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Fear, fraud and ‘fun felonies’: More allegations from local survivors of teen drug rehab program

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Fear, fraud and ‘fun felonies’:  More allegations from local survivors of teen drug rehab program

Former members of a controversial teen drug and alcohol program in Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Atlanta allege staff tolerated acts of vandalism, arson, and animal abuse by teens in their care. They also allege that members were required to go off all medications, forbidden to see doctors, and discouraged or prevented from engaging in solitary activities like reading, drawing, or listening to music.

Recent media reports on the “Troubled Teen Industry” have focused on shocking accounts of young people, including the teenaged Paris Hilton, being kidnapped by “transporters,” who convey them to drug rehab and behavior “boot camps” disturbingly similar to prison farms. But dozens of former “troubled teens” interviewed by YES! Weekly describe something more insidiously coercive.

“We were never kidnapped like Paris Hilton,” said one former member and counselor who asked not to be named. “We volunteered for the abuse we suffered, and then volunteered to abuse others. Programs like Insight and Pathway don’t need hired muscle like that Utah one does because they make kids complicit in their own abuse.”

“These programs effectively indoctrinate their clients to pass on what they are given, which is abuse,” wrote another former member, Liz Nickerson, in a recent email to YES! Weekly. As previously reported, Nickerson, a 32-year-old Greensboro native now living in Oregon, entered the Insight Program at 3714 Alliance Drive in Greensboro in 2004 when she was 16. She was then, she alleges, “kicked out” when she became pregnant in 2006. “All of the girls who got pregnant were immediately kicked out, and all of the boys who impregnated them were allowed to stay, absolutely across the board.”

The Greensboro site is one branch of the Atlanta-based Insight Program, which also has locations in Charlotte and Raleigh, as well as Peachtree City, Georgia, and Tampa, Florida. Insight’s website lists as “related programs” the Crossroads Program in St. Louis, Columbia, and Kansas City, Missouri; the Cornerstone Program in Denver; and the Pathway Drug Abuse Program in Phoenix and Gilbert, Arizona. Also related are the Step Two Recovery Center in Gilbert and the Step One Sober Living in Atlanta.

As described in the Jan. 5 YES! Weekly article The [Hate] Group, all of these programs are founded on the “enthusiastic sobriety” teachings of the controversial and openly racist Bob Meehan. The Insight Program website lists Meehan’s son-in-law Clint Stonebraker as the program’s owner and executive director and links to Meehan’s book Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drug Abuse.

Since December, YES! Weekly has made multiple attempts at contacting Stonebraker. On Jan. 4, this writer spoke to Will Guest, the former Head Counselor for Insight Greensboro, who is now Facility Director at the Raleigh location. When informed of the allegations being investigated by YES! Weekly, Guest stated he would forward my request for comment to Stonebraker.

Attempts to contact Stonebraker via his website, email, and his @ClintFCB Twitter account have been unsuccessful. Emails and phone calls to the offices of Matt Meyer, director of the Georgia Insight Program, and Steve Winkelman, director of the North Carolina program, have also gone unanswered. At Winkelman’s Charlotte office, a woman who identified herself as “Sophia” said she would have Winkelman call back that afternoon, but that didn’t happen. Several former employees of the program allege that Insight, Pathway, and their related programs have a policy of not responding to inquiries from the press.

YES! Weekly’s previous article focused on allegations by multiple former Insight patients and staff members that it and other Meehan-derived organizations are a “racist, homophobic cult.” This article addresses three other claims that have been made by over fifty former members:

Insight and Pathway tolerate and even encourage “fun felonies” – acts of vandalism, public nuisance, arson, and even animal abuse committed by teenaged members as a way of bonding via channeling “rebellious energies” that might otherwise lead them to experiment with drugs or alcohol (as previously reported, chain-smoking is allegedly encouraged for similar reasons).

Teens are forbidden to take prescribed medication, both for physical and mental health, and are prevented from seeing doctors or other certified and licensed healthcare providers.

Engaging in such solitary activities as reading, writing, drawing, or listening to music on headphones is considered “selfing-out” and very strongly discouraged.

Blake Strider, who told YES! Weekly that she entered the Insight Program in Charlotte in 2017 and then in Atlanta in 2018 described a “fun felony” where live opossums were released inside a Charlotte Target. 

“Of course, the poor things were destroyed by Animal Control,” she said. Strider alleged that Steve Winkelman, then the Charlotte Program Director, was aware of this incident. Winkelman has not responded to inquiries on this matter.

