In this month of legislative apology for atrocities done to child victims, there's a forgotten group of survivors out there. And they're asking, "What about us? Where is our apology?"
"This is something I can't get my head around," said Kristy Fuss, 41-year-old survivor of STRAIGHT Inc.
"I'm happy to see so much attention given to the Dozier reform school victims and the 'Groveland Four.' Nothing could be more important for their families and their memory than this recognition and closure. But why don't we count?"
Said Fuss, "This year the Legislature has actually made our suffering worse."
The irony of the Legislature's blind faith in Mel and Betty Sembler is like rubbing salt in STRAIGHT victims' wounds.
These victims weren't only left off this year's apology list, they have to watch as the Semblers, creators of the notorious "tough love" program the ACLU calls "a concentration camp for throwaway kids" -- are welcomed into the Florida Capitol as heroes.
The last I saw, the Legislature has $3 million in the budget so Drug Free America Foundation can run a marijuana education program. Fuss had heard, and that's why she phoned Sunshine State News. "Can you imagine how small and unimportant that makes us feel?"
From 1976 through 1985, Mel and Betty Sembler's program was known as STRAIGHT, Inc. It had a reputation that wouldn't quit for abusing kids as a drug rehabilitation program. In 1985 it changed its name to the Straight Foundation, Inc. in order to protect its money and its principals from civil suits. And in 1995 it was changed again to Drug Free America Foundation. Today, DFAF exists as a national and international drug policy think tank.
As many as 50,000 kids were in the STRAIGHT program. The Medical Whistleblower Advocacy Network also calls STRAIGHT Inc. "the biggest violator of human rights and civil liberties that the USA has ever seen."
"There are thousands of us out here," Fuss said. "We all still suffer, we live with unimaginable emotional scars."
More than 40 former STRAIGHT clients have committed suicide, and those are only the cases the state admits to. At various times in the program all were beaten by their peers, humiliated, deprived of food and water, refused basic medical care and kept too scared to complain on parent days.
Nevertheless, every Republican president since Jimmy Carter has bestowed "gifts" upon the donation-generous Semblers -- mostly ambassadorships and the understanding that they were safe from prosecution, even when the criminal behavior at STRAIGHT facilities in Orlando, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and elsewhere was exposed.
In 2000 Gov. Jeb Bush declared Aug. 8 Betty Sembler Day in all of Florida for her work at STRAIGHT -- affectionately calling her "Ms. Ambassadorable." Betty Sembler was Jeb's finance co-chairman. In return, Ms. Ambassadorable named him to the advisory board of STRAIGHT under its current name, Drug Free America Foundation.
On Jan. 5, 2009, Gov. Charlie Crist inducted Betty Sembler into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame for her work at Straight, Inc. and for her service on the board of the Florida Governor’s Mansion Foundation.
Also, Betty's son Brent, vice chairman of the Sembler Company, was finance co-chairman for the campaign of state Sen. Charlie Crist. He also served on committees for the election of Charlie Crist for Florida Education Commissioner, for Crist's bid for Florida attorney general and for Crist's gubernatorial campaign.
Most STRAIGHT victims talk about their "time in hell" only to each other, on their own website -- or they don't talk at all, suppressing the worst of it. Two victims told me they could tell me what happened to them in the program, but so haunting were their stories, they didn't want to see them in print.
Kristy Fuss, on the other hand, who still lives in rural Middleburg, in unincorporated Clay County where her STRAIGHT experience began, told me she's been inspired to talk more about her nine months in the program since she connected with Cyndy Etler.
Etler, another STRAIGHT survivor, is the author of a book about the program published just last month and available through Amazon, called "The Dead Inside."
Says the bookcover, "To the public, STRAIGHT Inc. was a place of recovery. But behind closed doors, the program used bizarre and intimidating methods to 'treat' its patients. In her raw and fearless memoir, Cyndy Etler recounts her sixteen months in the living nightmare that STRAIGHT Inc. considered 'healing.'"
"I had to walk away after two chapters," Fuss told me. "That's how real it is, how much it captures what I saw and felt at the time, and what I still have nightmares about."
Fuss said at 12, she hadn't even smoked a cigarette, let alone taken drugs. "My parents put me in STRAIGHT because my father had started to abuse me sexually, and I told on him. His way of saving himself was telling people I was on drugs and that's why I would say such a thing. He even convinced my mother."
The next weekend, her parents drove her to Orlando and left her at STRAIGHT.
"It was June 9, 1989. I'll never forget it. When I got to the place, which was in the middle of cracktown, a couple of teenage girls took me and dropped me in the corner of a small room and identified me as 'definitely a drug addict.'
"They dragged me down the hallway into an empty room and stripped all of my clothes off me, then did a jail-type body search on me.
"For nine months, I was tortured, always by other kids in the program -- that's what they did, they made clients torture other clients. You couldn't get released unless you did that.
"During those nine months I was deprived of food, sleep, even fluids. I was even slammed on the floor. But the worst came when I needed major surgery and they told the doctor that because I was already a drug addict, I wasn't allowed to have any proper anesthetics."
Fuss says she's been diagnosed with PTSD, and she's had such severe nightmares and flashbacks that she's sometimes a problem for her husband to deal with. "Luckily he's a good man. I married my high school sweetheart," she says.
All Fuss wants now is acknowledgement from the state, which was slow to close STRAIGHT clinics. And she wants Florida leaders to know they are enabling two people who got rich off the suffering and sometimes death of children, and who should be behind bars.
It looks to me like an uphill battle. The Semblers aren't the Bushes. But when it comes to Florida's Republican royalty, they're pretty close.
Which is why this multi-millionaire couple, who still live in St. Petersburg, could mess up the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of teenagers in the Sunshine State, and still walk on water.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith