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The [hate] Group:

Former patients allege teen rehab program is a ‘racist, homophobic cult’

  • Updated
  • 9
  • 11 min to read

Multiple former patients of a local teen drug and alcohol rehab program allege that it not only isolates its members, demands obedience, and teaches that homosexuality is a delusion, but that its staff and founders regularly insult African-Americans and Latinx people in crude terms.

“They are a racist, homophobic cult,” alleged Liz Nickerson, a 32-year-old Greensboro native now living in Oregon.

Nickerson contacted YES! Weekly in November about her time in The Insight Program, which advertises its “Successful Drug and Alcohol Treatment Centers for Teens and Young Adults” in Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh, Tampa, Atlanta and Peachtree City, Georgia. Nickerson told YES! Weekly that she entered the Greensboro program in 2004 and left in 2006.

“I and a bunch of other former members want to tell our story,” she wrote in her initial Facebook message. “It’s going to sound like one of those 1980s cults, but it happened to me in Greensboro— and they’re still in business, bilking parents and teaching kids to fear independence and others outside the program.”

Nickerson is not the only person to describe The Insight Program as a cult. She belongs to a 450-member private Facebook group composed of former Insight patients, most of who make similar claims. Several dozen of the private group’s members, including its founders, live in Greensboro. Another person who has called the program’s practice and teachings “cult-like” is Jacob McEndollar, writer/director of the 2014 documentary feature The Group. The film is on YouTube, where its subject is described as “a network of adolescent drug abuse programs created by Bob Meehan and operated by his son-in-law and protege Clint Stonebraker.”

The Insight Program’s website lists Stonebraker as owner/executive director and links to “related treatment programs” The Crossroads Program, The Cornerstone Program, and The Pathway Drug Abuse Program, and to Meehan’s book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drugs.

In The Group, McEndollar described Meehan and Stonebraker’s advocacy of “enthusiastic sobriety” as meaning that “in order for young people to avoid drugs and alcohol, they need to have as little restrictions as possible in other areas of their lives.”

Because of this, McEndollar alleged, “parents are encouraged to allow their children to smoke cigarettes, drop out of school, and spend as much time as possible with other members of the group.”

The Group depicts various programs founded by Meehan and run by Stonebraker, including Insight, as offering teenagers an environment with three stated rules: “no fixing, no fighting and no fucking.” But the film features multiple former patients and staff describing a program in which members are not allowed contact with anyone outside the group, are encouraged to exaggerate and even fabricate their histories of addiction in order to keep parents paying for “treatment,” and must demonstrate absolute obedience to Stonebraker and Meehan.

Meehan first received national coverage in 1979, when Carol Burnett praised him for helping her daughter Carrie Hamilton overcome drug addiction. Hamilton died of lung-cancer-related pneumonia in 2002 at the age of 38. According to a 2013 Access Hollywood report, Hamilton acquired her lifelong nicotine addiction while in Meehan’s program. One of the first national journalists to compare Meehan to a cult leader was Dan Rather, in a 60 Minutes segment that aired Jan. 20, 1980.

On the broadcast, Rather described how Meehan founded the Palmer Drug and Alcohol Program, or PDAP, in 1972 in the basement of the Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston.

“Some see Mr. Meehan as a miracle worker,” Rather said. “Others say he gets those youngsters dependent on him and PDAP in place of their former dependence on drugs and alcohol.”

In 1987, the Los Angeles Times described Meehan as “helping drug users go straight by counseling them on how they could have more fun being sober under his wing.” According to the article, the “fun” recommended by Meehan and his counselors included “chain-smoking, vulgarity, lying to parents and ‘fun felonies,‘ which were Meehan’s description of teen-age pranks ranging from bashing rural mailboxes to joy riding to vandalizing restaurants.”

In her correspondence with YES! Weekly, Nickerson alleged that the programs founded on Meehan’s teachings were still getting teenagers hooked on cigarettes in 2004.

