Driving kids to suicide?  a boy named Donald 

Donald (not his real name) was 15 years old in 1985 when he was admitted to Father Newtonís KIDS of Bergen County (a Straight spin-off).  He says that at that time he had used alcohol and smoked marijuana five times but if you were to read his admission report he admitted to using much more than that. Why?  He says in his December 16, 1999 deposition for the Rebecca Erlich case that he gave in out of "sheer terror" from having his two intake counselors (two kids further along  in their own treatment)  scream at him and spit on him.  ". . .by the time my intake was done,"  he stated in deposition,  "I came up with a list of drugs by most of which I never seen or couldnít describe to you what they looked like or what they tasted like or anything else. I didnít even know what they were . . ."    KIDS' attorneys  must have been impressed with stories like Donald's which I'm about to tell.  They must have been because in April 2000 they just gave up.  They settled out of court with Ms. Erlich for $4.5 million.
  

Donald says that he refused to write a daily confessional called a MI because he felt he didnít have a real drug problem.   To get him to comply he says they stood him in a corner all night and denied him food until,  after about two days of this,   he decided to comply.  One day as he sat in his chair, he states in sworn deposition, he didn't have his hands in his knees and KIDSí officials felt they should be on his knees so he was restrained by five people. The back of his head was cracked open when they got him to the floor and he was sent to Holy Name Hospital. He estimates that he was restrained 300 - 400 times at KIDS but has trouble placing dates because he was not allowed to look at a watch or a calendar during most of this period. Donald states, "There were an immense number of times where I was forced to urinate and defecate on myself because they basically took my bathroom privilege away. I wasnít allowed to go to the bathroom. And I witnessed a lot of other people in there ending up urinating and defecating on themselves because being in a restraint. They told you were too dangerous to get up and go to the bathroom, those who asked. If you asked to go to the bathroom, you were afraid because if you did ask, then youíd be afraid to end up getting your tooth through your lip and I had it done many times." When Donald made second phase he was allowed to see his childhood pediatrician. Donald testified that this doctor prescribed Inderal to treat an irregular heartbeat but, according to Donald, Dr. Newton blasted him for "using drugs to deal with my feelings and I had to use the program to deal with my feelings . . ." He was not allowed to take the medication. Dr. Panjwani, a KIDS affiliated psychiatrist, at one point put Donald on Ritalin, but after about 3 - 4 weeks Donald states that Mrs. Newton (Ruth Ann Newton,  the founder's wife)  decided to take him off it.

According to Donaldís deposition, one day Bergen County prosecutors came in and told him that he was a legal adult and did not have to stay in treatment.  Donald left along with a group of other adult students but after a few hours of  freedom  he says he began to feel he could not make it on the outside world so he called Mrs. Newton   asking to come back. A few weeks later Donald left for good. After 4 and a half years of "treatment" he had attended 2 weeks of high school! He was not allowed to associate with the only kids he had known for the last five years of his life because he left in "bad standing" and could have no contact with anyone from KIDS. He declared that, "Mrs. Newton said I had 30 days to live and, you know, in her professional opinion, I had to go to Bergen Pines after I left the program because she thought I couldnít make it in the real world."

When Donald finally left KIDS at age 19 he says he used no drugs but he did drink alcohol. Was it a self-full-filling prophecy? Here he describes his first alcoholic drink in 4 and a half years. (His story about how he almost tasted Kellogís Frosted Flakes once after fleeing the cult is more amusing. KIDS students are not allowed to eat sugar):


Q. Why did you go off the wagon? 

A. Good question. I was still under the impression that a lot of the things that I had been told in Kids were true and one of the classic and most disturbing things, I think, about my involvement with Kids was the fact that they kept stressing to me during those four and a half years that if I ever left Kids, no matter what, black and white, I would drink again. It would not work. It would not work for me or anybody else in the Kids program and we were doomed for failure.  So I went to prove them wrong, but I always had it in the back of my mind that it wouldnít work. When I picked up a drink again and I relapsed, I canít even say that I did it because I was feeling some kind of urge to drink. I just kind of got tired of fighting that constant thinking of, you know, itís bound to happen. Itís just going to happen. Itís going to happen. I had no urge to drink at the time, none. 

Q. In a sense, what they said came true?

A. It was a self full[-fill]ing prophecy, yes.


Donald describes resorting to body carvings at KIDS.

A. Right. There were other times in Kids when I felt extremely discouraged. I felt extremely trapped. I was convinced that I would never get out because that was the message, if you ever leave, youíre going to die. So if youíre going to die anyway and Iím never getting out of here unless I live with their system, which I couldnít give myself into, I couldnít totally push down my sense of self to comply with their group, I felt discouraged and in conflict. In that conflict, I began to -- and maybe Iím going to reword what I said. Iím not saying the other three attempts were not serious, which they werenít suicide attempts. What they were, they were self-destructive actions. 