Strider stated other “fun felonies” committed by teens from the Charlotte group included “a fire that caused over $81,000 in damage.” She said this was the blaze at the closed North Wilkesboro Speedway, which the Wilkes Journal-Patriot reported in July of 2018. Strider did not claim to have witnessed this incident but said it was discussed by members and staff at the Charlotte “shop” (as Insight’s various local headquarters and meeting places are called) and that “we were told not to talk to police about this.”

Strider also alleged that, when she was in Insight’s Step One program in Atlanta in 2018, “there was a boy in the group who boasted of killing cats, and who would capture wild geese and take them back to the OG [Older Group] apartment. Counselors were aware of him doing this. It was tolerated because he was so good at Outreach, meaning recruiting new members.”

Strider also stated that she was prevented from taking her prescribed ADHD medication. 

“I was immediately taken off all meds. I was on Lamictal, from which it’s genuinely dangerous to go cold turkey.”

Strider said it became worse in Atlanta.

“When I became deeply suicidal in the group, the senior counselor for their drug abuse program told me I was choosing to be a victim to my trauma, that I did not need medication and that I had to choose between therapy and the group. I was told that I needed to give in the love of the group and recant to a higher power, that therapy wasn’t going to help me.”

She also said that Insight prevented her from taking medication for her immune deficiency. 

“When I was in Step One, I was forbidden from taking it by Matt Meyer, who said I couldn’t have medical equipment in the house, and nobody from outside the program could enter the Step One house, so I couldn’t have a nurse come in and administer it, either.”

YES! Weekly’s voicemail and email messages to Matt Meyer’s office included this allegation.

“I left the program because I was refused treatment and told I was just being a victim,” said Strider. “You are told that mania and depression are your character defects and the result of not living in God’s will.”

Strider also said that attempting to spend any time by yourself meant that one was disobeying God’s will. 

“If I had the door shut in my room, it was severely frowned upon and considered ‘selfing-out,’ or being in your head. There wasn’t a single night in the group that I was allowed to spend at home alone. They would practically kidnap you. If they thought you were at risk of getting high or self-harming, but also if they thought you were planning to leave the program, they would show up at your house, and you would have no choice but to get into their f------ car with them.”

Another former member who talked about “fun felonies” is the 32-year-old Joel Rubin, born and residing in Chattanooga, TN. 

“I participated in a lot of destructive, dangerous, and illegal activities when I was in the Atlanta Group from 2007 until 2009, all for the sake of enthusiastic sobriety,” Rubin said in a recent email to YES! Weekly.

“We called them fun felonies,” wrote Rubin, “and the counselors encouraged them. It was the best way to keep kids in the group. Counselors usually excused our shitty behavior. They would talk our parents into not punishing us and sometimes speak to law-enforcement when we would get in trouble with the police. They made me partially believe that, if I were sober, I could pretty much get away with anything.”

In his 1984 book Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, which the Insight Program still uses as a resource, Bob Meehan exhorted parents to recall times when they broke the law as teenagers, stating “those were some of our fondest memories” and encouraged them not to punish their kids for engaging in such activities as long as they did not involve drugs or alcohol.

“I participated in ‘Opossum punting,’” wrote Rubin, describing occasions when young men from the group drove country roads in search of hapless marsupials. “If one were found and froze up from headlights or flashlights, one of us would get out of the car and run up on it and kick it like we were trying for a field goal.”

Rubin said they would also drive to construction sites, where they would tilt over portable toilets and spill human waste into the street, stating, “We did 48 in one night.” He also described destroying the interiors of unfinished homes. “In one instance, we burnt down an entire nearly-completed home. I felt impervious to consequences and legal recourse.”

Rubin said that many of these activities occurred while teenagers were “wedging,” the group’s term for staying awake longer than 24 hours and competing to see who could “wedge” the longest. “Fueled by Red Bull and Monster energy drinks and chain-smoking, the longest I ever ‘wedged’ was 68 hours. I was driving kids around in my car like that. It was absolutely not looked down upon.”

Rubin wrote that, twelve years later, “I am just now beginning to unpack and come to terms with the abhorrent and disgusting actions I took and crimes I committed because I thought it was okay as long as I wasn’t ‘getting high.’ Buying cigarettes for 14-year-old kids. Encouraging them to guzzle energy drinks and stay up as long as I could during their developing years. All while being backed by the staff in doing these things. It is not a safe place for anyone who actually needs help.”

Jacqueline Liebler, who is now a Home Preservation Case Manager for an independent consulting firm, said she worked in various administrative positions for Insight in Atlanta and Augusta from 1997 until 2002 before managing Step Two Recovery Center in Phoenix from 2002 until 2008.

