Losing Her Religion: NHYM alum describes the torture of "teen treatment" 

Part 5 of the NUVO series "To Hell and Back"

click to enlarge Deirdre Sugiuchi is a survivor of New Horizons Youth Ministries. - PHOTO BY JASON THRASHER
  • Deirdre Sugiuchi is a survivor of New Horizons Youth Ministries.
  • Photo by Jason Thrasher


[
Editor's Note: To Hell and Back: A NUVO series is an in-depth look at New Horizons Youth Ministries, a "therapeutic ministry for teens" that was once based out of Marion, IN and the many abuses that are associated with the treatment facility. In this article, New Horizons alumnus Deirdre Sugiuchi reflects on her personal experiences and her advocacy against abuse in the teen treatment industry. We also examine the drug and medical violations the Indiana Department of Child Services uncovered at the Marion facility as well as the laws that shape the practice of teen treatment facilities in Indiana and the Dominican Republic.

Deirdre maintains a blog at www.deirdresugiuchi.com/blog where she updates her followers on the progress of her upcoming book Unreformed. An excerpt from the book is shared on P13.]

Deirdre Sugiuchi finds Athens, Georgia to be a place where dreams come true. "I love my life here," she says of her family's adopted home. "I'm surrounded by a creative, supportive community. I married my best friend, who's a talented musician and a maker and a respected educator. We're raising an amazing kid. We live in a historic house, restored by my husband, which is walking distance to downtown and to our independent bookstore, Avid Bookshop, where I curate music and the [music and literature series] New Town Revue. I have a fantastic job serving as a children's librarian. I get kids excited about reading." Despite her difficult past, Deirdre remains connected to survivors of what's called the "teen treatment industry." She blogs about the abuses she witnessed at New Horizons while a student there in the early '90s, identifying concerns she has with the past and current treatment of children in the teen treatment industry.

I asked Deirdre how she found herself in a New Horizons Youth Ministries facility and what life was like before then. Raised in Greenwood, Mississippi, Deirdre was homeschooled and placed in a Christian academy, a practice that mirrored many evangelical households in Indiana. Pockets of faith-based communities rooted in the teachings of biblical literalism — the belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God — surround a network of churches, private Christian schools and seminaries. Citing biblical passages in response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision, dissatisfied white community members throughout the predominately black Mississippi Delta established segregation academies, faith-based private schools that excluded the majority of impoverished Black families. Today, approximately 67 percent of the private schools surrounding Greenwood identify themselves as Christian academies.

click to enlarge Here is Deirdre finishing up her birthday cake on her 17th birthday.
  • Here is Deirdre finishing up her birthday cake on her 17th birthday.

Dierdre's father was a follower of R.J. Rushdoony, a theologian who preached a variation of biblical literalism intertwined with Judaic law. "My father became a born-again fundamentalist when I was five. With his conversion came the rules. We couldn't watch TV, couldn't listen to secular music. We girls could only wear dresses because the V of our pants might make men look at our crotch." She was pulled out of public school after third grade and placed in a Christian academy when her father raised objections over a science project. "Everything in our life revolved around church, three times a week."

RELATED: To Hell and Back Part 2

Rushdoony advocated homeschooling and the dissolution of state government. He believed secular education "produces not only a proliferation of sin but of mental problems and serious personality disorders." His teachings regularly preached the evils of humanism and openly encouraged the subjugation of women. "My mother wasn't completely on board with my father's fanaticism, but as a female, she had no choice — the husband is head of the household." When adolescence hit, Deirdre grew disillusioned of her parents' faith. "Once at private school, I was done being the Christian weirdo. I was headed toward the other extreme — artist, feminist, freak — behaviors which I'm sure justified in my father's mind his decision to send me to Escuela Caribe."

Deirdre argued with her father. "Growing up I was not allowed to listen to secular music. When I hit adolescence I became obsessed with alternative and indie music as well as bands like the Beatles and the Kinks. I'd go on long walks or runs down River Road, down the Boulevard, always wearing my Walkman." Deirdre would not win her father over. "My father is a true believer. He trusted the Christian machine to solve his problems."

