Child abuse dressed up as drug treatment

Maia Szalavaitz’s “Help at any Cost” takes a good, tough look at the “tough love” child-drug-abuse-treatment industry.

A string of residential drug treatment programs for juveniles based on the “tough love” principle has been abusing children — and occasionally killing them — for three decades now. Some of them have been moved off-shore, and beyond the reach of U.S. regulators, after the authorities here got wind of what was going on.

(It won’t surprise you to know that many of the program operators have strong Republican connections. Mel Sembler, for example, founder of the notorious Straight, Inc., is a major Republican fundraiser and was GWB’s ambassador to Rome; his wife Betty chaired Jeb Bush’s gubernatorial campaign.)

Maia Szalavitz, a careful, thoughtful, and completely relentless reporter, has been sending a little bit of “tough love” back at those programs for some time now. Their operators must have been dreading her new book, Help at Any Cost, which has an official publication date next month but is already available for pre-order.

I’ve read it in galleys, and it’s a truly devastating document. Not a fun read: Szalavitz’s unadorned prose focuses unsparingly on the suffering of the victims, and the perpetrators, like the Semblers, mostly get away with their crimes, so there isn’t even the grim satisfaction of seeing the bad guys eventually take a fall. The early reviews, such as this one from the on-line version of Library Journal are favorable.

Without a major publisher behind it and with some powerful people threatened by it — according to Radley Balko, Straight, Inc. bullied Fox News into pulling his expose column on the program — a book like this risks going unnoticed. Pre-orders on Amazon and are now crucial in determining booksellers’ decisions about what books to carry. So if you’re inclined to read this book — or to send it to your favorite public official, journalist, or worried parent — I encourage you to order now.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: