Deadly Rehabs That Target Kids

By Maia Szalavitz 01/06/11

How "tough love" rehabs prey on desperate parents seeking help for addicted children. Plus: Four things every parent should do before sending a teen to treatment.

Mount Bachelor Academy, the Oregon home for troubled teens, was
shut down for abuse.

It's always difficult to know what to do when your child is at risk. But parents of children with drug problems are incredibly vulnerable. When a child has cancer, Mom and Dad tell the grandparents immediately, call Aunt Alice who used to work as a secretary at Sloan-Kettering or the Mayo Clinic, Google the scientific literature for the best treatments and generally mobilize their entire support system.

But parents of addicted kids tend to shamefully sneak searches online and quietly grab at the first referral they’re offered, often ignoring obvious red flags. In other words, they are easy prey for charlatans in the industry.

Los Angeles Magazine recently ran a dramatic and poignant account by one such parent, Michael Angeli, the co-executive producer of Law and Order: Criminal Intent. The story illustrates why we need to educate parents about what to look for in treatment programs—and why professional standards should never be ignored.

Angeli’s son Bey apparently developed a marijuana problem so severe that his parents believed he required intensive treatment. They sent the 17-year-old to an unregulated “nonresidential” program, which, in California, requires no licensing and was under no government oversight.

“The House” was run by a charismatic former addict, Steve Izenstark, who was ultimately arrested—by an armed LAPD strike force—during a Family Night therapy session and charged with a litany of sex crimes: It turned out he'd had sex with several of his teenage patients, a process that he labeled “intimacy therapy.”

Izentark made two mistakes rarely seen in abusive treatment: First, he got busted buying cocaine. Second, he hired a woman with actual psychology credentials who believed his victims’ accounts.

Here’s how a 16-year-old girl described her experience with Izentark in court testimony:

Q: Could you please tell us what [Steve] told you?

A: My goal…would be to be in love with him and want to have sex with him. And at that point, I’m at my intimate peak, and it’s my healthiest that I could be. And he would say no to having sex with me and I would be done with my intimacy therapy.

Q: Was there ever a time during this intimacy therapy where he put his penis into your vagina?

A: Yeah.

But such obvious sex crimes were far from the only boundary violations that occurred. When Angeli first visited the program, concerned about his son’s withdrawal and isolation, Izenstark writes: “Hey, don’t you worry about that, my friend,” Steve reassured me, “my friend” being one of his signature phrases. “Have you seen some of the girls around here? Have you? Huh? They’re drop-dead gorgeous.”

Angeli perfectly captures Izenstark’s chamelonlike personality:

He had a knack for being all things to all people: the dreamer, the drill sergeant, the world-weary mentor, the rebel pied piper, the vocation-devoted divorcé, the gentle soul, the gulag colonel. He reversed the weaving permissiveness of baby boomer parents and at the same time seduced them by tapping into the moldering resin of their counterculture youth with his shambling charm and his different-drum approach.

Before the arrest made the allegations public, Angeli’s son Bey himself had stayed over at the “nonresidential” program during nights when he was “in crisis,” even though such stays should have made the program subject to regulation.

“I have heard every bullshit story you can imagine, OK?” [Izenstark told Angeli.] “These kids will lie until they get tired of being busted for it or it’s too late and they’re thrown out of here, OK? Everybody who walks through that door lies.”

So, how did a rich, successful Hollywood producer fall for what is—to anyone who knows anything about treatment research—an obviously outdated scam? The problem is that much of what is portrayed in the media as “professional treatment” in shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention isn’t based on evidence of what works and can all too easily lead to boundary violations and outright abuse.

Take the notion that all people with drug problems are liars. While it is true that many addicted people do lie about their drug use to avoid being punished for it, most research finds that they are just as likely as anyone else to tell the truth when they feel safe doing so. For example, anonymous surveys of addicts about their drug use tend to line up closely with urine testing (this may not be the case for the significant minority of addicted people who also have personality disorders).

Why does this matter? If you label all your patients as liars, it is easy to dismiss their complaints and justify treating them in disrespectful, even humiliating ways. If teens tell their parents that they are uncomfortable with treatment, that’s just “druggie manipulation”; if they go to police or other authorities about the abuse, their stories are often dismissed for decades. In Angeli’s case, he kept his son in “treatment” for months after what he saw there had made him uncomfortable.

But Izentark made two mistakes rarely seen in abusive treatment: First, he got busted buying cocaine. Second, he hired a woman with actual psychology credentials who believed his victims’ accounts after she’d found he’d lied to her. That led to the court case that was his ultimate downfall.

Before that, though, many other red flags were clear. Angeli writes:

Bey had been at The House for about three months when I began to question Steve’s methods. Our health insurance had already declined to cover The House after Steve emphatically guaranteed the opposite. By then we’d learned that trying to get him on the phone was hopeless and that the messages my wife left rarely had an impact. 

Once, Steve and I walked out of his office after a meeting just as some kids had finished cleaning the living room. It looked immaculate. “Didn’t I tell you to clean this pigsty up?” Steve growled, and the kids kept cleaning what was already clean. Later, when I took exception to his autocratic gruffness, we argued. As part of Bey’s therapy, Steve had him build a wall in The House’s backyard. When Bey finished, Steve ordered him to tear it down and reconstruct it on the other side of the yard, which Bey did without saying a word.

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Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist working at the intersection of brain, culture and behavior.  She has reported for Time magazine online, and is the co-author, with Bruce Perry, of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. You can find her on Linkedin and  Twitter.