“When I ran Step Two, and a kid would get sick, I had to fight to take them to the doctor. One guy was running a fever for two days, and I was told not to take him to the doctor. I got in trouble for keeping him home from the Round Robin session and was told that I was ‘projecting’ my need for attention onto the group”.

Liz Nickerson stated “being ‘dramatic’ and ‘attention-seeking’ are buzzwords they use to deflect any complaint made by members or staff. I was told I was doing that when I complained that all the chain-smoking was causing me to have asthma attacks. I was staying with a host family in Atlanta at the time, the Greensboro program not having started yet, and they had to take me to the emergency room.”

Nickerson also stated that one of the medications she was forbidden to take when she was in the Atlanta and Greensboro Insight programs was birth control.

“I started dating in the group when I was 17, which was allowed because the staff and my sponsors approved the arrangement. You can’t date without this approval, and they discourage you if they think you have a crush on the wrong person. I asked my mom to get me on birth control, and she did. A few months later, I was complaining to a friend in the group about my acne and being moody because of taking the pill. Then my counselor / sponsor pulled me into her office to tell me that ‘birth control is not sober because it is mood and mind-altering.’ And she told me I had to get off of it.”

Nickerson stated that she got pregnant. “They ended up kicking me out of the group for this. Both the program director and my counselor accused me of getting pregnant on purpose to ‘trap’ my boyfriend.”

Cindy Russell, a Winston-Salem resident who graduated from GTCC Middle College High School in 2006, emailed YES! Weekly with her account of being in the Greensboro Insight Program in 2004.

“I was 17, and my parents were terrified I was going to drink myself to death. At my first Insight meeting, it was attractive to see folks my own age, whom I already knew personally, seeming to have an awesome time and wanting me to be part of it. I was told I could stay out until 3 a.m. with people in the group, and if my parents had any issues with it, staff would say it was good for my sobriety.”

Russell stated that she had been on medication for OCD since she was nine and had been “almost hospitalized” for suicidal ideations.

“The Greensboro staff at the time I joined told my mom that I could not stay in the group if I were taking those kinds of medications. She told me to lie because she was not going to pull her daughter of medications cold turkey that are known for making people feel crazy when that happens. I think they want people to feel crazy and not have those meds because it creates a dependency on the group. I was never once told to talk to my doctor about these medications or how to come off them safely.”

Russell said that she served on Insight Greensboro’s volunteer steering committee from 2005 to 2006 but was removed because she said, “It felt good to be part of something else for a little bit” after going on a mission trip with her church.

Russell also said she was accused of “selfing-out” when she started attending UNCG. As previously reported, many former Insight members allege that the group encourages kids to drop out of school and not interact with anyone outside the group. Russell wrote that she left the group when she was 18 because of this and because a boy she dating from the group broke up with her and told her it was because “people think I am too interested in you and not the group and they don’t support” the relationship.

Regarding “fun felonies,” Russell stated, “I used to get guilt-tripped if I did not want to buy Carmen, a 13-year-old patient, a pack of smokes. That’s what is so difficult with all of this. The gaslighting. It’s so insidious.”

“We are encouraged to spy, tattle, and bully our peers into submission of these toxic ideologies,” wrote Liz Nickerson. “The abuse is book-ended with an extreme emphasis of ‘love,’ so you are gaslit into believing that this conduct is normal or appropriate, and your problems or doubts about the program is your ‘insanity’ or ‘spiritual sickness.’ It’s also effective at silencing ex-members. Most of us are shackled by guilt because we perpetuated or were complicit in the abuse. I told so many girls their rape was somewhat their fault - because that’s what I was coerced to believe about my own rape.”

Nickerson asked that YES! Weekly share the URL www.enthusiasticsobrietyabuse.com, the website she and other survivors founded in early January, which has undergone considerable expansion and updates since our previous article. The site includes the following Mission Statement:

Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse is an expository council of survivors of Enthusiastic Sobriety Programs. Our mission is to bring awareness to the patterns of abuse perpetrated by these programs and bring some accountability to the leaders, owners, and high-level staff of drug abuse programs who use Bob Meehan’s philosophies. We aim to provide support and resources to current and former members, their parents, and staff of these programs so they may identify and recover from the trauma caused by their association.

The site’s REVEAL AND REPORT button bears the heading “If you have a story that you would like to report to your city’s ethics board or speak to a lawyer, you are welcome to send a message, and someone will contact you.”

Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.

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