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By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
By Sam Levin
Frank Szachta has a nervous habit. When he smokes, which is often, he holds the lit cigarette between his thumb and index finger. He takes a drag, then presses the fresh Winston Light through a series of cartwheels, lacing the burning cylinder into an invisible cat's cradle around his fingers. It's graceful, almost unconscious. To a pot-smoking fifteen-year-old, it's undeniably cool.
But that's what Frank Szachta is: cool. At age 41 he wears a black leather jacket. He drives a shiny black Thunderbird and wears rimless spectacles. His red hair falls just south of his shoulder blades; together with his goatee -- these days touched by a hint of gray -- it gives him a look best described as leonine.
To his supporters Szachta is a lifesaver, his magic touch for plucking teens from the ravages of drug and alcohol addiction unrivaled in St. Louis. Through his Chesterfield treatment center, the Crossroads Program, Szachta and his cadre of young counselors have helped hundreds of troubled kids get straight.
He calls it "enthusiastic sobriety," and it's based on the simple premise that sobriety can be fun.
"Getting sober is easy. Liking it's the trick," quips Szachta, who says he drank his way into young adulthood. "I got sober lots of times but I hated it. So I got loaded again. 'Sober' and 'fun' didn't belong in the same paragraph, much less the same sentence or right next to each other. They were just diametrically opposed."
Catering to clients aged twelve to twenty-four, Szachta's program differs markedly from those employed at more traditional substance-abuse centers. To begin with, most counselors are ex-junkies. Many are young, long-haired and hip. They've come up through allied treatment programs and serve as living, breathing evidence that life can be more fun sober, the Crossroads way. Six weeks of intensive outpatient treatment can cost $7,000; for about double that some clients undergo a 45-day intensive program at an affiliated treatment center in Arizona. The complete Crossroads experience lasts up to two and a half years, during which time virtually every aspect of a client's life is centered on Crossroads activities. By working the program's twelve steps, attending twice-weekly support group meetings held in area churches, "hanging out" with other members and going to countless social functions -- including disco roller skating, house parties and camping trips -- many clients develop a fierce loyalty to the program. They're convinced that were it not for Crossroads, they'd now be locked in a fatal cycle of drug addiction.
So are their parents. "My daughter is a heroin addict, and I believe would be dead if it were not for the Crossroads program," e-mails one father, who because of the sensitive nature of his daughter's illness asked not to be named in this story. "For my daughter and family this program has been a gift from God."
But passions run equally fierce among the program's critics. To them Crossroads is at best a scam that pulls children into a life of chain-smoking vulgarity. At worst, they contend that the program encourages affluent, well-tended kids to drop out of school, cut ties with the outside world and develop an unhealthy psychological dependence on the group. The naysayers argue that while Crossroads may keep kids sober while they're in the program, it does little to prepare them for staying drug-free when they leave. In fact, allege dozens of former clients, their parents and counselors interviewed for this article, the program often retards clients' social maturation, setting them up for failure.
"Avoidance is key in that program: Avoid the real world at any cost and every turn," asserts Rob Van Pelt, a Crossroads counselor until 1994, when he left to work at other area rehab clinics. "Sadly, that isn't how the real world operates. Sooner or later, if you're not going to be on staff, you're going to have to leave the program and figure that out. I've seen far more people go down than be successful in that endeavor. It's the toughest thing that I've ever had to go through."
Frank Szachta now finds himself in the middle of a perfect storm. On one side, disgruntled clients, parents and counselors are speaking to the press and mobilizing online. Meanwhile, the program's many supporters are mounting a similar offensive, defending Crossroads as the sole means by which they reclaimed their children from drug addiction.
Through it all, Szachta has seen enrollment drop from 250 patients to roughly 200. A recent investigation of a Crossroads affiliate in Arizona undertaken by that state's Department of Health Services didn't help matters, even though the program passed muster.
"I had a parent who was told very directly: 'If Crossroads counselors say anything about the controversy, they're lying. If they don't say anything, be suspicious," Szachta says. "It's a tough environment. "
As a junior at Belleville East High School, Aimee Moreland had yet to meet a drug she didn't like. After a timid start with the occasional bong hit, she soon graduated to Valium, mushrooms and cocaine. "I turned into just, like, a total pothead," says Moreland. "I cut a lot of classes. I skipped school. It was all the time: before school, during school, after school."