Spirited away

Like many families, Deirdre's parents heard about New Horizons through James Dobson's radio show, "Focus on the Family." Former New Horizons Director and CEO Charles Redwine spoke on the show. The Asbury Theological Seminary graduate presented himself as a doctor and authoritarian on reactive attachment disorder. (According to the Mayo Clinic, "Reactive attachment disorder is a rare but serious condition in which an infant or young child doesn't establish healthy attachments with parents or caregivers. ... With treatment, children with reactive attachment disorder may develop more stable and healthy relationships with caregivers and others. 

click to enlarge Deirdre is shown here as a teenager working on the director's house in the heat of the Dominican Republic.
  • Deirdre is shown here as a teenager working on the director's house in the heat of the Dominican Republic.

Without inspecting any of the facilities, Deirdre's parents placed her on a flight to the Dominican Republic, where she eventually found herself in the remote mountains of Jarabacoa. An internist, her father agreed with New Horizons staff on treating her with Lithium.

"I was always thirsty, cotton-mouthed. My ears would ring. I was very clumsy. I fell a lot. I used to stretch my hands out and just watch them shake. I became really paranoid." Deirdre found it difficult to take classes, work as required in the tropical heat and meet the rigorous demands of a program that took away points for any performance the "caregivers" thought was less than satisfactory.

"I thought very slowly. I had trouble making decisions. I would drift during conversations. I was very tired all the time. I struggled to focus — it felt like my head was wrapped in cotton. There was this chemically induced distance between me and other humans. I was always hungry and gained weight, which was extremely depressing." Misdiagnosed with atypical bipolar disorder while in the program, Deirdre later learned that she did not have the condition that New Horizons and her parents labeled her with. "I have ADHD. The medication they used to treat me, Lithium and later Depakote, was harmful to me.

RELATED:Drugs administered to teens at NHYM

"It's just heartbreaking to realize that my father could do that to me, just drug me without even being a psychiatrist, without sending anyone to evaluate me, because he did not like what I was writing in my letters, but then I was just resigned. I had no choice." Deirdre and other alumni question their treatment.

One example: After an alumnus returned home from the program in 2001 she was ordered to give a blood draw for a custody hearing. She was surprised to discover she had been given Lithium. She writes, "I was on crazy high med doses at New Horizons. I was on Wellbutrin but that's the only one I know of. When I left and had my blood tested, my Lithium levels were dangerously high."
[EDITORS NOTE: Accounts from alumni don't include the names of the sources in this article since those alumni were juveniles at the time of these allegations. These accounts have been culled from the Justice for Children archives, a collection of statements, documents and accounts maintained by NHYM alumni.]

A pharmacologist was alarmed to hear of the absence of serum blood draws at New Horizons needed to safely dose levels of Lithium. After examining over 12 psychotropic drugs identified by New Horizons students and reviewing their statements he stated, "Lithium in particular is very troubling considering it requires frequent monitoring to avoid heat, dehydration and toxicity, which if not done can result in death. Most students, if not all, were subjected to being in the sun and exercising for at times an excess of 8 hours a day. Escuela Caribe had only one nurse on staff to handle all medications for a campus full of students." Medication violations discovered at the Marion facility by Grant County Department of Child Services were also troubling.

click to enlarge Deirdre is participating in Youth Group at the Starr House. She was often reprimanded for "being seductive" for her nervous habit of twirling her hair.
  • Deirdre is participating in Youth Group at the Starr House. She was often reprimanded for "being seductive" for her nervous habit of twirling her hair.

In a document obtained from a FOIA request, Grant County Department of Child Services issued a Plan For Correction for New Horizons' Marion facility in January of 2009, sixteen years after issuing its child caring institution license. A DCS residential licensing consultant stated the reasons were due to the number and severity of medical care related problems. "These problems included sporadic, improper and insufficient documentation of medications and psychotropic medications administered to children, a lack of proper training for medicine administration, insufficient and inconsistent supply of medication, and a lack of proper review of psychotropic medication by a physician. These issues need to be addressed immediately."

Alumni accounts reveal the prevalence of medication issues similar to the ones identified by DCS in each program long before the Plan For Correction was issued. Some alumni were strongly sedated while performing physically strenuous and hazardous tasks. While under drugs such as Lithium and Haldol they recount bizarre hydrotherapy sessions with buckets and hoses, with water sometimes used to make breathing difficult. They were put on work projects using pick axes and made to lift and carry large boulders and logs. They chopped wood and cut grass with machetes, despite safety warnings on medication labels to refrain from such activities. An incident report written by New Horizons staff in 2007 at Escuela Caribe states: "[Staffer] Mr. Seabrooke responded initially [to non-compliance by a student] by pouring a small bucket of water on [her] head. [Staffer] Mrs. Wall administered medication at Mr. Seabrooke's request and prescribed by the staff psychiatrist (Dr. Julio Chestaro Breton). [The student] complied but with some verbal resistance. She then complied for a short period of time, completing requested exercises. Her non-compliance, both verbally and physically, began to resurface at which time Mr. Seabrooke placed (her) in a therapeutic hold. He then ordered that water be sprayed on her and himself with the hose."