“I barely smoked cigarettes before Insight—our small outpatient room always had 10 or so kids, all constantly smoking. I had asthma, and was hospitalized multiple times during Insight,” Nickerson wrote. “Bob Meehan preached that cigarettes may kill your kids at some distant time in the future, but drugs will kill them tomorrow.”

McEndollar’s documentary includes videos from when he was in the program, in which every teenager on screen is constantly smoking. It also contains one reference to “treating” teenagers for being gay, in a segment alleging patients were pressured to recruit new members, regardless of whether or not they had drug or alcohol addictions.

“There was a girl who was homosexual, and that’s why she was in treatment— it wasn’t drugs and alcohol,” states a woman who describes herself as a former counselor. Her face is digitally distorted and she is not identified while onscreen, but the name Siri Vikan is listed in the credits.

Vikan, now an aviation engineer in Illinois, confirmed that she was the person making that statement in McEndollar’s documentary.

According to the 2005 Tucson Weekly article “Pathway’s Problematic Teachings,” Meehan was fired from the Palmer Drug Abuse Program due to Rather’s reporting and then founded “a complex web of active programs in Arizona, Georgia, Missouri, Colorado and North Carolina,” including Insight in Georgia and North Carolina, and Pathway in Arizona. The article reported allegations of “forgery, homophobia, racism and coercion” by the program’s staffers, director and founder and that these programs were owned and run by Stonebraker.

Vikan was the first person quoted in the article, which opened by citing her allegations that the program’s leaders taught “that being gay was a symptom of addiction” and “victims of rape and molestation had only themselves to blame,” as well as the following statement about Black people.

“We were taught that they were lesser than whites,” Vikan said. “They wouldn’t get the program like we did.”

Counselors and former clients added that group members who didn’t embrace racist attitudes were eventually banished from the group. In a video clip on ontheemmis.com, [that link has been broken since 2008] Meehan speaks for at least two minutes on how he loves hockey, because no Black people play the game.

That video, given to investigators at the Phoenix-based ABC News 15 by former Pathway staffers and included in the broadcast, can be viewed on YouTube as “Bob Meehan – His Views on Blacks.”

The clip begins with Meehan singing about a “white woman with a [n-word]” (repeating the slur over a dozen times) before expressing his preference for hockey over basketball because the former sport is “all white men.”

The 2005 report by ABC News 15 described The Pathway Drug Abuse Program and the Insight Program as “based on hatred, intolerance and fear,” and Meehan as “teaching troubled teens how to hate.”

It quoted Dave Cherry, described by reporter Abbie Boudreau as Meehan’s former “right-hand man,” who stated, “There was a concerted effort to get people comfortable with the idea of using the n-word.”

Boudreau also interviewed a former patient who stated, “they tell you that you choose your life before you were born and that my being molested as a child was my own fault.”

Nickerson alleged she was told similar things in the Greensboro Insight Program.

“They said it was my fault for being raped when I was 12. Kids with birth defects were told they must have done something in the womb to deserve it,” Nickerson said. “They don’t believe being gay is a real thing,” she added, “they say it’s just this crazy idea you get from watching porn, not what you truly are.”

Jacqueline Leibler also made this allegation about Insight’s teachings. Leibler, who is now a Home Preservation Case Manager for an independent consulting firm, told YES! Weekly that she was once very familiar with The Insight Program’s inner workings, having been in various administrative positions for Insight in Atlanta and Augusta from 1997 until 2002, and for the related Step Two Recovery Center in Phoenix from 2002 until 2008. She also described the program as teaching that “homosexuality is a delusion” or “sickness” that kids “catch” from being exposed to pornography.

“Bob had this term ‘try-sexual,’ which he came up with and meant ‘try anything,’” Leibler stated. “He basically believed that people who thought they were gay/bi were just super sick and would do anything sexually.”

Leibler said that she now deeply regrets accepting what Stonebraker and Meehan taught, and that she lost a good friend who was harassed out of the program for being “effeminate.”

A woman, who asked to be identified only as Caroline and stated that she entered the Greensboro program in 2008 at 16 and left in 2011, also described Insight’s teaching as homophobic.

“I was taught that sex is a service to your significant other of the opposite sex, because queer identities aren't real.”

Caroline said that Insight’s teachings included that that sex should always be in the missionary position and for procreation, and that “real friendships” were impossible with anyone outside of the program. Even people in other 12-Step Programs were to be shunned, Caroline alleged, because those programs tolerated “abhorrent” sexual behaviors, and that anyone who left the program could never be spoken to again.

Bob Fleming, now a singer/songwriter in Spartanburg, South Carolina, described Insight’s approach to LGBTQIA+ kids as “Conversion Therapy Lite.” Fleming told YES! Weekly that he entered the Greensboro program in 2007, when he was “freshly 14,” and left it in 2010.

“The main thing that sticks out in memory is LGBTQ-members being told they weren’t gay, that it was a symptom of their addiction,” Fleming said. “I remember instances of LGBTQ-members being told to date outside of their orientation, and that it was part of their recovery.”

Fleming described himself as a kid who had been encouraged to lie about his addiction.

“Before I joined the group, I drank a little bit, smoked some weed, experimented with Adderall a few times,” he said. “But when I said that in outpatient, they kept pushing. ‘What else? That can’t be it or you wouldn’t be here.’ By the end of my first month in outpatient, I was telling people my drug of choice was cocaine and Xanax. I was 14, and had tried neither. It was a double-edged sword; if you did have a problem, you were denied the actual help you needed, and if you were just a kid who got caught drinking beer, it was engraved on your brain that you were an addict. God forbid you had other underlying mental health issues; they would disregard those as an aspect of your addiction.”

The person who spoke to YES! Weekly at greatest length about Insight and Pathway’s alleged racism and homophobia was psychotherapist Christina Warden, of Heart Mind Therapy, LLC. Warden described herself as a former Insight patient and staffer who now treats survivors of Stonebraker’s and Meehan’s various programs, as well as similar organizations.

(Warden's credentials have been verified by Psychology Today.)

Warden described herself as having entered the Insight Program as a teen-aged patient, who then became a counselor. Nickerson said this a common practice.

“Staff is recruited from their patients,” Nickerson wrote in email. “Folks who have been there since they were 14 or 15 turn 18 and do six-week Meehan training and suddenly they are staff. They typically make less than $4 an hour. Clint pays for their group living in some crap apartment and they eat frozen expired food. Straight-up Tiger King bullshit.”

Warden also described the Insight Program as regarding any sexuality other than heterosexuality as aberrant, dysfunctional, and confusion resulting from substance abuse.

“Members who explicitly expressed anything other than absolute heterosexuality were invalidated by their ‘counselors,’ told they were wrong or that they needed to overcome that problem by ignoring their sexuality or practicing heterosexual behaviors," Warden explained. "The same thing applies to any nonconformity to the strict gender binary; for example, girls who presented in a gender nonconforming way, tomboys, were instructed, as part of their recovery from substance abuse disorders, to dress and present more feminine. Trans people were even more invisibilized or pathologized. Disparaging terms for any gender or sexually diverse people were thrown around routinely by the top ranks of staff and down, as acceptable jokes or insults. The staff are smart enough to know to deny this informal aspect of their culture to the public, but accounts of it span across decades into present time.”

In email, Warden wrote that, when she worked for Insight in Atlanta, she directly heard Meehan and Stonebraker amongst other staff say the n-word and other derogatory terms for Muslim, Hispanic and Latinx people. Warden described Clint Stonebraker as frequently using the n-word.

“I once made the mistake of telling a co-worker that I found biracial babies to be among the cutest, and so in the next staff meeting Clint mocked me for it for maybe five to 10 minutes, saying I was going to ‘go make little [n-word] babies one day.’ On another occasion, Clint told me I was totally misled to believe that the Civil War was about the South’s right to enslave Black people, and that he intended to give me a thorough re-education on American history.”

