica program listed on their website is said to be WWASPS-affiliated and replaced the facility that was shut down by the Costa Rican government.

The Jamaican program listed on their website appears to be the WWASPS-affiliated Tranquility Bay program. There have been multiple reports of abuse.

The Utah program for children ages 7-14 appears to be the WWASPS-affiliated Majestic Ranch program. You can read about four former employees who came forward and testified that children were being severely abused at this program in the Majestic Ranch Report: A Living Nightmare for Kids.

These are just a few examples of how websites can easily mislead desperate parents looking for help for their children and teens.

Google WWASPS and you will see there is no end to the amount of bad publicity they have received.

They are slick! Today’s marketing agents and program directors have a way of convincing parents that their child or teen is headed down a dark and dreary path – when sometimes all the parent said the child had done was smoke cigarettes or had slipping grades.

Some kids are addicted to drugs and need help, and for those kids there are some good and safe programs. What I am trying to point out is that abusive programs try to convince parents that whatever behavior their child is exhibiting will ultimately lead them to becoming addicted to drugs, and ultimately will lead them to death. And often they succeed. These are the same tactics that were used years ago in Straight, Inc., KIDS, Inc., and others.

WWASPS continues to house thousands of American children in their programs both inside and outside the US.

They sell many of their programs as Boarding Schools with a therapeutic Component for teens or co-educational boarding schools. According to parents, they will say whatever they believe the parent wants to hear. If a parent is looking for a program for their drug-addicted child, they have a program for that. If a parent is looking for a program for their 4.0 student headed for college, they have a program for that. If a parent is looking for help with their child who suffers from ADHD, they have a program for that too. The problem is they are sending kids with such differing needs to the same facility.

Parents and former students have reported there are no therapists on site at some of their programs. If a child needs to see a therapist the parent has to pay an additional fee not only for therapy but for transporting the child to the therapist’s office. Parents have reported that while they may take a van-full of kids to the same office, each parent must pay a hefty transport fee.

There are no teachers standing up teaching kids. Instead, I have received reports from parents and kids indicating kids are given a textbook, told to read a chapter, and take a test. Their contracts state they do not guarantee the child will receive even one school credit – some kids have remained in their programs for up to five years or more. Some have paid as much as $60,000 to $80,000 per year and their child did not even receive a diploma, and some received bogus diplomas.

Parents and former students have also reported the programs use a tough-love, behavior modification approach with a brainwashing element, practicing many of the same tactics as Straight, Inc. and KIDS, Inc.

In fact, WWASPS President, Ken Kay, had a short falling out with WWASPS in 2000 and said:

"These people are basically a bunch of untrained people who work for this organization. So they don't have credentials of any kind. We could be leading these kids to long-term problems that we don't have a clue about because we're not going about it in the proper way. How in the hell can you call yourself a behavior modification program -- and that's one of the ways it's marketed – when nobody has the expertise to determine: Is this good, is this bad?"

Similar to what occurred at Straight, Inc., and KIDS, Inc., what can typically begin as a 30-90 day program turns into a traumatic two-year, or more, stay in programs where children and teens experienced abuse, brainwashing, and false imprisonment. Parents and kids were, and are, made to believe the program is the only thing that will keep the teen alive and sober and if they leave the program surely they will die.

We have a problem

Today, there is no entity looking out for the best interest of these kids who are locked behind closed doors, whose parents are often lulled into believing their child is receiving help when in reality many of their children have been abuse and/or neglected. Many children have died.

There are no accurate statistics, no way to track how many children walk through their doors, and no way to track how many walk out. There is no one tracking how long these children remain in programs or how long they go without any contact with the outside world, including conversations or visits from their own parents. There is no one to hear their cries for help. There is no way to know if the industry is helping or harming these kids.

The only attempt being made to regulate this industry is by the very people who are running it – owners and directors of programs and people who have a monetary interest in its survival.

It is my belief that a system needs to be in place where an outside entity – one that has no monetary interest in these programs – is given the ability to monitor their activities. Every facility should be subjected to unannounced visits.

Children and teens should have the ability to report abuse and neglect and the freedom of being interviewed in a safe and non-threatening environment and without fear of retaliation. They should be provided a proper education and they should be afforded prompt medical attention when needed and should be treated with respect, love, and dignity.