In one instance, staff used the denial of medication actually prescribed for a student as punishment. An alumnus placed at Escuela Caribe writes: "I was given a large bottle of small oval yellow pills twice after having surgery. I was told they were for pain but our house mother never gave me any and when I asked why she said the house father needed them more and had taken all of them and that pain was my punishment. But for what I don't know."

RELATED: To Hell and Back Part 3

Drug issues in Marion

In January of 2009 Grant County Department of Child Services investigators made an unannounced inspection of the Marion facility. The investigator wrote: "Shea also showed us the staff office area and where medications are kept. Upon looking at the medication sheets, it was observed that they were grossly behind in appropriate documentation. Apparently, the staff members have not been regularly signing or initialing when prescribed medications are given to the residents." The investigator also noted months of sloppy record keeping. One resident had been prescribed four psychotropic medications, and the documentation of dosing was utterly incomplete: "There were only 12 out of 30 days initialed for the month of Nov 2008, and five out of 31 days initialed in December 2008, and only one day had been initialed for this month, January, and that is likely because we were present when the the medications were being given out that evening." The investigator indicated that, "The girls were not able to state all the names of the medications they were taking."

In 2007 an alumnus wrote about the strong sedatives she was prescribed and the difficulty of staying awake in a performance-based program. "They sent me out to work every day at first. But I was always so tired that I would sleep instead. They eventually just started leaving me all the time in a quiet room. I kept sleeping. So they started pouring water on the floor to deter me from lying down. I slept anyway. They had me so sedated I could not keep myself awake, even though I wanted so badly to stay awake because it kept getting me in trouble." In her incident and progress reports New Horizons described her sedation as an authority problem, a refusal to stay awake.

Many alumni complained that there were few doctors assessing their conditions for medications or treatment. Only two were identified in the Dominican Republic: Doctor Zackheim, who died shortly after being sentenced to federal prison in part for writing fraudulent diagnoses for adolescents, and Dominican psychiatrist Julio Chestaro, who lives 40 minutes away from the New Horizons property in La Vega. Trained in Spain, Dr. Chestaro stated that for the past 12 years he's been "in charge of the psychopharmacology reviews of those that are medicated." Dr. Chestaro stated that he continues to treat teens for the facility, which is now known as Crosswinds.

RELATED:To Hell and Back Part 4: The Mysterious Doctor Z

Parents placing children in a facility under the care of a psychiatrist in the Dominican Republic are taking significant risks. Although in 2006 Mental Health Law 12.06 was passed in the country mandating broad civil rights governing the consent and standards of psychiatric care, "there is currently no national human rights body in the Dominican Republic to oversee human rights inspections in mental health facilities, or to impose sanctions on those that violate patients' rights."

Alumni question their diagnoses at New Horizons — many thinking that strong disagreements with parents over evangelical beliefs were misdiagnosed as mood disorders. An alumnus that resided at the Marion facility in the mid '90s added, "I have no history of mood disorders. I know they had me on antidepressants, probably all of us. The details are fuzzy but I remember sitting with a psychiatrist for a brief moment and he wrote the scripts off New Horizons' recommendation. I never had any mood problems or behavior problems at New Horizons. Sure, I fought with my parents, but what 15 year old doesn't?"

From alum to activist

Deirdre's criticisms of New Horizon's treatment methods are unflinching — "Children, particularly traumatized children, need love. New Horizons is completely reckless in their care of children. They believe that in order to enact change, you must traumatize children. I've known so many whose lives have been negatively impacted by that organization. NHYM calls [itself] Christian, yet refuses to practice basic compassion or radical empathy. I imagine this is directly related to the way many of the people who ran New Horizons were raised. You have this unending cycle of abuse, which just needs to stop."

click to enlarge View of the campus from higher up the mountain in the Dominican Republic.
  • View of the campus from higher up the mountain in the Dominican Republic.

