A Calgary facility that is supposed to help teens overcome addictions is the subject of some abuse allegations, a CBC investigation has found.
More than a dozen former patients and staff of the Alberta Adolescent Recovery Centre allege the residential program manipulated people into treatment, held them against their will and administered abusive therapy.
Other allegations against the centre include one patient who was treated but claimed she was not an addict at all. One patient alleged she was sexually assaulted by a fellow patient, while another said she was attacked in a closet at the centre.
Patients alleged that when they reported abuse to the centre, they were either told they were liars or it was their own fault.
The CBC’s The Fifth Estate uncovered the allegations during an extensive investigation.
The centre, which opened in February 1992 with $500,000 in public funding, has operated for nearly 17 years. It receives $400,000 a year in provincial funding.
Head of facility denies allegations
Former patients of the centre — some of whom went on to work there as counsellors despite having no formal training — are among its harshest critics.
"I think that what [the centre] is, is a predator to those who need help," said Scott Fowkes.
Added Christine Lunn, "I would say that they terrorized us. I would use the word brutalize."
Another former patient, Bodana Kibble, alleged that Dean Vause, the centre’s executive director, is "a power-hungry monster."
After six months of Vause declining to be interviewed for the story, The Fifth Estate’s Gillian Findlay went to the centre with a hidden camera to confront him.
He denied the allegations, calling the former patients "liars," and insisted no abuse has ever been reported to him.
Centre claims high success rate
"But I would just say to you Gillian, be careful because I’m telling you I’ve worked in this field for 25 years. They’re the best cons in the world …," said Vause.
"But I think that’s part of the pathology, the difficulty of working in addictions. It’s tough because you’re going to have people turn on you because you confront them."
Despite its critics, the centre has committed supporters, who helped raise half a million dollars at a fundraising event in 2008. It costs $50,000 a year to treat a patient at the centre. Patients who cannot afford treatment are subsidized.
One former patient who spoke to The Fifth Estate credits the centre for saving his life. After eight months at the centre, Jordan Remple said he no longer uses drugs or alcohol and returned to work there as a peer counsellor.
He said he has never seen abuse at the centre and criticism of the program bothers him.
"I guess like no one’s going to look at anything perfectly, right? Like there’s always going to be someone that’s judging it poorly," he said. "But from what I’ve seen, like what it’s done for my life, what it’s done for my friends’ life, what it’s done for my family’s life, like I have no complaints about it whatsoever."
The Calgary centre claims an 80 per cent success rate, though most such programs typically report a 30 to 40 per cent rate.
Vause worked as a clinical trainee for six months in 1989 at another controversial teen rehabilitation program called Kids of Bergen County, based in Bergen County, N.J. Vause later claimed he disagreed with the abuse he saw at Kids and left because of it.
The New Jersey program was run by Miller Newton, a counsellor with a doctorate in anthropology from an alternative college, the same institution where Vause got his PhD.
Alberta sent at least 40 patients to the New Jersey centre in the late 1980s due to the lack of treatment facilities north of the border.
U.S. facility hit with lawsuit
Plagued by reports of alleged beatings and weird rituals, New Jersey authorities raided Newton’s centre in 1989, finally shutting it down in 1998.
New Jersey lawyer Phil Elberg successfully sued the centre for $18.6 million Cdn in 1998 claiming malpractice on behalf of former patients.
"My argument was simply these kids didn’t have the conditions he diagnosed," said Elberg.
Newton had wanted to expand his program to Alberta, but the province vetoed that plan after his centre was shut down. That’s when Vause set up his own centre. He made it clear to the government it would not use the same abusive tactics.
That did not reassure Edmonton-area MLA Marie Laing, who raised the issue in the Alberta legislature in 1990 when she was the NDP human rights and women’s issues critic, as well as a psychologist familiar with Newton’s rehabilitation philosophy.
"Well my concern was that they would just beat up the child … I could probably say that better, but they would … they would see the child as fully responsible as a bad child that needed to be changed into a good child," Laing told The Fifth Estate recently.
"We had no proof, right? And the only thing the government would say was, 'We’ll monitor the program.' But there was … there was no mechanism as to how it would be monitored."
Laing’s concerns were justified, according to former patients who spoke with The Fifth Estate.
Therapy involves steps program
Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the centre’s program is divided into steps. As patients get further along, they earn progressively more access to the outside world.
In the beginning, though, "newcomers" are supervised by "oldcomers" — patients further along in the program — who take them home at night.
Lunn alleged she was thrown down the stairs in an oldcomer’s home and also sexually abused. When Lunn reported the abuse to the centre, she was labelled a liar, she alleged.
Former patient Rachel O’Neill alleged she was sexually assaulted by two people in a supply closet at the centre, though because it was dark, she doesn’t know who her attackers were. In another incident, O’Neill alleged an oldcomer wiped her rectum and then put her fingers in O’Neill’s mouth.
O’Neill alleged she fled the centre in late December 2002 in her bare feet.
The program receives $400,000 a year in provincial funding. It was originally reported that it had received $4 million in provincial funding since 2002.Feb 13, 2009 9:12 PM ET