Q. What were they?

A. I would take plastic forks and cut my body just out of pure rage, pure despair, discouragement. Something to kind of deal with that pain because I really didnít have any kind of-- any other kind of other devices that would have been unhealthy is totally taken away and stripped from me.

A. It wasnít three. I could probably say it was closer to fifteen. There were very minor incidents with moderately sharp to dull objects that I would cut my body with.

Q. So that was your modus operandi on this type of thing, you cut your body with a sharp object?

A. Yeah. I got to a point where I kind of lost hope. I was filled with despair and it was my only vice.


Donald had drunk alcohol and smoked five marijuana cigarettes and now found himself in a very abusive destructive-mind cult.  He felt so overwhelmed and utterly hopeless that he had resorted to carving on his body.  Was Dr. Newton concerned that Donald might escape in this KIDS-induced demoralized state?    Donald describes his first serious attempt to kill himself which occurred within two hours of his escape from KIDS.   Like drinking alcohol  was this another self full-filling prophecy?

A. No. I ran away. I was gone for about two hours and I thought everything that they had told me, that Iím going to die if I leave, I canít make it in the world because I lack the skills everyone else has, so I decided if thatís the case, I donít want to go back. I might as well die and I cut my arm then.

Q. Where did you cut your arm?  I donít mean on your arm physically. Where were you?

A. I was in the parking lot at Riverside Square Mall. Kind of hiding out.

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Q. What did you do in an attempt to commit suicide?

A.  I broke a bottle and took the center piece out of the bottom of the bottle and I gashed my wrists very deeply to the point where the vein was very obvious. 


Donald says he was found and forcefully taken back to KIDS. That they refused to take him to the hospital and that, "when I had asked Tony K.  and Mrs. Newton if I could go to the hospital that first time and they said no. They told me to build my ego off the scar and at that point was when one of the veins in my arm was showing pretty clearly."

Donald describes his second serious attempt at suicide. This time he was at the KIDS treatment camp but wearing a sweater so as to conceal his deadly attempt to escape from KIDS.


Q. What was your second?

A. I snuck a double-edge razor blade into group and bit the plastic piece off and gashed my wrist open and shot blood all over the floor.

Q. Same wrist?

A. Yes.

Q. When you did that in the middle of group at the time, what happened?

A. I was doing it under a sweater. I had a long sweater on and nobody could really see what I was doing.

Q. When you began to bleed, I assume somebody noticed?

A. Thatís how they noticed when they saw blood spilling out of the sweater.

Q. What happened then?

A. They took me out of group and ran me to the bathroom.

Q. What did they do in the bathroom?

A. Washed my arm out.

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Q. Take you for medical attention?

A. No. In fact, they refused medical attention when I asked.

Q. Did they put on any kind of a bandage?

A. They put gauze and they put on some bacitracin or something.

Q. Nobody called the doctor?

A. I asked staff to go to the hospital.  I asked them to see a doctor and they said no.


Donald says he was allowed to see program-affiliated psychiatrists to discuss his anxiety and his suicidal ideations, but always in the presence of Mrs. Newton and/or other program counselors. Donald says that one psychiatrist, Dr. Galitizin, suggested to him that he read books and self-help material, but Donald states that Mrs. Newton told the psychiatrist that he was not allowed to read and that "that wouldn't be a good idea."

Donald testified that he had never been suicidal before KIDS.


Q. Prior to your admission to KIDS, had you felt suicidal?

A. Not seriously.

Q. Had you un-seriously tried it or attempted it?

A. No. I cut my arm on the top of my arm to impress my friends, but no, I had not actually,  with full intentions, planned or tried to kill myself.

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Q. When you cut the top of your arm to impress your  friends, you were trying to impress them that you were  thinking about suicide?

A. No. I was trying to impress them by showing them I can handle a lot of pain.


When asked whether he had engaged in any "suicidal gestures or attempts" since leaving KIDS Donald responded "no" but he did offer that in 1990, after leaving the program for good, he went to Valley Hospital for emergency treatment. He says he was having "suicidal thoughts from leaving the program." One therapist Donald has met with since leaving KIDS is Sharon Everett who, according to Donald, says he was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder and that it could be as a result of some of the incidents and his involvement in the KIDS program."

Donald is alive and well today, but he came close to ending it all from being in one of the most abusive drug rehabs in the world. Donaldís story is important to us because it shows that abusive Straight-like programs can drive a kid to such preoccupations with suicide that they have to be watched around the clock, and even then inventive kids might find a way. And furthermore his story underscores the point that Straight has a real problem of what to do with children it has made suicidal when the child finally leaves the program either through escape, graduation or withdrawal.