Reason Magazine, a periodical with a strongly libertarian bent, has an article by Maia Szalavitz that discusses the forebears of ex-gay live-in program Love In Action/Refuge. The focus of the article is on teenage drug rehabilitation programs but some of the tactics will sound very familiar to those who monitor the actions of LIA/R.

But like the drug war itself, tough love programs are ineffective, based on pseudoscience, and rooted in a brutal ideology that produces more harm than most of the problems they are supposedly aimed at addressing. The history of tough love shows how fear consistently trumps data, selling parents and politicians on a product that hurts kids.

And the response to research seems similar

But the research didn’t matter. To both the media and the politicians, anecdote was evidence. The idea that toughness was the answer had a deep appeal to those who saw drug use as sin and punishment as the way to redemption. And Synanon produced testimonials worthy of a revival meeting. Indeed, it eventually recast itself as the “Church of Synanon.”

The article documents one teen who was falsely assumed to be a drug addict

Bradbury, who was not an addict, was nonetheless held. He later described beatings and continuous verbal assaults, which for him centered on sexual abuse he’d suffered as a young boy. Staffers and other participants called him a “faggot,” told him he’d led his abusers on, and forced him to admit “his part” in the abuse.

And the emphasis on confessing failures, real or imagined, is a significant part of recovery

If these “newcomers” didn’t give convincing enough confessions in group sessions, they would not be allowed to “progress” in the program and return to home and school.

Sadly, the methods at these tough-love camps often end up in injury, abuse, or death. Yet they continue, mostly because the promise of hope they provide blinds those who are responsible for the children to the very real risk of damage.

Even today, at least nine programs in the U.S. and Canada still use tactics, such as host homes and “motivating,” that come directly from Straight. Some are run by former Straight employees, sometimes in former Straight buildings. Among them: SAFE in Orlando; Growing Together in Lake Worth, Florida; Kids Helping Kids in Cincinnati; the Phoenix Institute for Adolescents in Marietta, Georgia; Turnabout/Stillwater Academy in Salt Lake City; Pathway Family Center in Detroit; the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Center in Calgary, Alberta; and Love in Action, a program aimed at “curing” homosexual teenagers, located near Memphis.

This article is helpful in understanding the ideas behind ex-gay camps and how they came by their motivations and methods. Viewing them as another form of tough-love control over non-compliant teenagers helps put into perspective why parents would send their children and how they are viewed while at these camps.

And the parents who send their kids to these camps? For the most part, they are uninformed about the absence of evidence supporting tough love programs and often desperate to save their kids from drugs and delinquency. Until we figure out a better balance between the right of parents to place their kids in whatever programs they choose and the right of kids to be free from inappropriate punishment by agents of their parents or the state, the abuse will continue. The shame of it all is that we know hurting kids doesn’t help them.

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