Kids & Drugs & Rock & Roll

At the Crossroads Program in Chesterfield, teen sobriety is supposed to be fun. It's also expensive -- and not everyone's buying.

"There was a lot of emphasis on: Learn it, test on it, forget it," says Rob Van Pelt. "When you go into the field with that kind of attitude, you're really at a disadvantage. Just because you didn't receive the training doesn't mean that your clients are any less sick, it just means you're less prepared."

As evidence of his claim, Van Pelt cites a Crossroads practice he calls "creative diagnosis."

"I would be directed to downplay their dual diagnosis, to look at their depression [or other psychological dysfunction] as simply a symptom of their substance abuse," says Van Pelt. "I was directed to either minimize it or attribute it to something else."

The eye of the storm: Some say Crossroads owner 
Frank Szachta is a godsend; others say he's made a 
deal with the devil.
Anthony Camera
The eye of the storm: Some say Crossroads owner Frank Szachta is a godsend; others say he's made a deal with the devil.
Within weeks of entering the program, Aimee 
Moreland had moved in with another Crossroads 
family.
Becca Young
Within weeks of entering the program, Aimee Moreland had moved in with another Crossroads family.

Bailey La Cour concurs. "Me and a couple of girls I was in outpatient with had had sexual harassment, molestation, rape [issues]. We were told that there are no victims, only volunteers," says La Cour, who dropped out of school after entering the program but has since earned her G.E.D. "Tell a fifteen-year-old girl that she got raped and it's her own fault? Or some kid who was molested when they were five -- tell them that there are no victims, only volunteers?"

La Cour, who now believes she never had a serious drug problem, says the program sets up otherwise normal kids to fail by emphasizing their addiction: "After being told that you are an addict for so long, it molds kids into alcoholics or addicts. There was a part of me that believed that if I left, within a month I would end up in East St. Louis with a needle in my arm."

Szachta scoffs at claims of racism and allegations that his counselors are underqualified. So do his counselors. "It's absolute crap," says Amy Weiland, a senior counselor at Crossroads. "I worked really hard to pursue [certification] and continue to with continuing-education hours and whatnot." (The Missouri Department of Mental Health regulates drug-treatment centers that receive government assistance. But private entities like Crossroads, which receive no government aid, fall outside the department's purview. All counselors still must be certified by the Missouri Substance Abuse Counselors' Certification Board, a nongovernmental board. To maintain certification, counselors must complete a specified number of continuing-education credits and sign a code of ethics every two years.)

Many ICECAP veterans -- counselors and clients alike -- say they developed an unhealthy dependence on the group. During the years they were involved with the programs, many say, their sole social contact was with people in the group, which made it difficult to leave.

Van Pelt says the central difficulty resides in the twelve steps upon which Crossroads and its ilk are founded. The second step, for example, reads: "We have found it necessary to stick with winners in order to grow."

"Well, when you leave the program, you don't have any more winners," Van Pelt counters. "The only winners you've had were in the program. You can't work the twelve steps, so you've lost. Your core belief system is being messed with. At this point a winner is somebody who will challenge you spiritually and emotionally to grow. Well, not everybody in Alcoholics Anonymous is there to challenge you spiritually and emotionally to grow."

Then there's Step Three: "We realize that a Higher Power, expressed through our love for each other, can help restore us to sanity."

"Suddenly my spiritual condition is directly related to how much you love me. Now it's getting weird. There's no way that I can get a connection to God without you," argues Van Pelt.

"Dangerous? That's a joke. That's a huge joke," scoffs Jeff Winkler, a former Crossroads client. Winkler, who says he's no longer strictly sober but maintains friendships with clients who are still in the group, describes Crossroads detractors as "a bunch of bitter-ass people who get out and start drinking again. Waste their life? They didn't sign anything to be there. Nobody forced them to go to meetings. Nobody forced them to do anything."

Szachta and his current staff are quick to point out that they maintain relationships with friends and family outside the program. "That's just crap," counselor Amy Weiland says of Van Pelt's criticism. "I have a life. I work a lot, I go to meetings and functions and I'm at the office a lot, but I have a life outside Crossroads. I've always been encouraged to have a really strong relationship with my family."

In fact, every current counselor interviewed for this story said they'd never been pressured to cut ties with loved ones.

Likewise, they refute the oft-mentioned charge that they're poorly paid. Szachta declined to provide salary information, though he does allow that "the youngest, newest staff would be just below poverty level if they were a family of three." (The federal poverty level in 2004 for a family of three was $15,670.)

Crossroads staffers say their biggest difficulty -- aside from keeping kids sober -- is having to deal with the recent barrage of criticism. "One of the set-ups is that the staff are under mind control and basically lemmings," notes counselor Marcos Sanchez. "So just about everything I say, it's already been prefaced on the front end that I'm a moron that's under some sort of control."

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