Multiple other sources told YES! Weekly that they witnessed Clint Stonebraker being explicitly racist. Vikan alleged that, after she told Stonebraker that palm trees were not native to Arizona, Stonebraker replied “that must be how all the [n-word] get to Phoenix; they hide up in the palm trees shipped from L.A.” Vikan also alleged that Stonebraker described another staff member as “nothing but a shit Mexican,” and shouted, “I’ll be fucked before I’ll have his little brown babies crawling around my fucking house!”

She claimed that “anyone who went through training” with Stonebraker heard similar rants.

Eric Balog, who now resides in Roswell, Georgia, but was in the Pathway program in Phoenix in the late ‘90s, told YES! Weekly that, when Stonebraker was at a 1996 birthday party for Balog’s son, Stonebraker held up a children’s book about animals, pointed to a picture of a gorilla, and said “look, it’s Emmitt Smith.” Balog also alleged that Stonebraker shared Meehan’s disdain for basketball, which like Meehan, Stonebraker derided as a “[n-word] sport.” Balog alleged that Stonebraker, like his father-in-law Meehan, used the n-word so often that “it was literally in every conversation.”

Catherine Smith, an esthetician now living in Lakeland, Florida, told YES! Weekly that “I joined Insight in Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2004, when I was 14-years-old.” Smith alleged that, when Stonebraker learned that Smith’s previous boyfriend was Mexican, “Clint and two other staff members would make fun of me for dating the ‘lowest form of human’ and Clint would say on a daily basis that ‘I only loved taco-flavored kisses,’ which is a reference to a South Park episode. He would sing those words to me every time he saw me.”

Nickerson told YES! Weekly she witnessed the same incident that Smith alleged. Nickerson and Smith both alleged that the other Insight staff member who taunted Smith about her Mexican ex-boyfriend was Will Guest, who, at the time, was head counselor in Greensboro and is now Facility Director at Insight’s location at 103 Towerview Court in Cary. YES! Weekly’s call asking for Guest’s response to these allegations has not been returned.

When told of this claim, multiple former members of the program supplied YES! Weekly with photos of a young man they said was Will Guest inside what they said was Bob Meehan’s home. In one, the young man is standing beside an older woman in a pink shirt. Seven people independently identified the woman as Joy Meehan, Bob’s wife. In the background of the shot are multiple “minstrel” figurines caricaturing Black people.

Former program member Andy Avirett stated, “I was very close to Clint Stonebraker in the late '90s in Phoenix," and alleged that Stonebraker owned a “Lawn Jockey” and “would host the graduation party for new counselors at his house and require them to ‘kiss the [n-word]’ as a hazing ritual.”

YES! Weekly made multiple attempts at contacting the Greensboro Insight Program and Clint Stonebraker via his website, email, and the @ClintFCB Twitter account from which he regularly praises President Donald Trump and condemns mask-wearing and other COVID-19 precautions. (At the time this article went to press, no response has been received.)

The only person associated with Insight to return a YES! Weekly phone call was Josh West, whom this reporter contacted to ask if West was the young white man wearing Blackface in a photo provided by Nickerson. Nickerson alleged that West painted his face black at a 2008 Insight social function when West was the head counselor in Greensboro, and then laughingly referred to himself by a racist epithet.

West is now a counselor of Step Two Recover in Gilbert, Arizona, and acknowledged that he was the man in the photo and that it was indeed taken “at one of the social programs” at Insight’s Greensboro location, but claimed that “it wasn’t racially charged.”

“We were finger-painting and it got kind out of hand,” he said. “It just happened to be a black bottle of paint.”

Former Insight patients and staff members are building a website called “Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse: An Expository Council,” which is scheduled to go live on Jan. 7. Nickerson gave YES! Weekly the following statement about their plans for the site:

“Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse is a website that provides resources and a community for current and former members and staff of Bob Meehan’s programs. Visitors can connect with other survivors, submit personal stories, and there are people standing by to explain how to submit ethics or criminal complaints. We also provide resources for families considering treatment for an adolescent or young adult.”