Parents should have the freedom to make unannounced visits to see their child and they should have the freedom to withdraw their child at will.

Staff should not antagonize and instigate problems with children and teens. They should use least restrictive, de-escalative techniques whenever possible and should refrain from abusing and neglecting children and teens in their care. Staff should be trained and qualified to care for children and teens with special needs. They should report any abuse, neglect, and deaths they witness.

What is the solution?

While there is no quick fix Nick’s film is a great start. It is a medium by which to bring awareness to this growing National problem.

After spending the last four years researching and reporting on this industry, I have learned that many parents have lost their confidence to parent their teens. The family unit has, in many cases, been broken and often blended families aren’t blending so well.

I often receive phone calls from frantic parents about to send their child to a program. I have learned that oftentimes if they slow down, take a breath, and reassess the situation, we can work through the issues that lead the parent to feel they had lost control over their children and teens.

Many parents have reported their children did not get the help they expected when they sent them to a program. And worse, some report their child was abused or neglected. These parents have told me if they knew then what they know now they would never have sent their child away. I have been instrumental in helping these families as the child reintegrates into society.

Most devastating are the calls I receive from sobbing mothers whose children have died at the hands of those who were supposed to be there to help them. What do you tell a mother who tells you her son was brutally beaten and restrained before he died? What do you tell an aunt when you both find out her little seven-year old niece lost control of her bodily functions while she was restrained for an hour by a 250-pound staff? What do you tell a mother who tells you her son was very ill with obvious signs and the signs were ignored – and now her son is dead? I create memorial websites and sometimes sponsor others. I try to comfort them and try to help get their stories out there for the world to know. But I cannot explain the pain I feel in the fact that there is nothing in the world I can do to bring their children back. All I can do is try to raise awareness so other children will not die the way their babies died.

There came a point when I could no longer sit idly by researching and reporting without being able to provide options and alternatives to families. So, I gave up my legal career that took 12 hours out of my day and decided to continue my advocacy work for CAICA while coaching parents and teens. Whenever possible I work to keep families together and when it’s not, I work to help them find safe options.

How the film has impacted me

When Kether called to ask if I would support Nick’s film I said I would have to review it before endorsing it. Ten minutes into my interview with Nick the day before I watched the film there was no question – he would have my full support. His words cut to the core of me. His story was all too familiar and all too painful.

After watching the trailer of the film I knew I would not be able to watch the film alone. My husband sat in awe as he watched what went on behind closed doors, his eyes opened wider to the problems facing children, teens, and their parents. As we watched a brother and sister sitting not far from each other yet unable to speak to one another it brought back memories of the stories I heard from a boy who was taken from us.

He was taken to a facility in Western Samoa and the next two years of his life were hell. As bad as it was I could not understand why his parents would not listen and sent their two youngest daughters to equally abusive programs – one daughter was in a program in Mexico that was shut down for abuse. Rather than bring her home they sent her to another program under the same umbrella of programs.

I remember stories of his sisters, girls I had known since they were little, that I had watched dance around their yard showing me their “ballerina” moves, girls who had never been in a trouble. How these sisters were sent to the same facility (one was there a year and a half before the other arrived) yet they could not look at one another or speak to one another. While it was hard to believe this could happen, I did believe them.

Watching the film validated what I had envisioned happened to them.

These three children are my inspiration – they, and all of the other children and families who have been touched by the dark side of this industry are why CAICA exists.

Nick created a profound film that I find to be in line with issues that continue to surround children and teens today. While the program Nick attended has since been shut down, the problem is far from being resolved.

What was so powerful when I watched the film was that I have seen this story played over and over in my own mind. Not because I attended a program like the one Nick attended, but because I have spent the past four years trying to shed light to what I have learned children and teens continue to go through in similar settings.

What I saw in the film reminded me of the countless stories I hear on a nearly daily basis of children and teens, their parents, friends, and relatives, who have been touched by this pervasive problem that continues in our country.

I hope to work with Nick on his next film to shed light on what continues to happen to families in this country, and to give victims a sense that people really do care about what they have been through. In order to effect change our country is going to need to wake up to the fact that tens of thousands of children and teens today continue to be housed in institutions, facilities, and programs. Many are sent there by their unsuspecting parents who continue to be brainwashed in this cult-like environment while others are court-appointed by judges as an alternative to entering the Juvenile Justice System.