One of the reasons Deirdre is a forceful advocate for "teen treatment" reform is that legislatures have failed to enact policies regulating potentially abusive facilities. Though abusive facilities such as New Horizons were identified decades ago, families have failed to see an enactment of the types of regulatory laws needed to prevent abusive facilities from finding loopholes. "In 1979, when I was five, child advocate Kenneth Wooden testified before Congress about horrific abuses occurring at Escuela Caribe, about how staff there would beat children, shave their heads, force them into solitary confinement, then force them to confess their sins. Wooden delivered testimony eleven years to the day before I was sent away and all Caribe-Vista did was change its name and move on."

New Horizons' child-caring license was revoked by the State of Indiana in 2009, but it could still operate as a private contract faith-based facility in Indiana. New Horizons had a legal right to operate as an unlicensed private contract faith-based facility, advertising as a therapeutic ministry. Designated as a Title IV-E facility, the State of Indiana was very clear that their jurisdiction only encompassed New Horizons' facility in Marion, Indiana. An administrative hearing reported that although New Horizons "operated facilities in the Dominican Republic and Canada, any facility owned and operated by the entity beyond the legal boundaries of Indiana, is not covered by the Indiana license."

The response of New Horizons' leadership in regards to the violations is alarming to those interested in the safety of children. New Horizons leadership repeatedly expressed an unwillingness to update or change their ministries' child-caring policies. New Horizons President Emeritus Tim Blossom testified at the hearing, trivializing the Indiana Department of Child Services' policies and citing of the facilities' violations. "New Horizons' leadership viewed the efforts of DCS investigator Myron Dance as "jerking around". DCS restated the severity of violations New Horizons faced — unsupervised night care of children with known sex predators, repetitive excessive exercise for discipline with disregard to therapeutic benefit and numerous medication violations. Blossom referred to the violations as DCS's "little rules and regulations", stating that instead of changing New Horizons' policies as suggested by DCS they considered switching over to an unlicensed facility over the summer of 2009. Blossom stated he would change the policies only if he was shown a basis for it. "If that is the decision of DCS, so be it. We'll part."

Despite the severity of the violations, DCS acknowledged New Horizon's religious right to operate as an unlicensed facility. At the hearing Indiana Statute 31-27-2-7 was read — DCS exempts from licensure a non-profit child caring institution and a group home operated by a church or religious ministry that is a religious organization exempt from federal income tax.

Deirdre questions New Horizons therapeutic claims. "Their methods were similar to those outlined in this report on brainwashing C.I.A. Director Richard Helms wrote for the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover back in 1956. It's not hard to break someone when you have [that person] isolated. It's easy to break an individual's mind when you have complete control." Deirdre cites the Helms report: Controlling communication is one of the most effective methods for creating a sense of helplessness and despair. "The effect of complete control over student's lives in the program came at a price." She continued to say, "Once you have control of all communication, no one questions when you interrogate someone. When you torture them physically, no one blinks an eye. When you restrict their access to food and water and sleep people accept it."

RELATED: To Hell and Back Part 1

Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Leslie Hulverson from the Indiana University School of Research recommends that alumni or parents concerned about treatment received from a counselor licensed in Indiana that seems unusual or abusive refer any licensed professionals for misconduct to the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency. Dr. Hulverson also says, "I would also recommend that the people affected by this could speak with someone at a mental health advocacy organization such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill or local chapters of Mental Health America for additional guidance."

click to enlarge Deirdre is now happy in life with her husband and children in Athens, Georgia. - PHOTO BY JASON THRASHER
  • Deirdre is now happy in life with her husband and children in Athens, Georgia.
  • Photo by Jason Thrasher

For ten years Deirdre has assisted in moderating forums for New Horizons alumni, creating a safe space to heal and find support from each other. "Facilities like New Horizons focus on breaking the individual into compliance, damaging their charges for life. Because the thing is, when you have been traumatized like we were, unless you figure out what happened to you, you tend to replicate trauma. And I saw that happen over and over in adulthood, not just to me, not just to my friends, but to people I met on an alumni listserv afterward, people who had been there before and after me. Many of us have or have had PTSD, trust and intimacy issues, or employ numbing behaviors, because we were traumatized. Facilities like this should be abolished. They destroy lives. That's why I speak out. I write because of that, because I was silent for 12 years after I left, because I hope that by not remaining silent any longer that maybe I will be able to prevent what happened to me and to all those kids I knew from happening to future generations of kids."

"Residue": an excerpt from Deirdre Sugiuchi's book Unreformed


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