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.

(9) comments

charlesod301

https://magazine.atavist.com/the-love-bomb-enthusiastic-sobriety-bob-meehan-abuse-cult-drugs-rehab/

Detailed accounting of ES programs.

Carolinka

My daughter was in Pathways when it was in Gilbert. She got worse at Pathways and their beliefs went against everything I believe, but when you are desperate, you aren't thinking straight. They know this and take advantage of it. Since it is still being run by the same people in Tempe, I am going to assume nothing has changed.

I hope those people who worked with my daughter know they hurt a child. They made life worse for her, and it has taken years for her to heal.

If you are thinking of Pathways as a place for your child, please reconsider. They may sell you on success stories, but do your research. My child almost died while in the Program.

FormerEmployee

As a former employee, I can confirm that not only is Bob Meehan still involved with these programs but that Will Guest has an intimate personal relationship with him. We were both in Bob's home and he continues to influence and guide the program. I was also there when Will and other staff members would say the taco joke and the organization encourages the downplaying of any nonwhite heritage so the wife caveat doesn't say anything. Clint Stonebraker is a proud anti-Semite, homophobe, and white supremacist - but he isn't trying to hide that. 

Parents DO NOT place or pay for your children to get any kind of treatment in these programs. You can get the same level of addiction prevention at a free Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. If your adolescent is having addiction or behavioral issues, they need treatment designed by licensed medical professionals. If you take them to this program, they'll not only be denied the real treatment they need but may end up with more severe psychological or addiction issues (please do an internet search to see over 3 decades of hundreds of negative testimonials). In staff training, we were taught how to sell this treatment plan and sales tactics for every single retort or concern you'll have. Don't be convinced by the sales pitch, find somewhere else! 

MConnorsRuinedFamily

Mike Connors told my parents that if I wasn't in the program I would die or be in jail. All that because I had been caught smoking a bowl, as many high schoolers do. I now havent seen or spoken to my family in about a year because I left the program and Mike Connors said if they were in my life, it would be cosigning me. I dont do any wrong, I just want my parents to support me and be proud of who I've become and am. Thanks to Mike Connors, I'll never have it.

AnnieEsq

I'm speaking here as a former group parent. I am *so* sorry that you have been estranged from your family. When he was in the group, my son regularly would tell me it was a cult, but at the time I didn't believe him. Now, of course, I do, and I am *so* grateful that my son got out, and am so grateful that we have a good relationship - I have apologized multiple times for sending him to the group, and he understands that I was doing what I thought was best at the time. I wish I could give you a mom-hug. If you want a virtual mom-hug from an ex-group mom who would be delighted to be proud of you, give me a reply as to how I can get in touch with you. Above all, please be proud of yourself, and please understand that, like me, your parents are probably doing what they have been repeatedly told is "best for you". :-(

MConnorsRuinedFamily

panthersfan3317@gmail.com

AnnieEsq

Sent you email :~)

FormerMember

As a former member, I can confirm from personal experience the bigotry and harm perpetuated in these groups.

I was also there when the counselor wore blackface. What I saw wasn't just innocent finger painting, it was intentional blackface "as a joke", and it made me extremely uncomfortable. I was also told that my sexuality was just "a symptom of sick thinking" and encouraged as a 16-year-old girl to date boys in the group even when I didn't want to.

I'm glad to see people telling their stories and the truth coming out. I've watched so many kids die from overdoses or suicide, after not getting the real treatment they needed because the groups did not allow patients to seek treatment outside of the unlicensed group counselors (who themselves were often teenagers).

Dan Rather had it right, these enthusiastic sobriety programs that follow Meehan's teachings, are cults.

eblakestrider

I spent two years of my youth in this program and can confirm everything written about this program. It is harmful and destructive and I am glad things are finally being brought into the light.

If you’d like to read more I encourage you to check out this link

https://linktr.ee/enthusiasticsobrietyabuse

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