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.

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.

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.
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.
Former Crossroads counselor Rob Van Pelt says 
learning to live outside Crossroads was the hardest 
thing he's ever done.
Becca Young
Former Crossroads counselor Rob Van Pelt says learning to live outside Crossroads was the hardest thing he's ever done.
The controversy has made life more difficult for 
Crossroads counselors Mike and Amy Weiland and 
Marcos Sanchez. Says Sanchez: "Just about 
everything I say, it's already been prefaced on the 
front end that I'm a moron."
Becca Young
The controversy has made life more difficult for Crossroads counselors Mike and Amy Weiland and Marcos Sanchez. Says Sanchez: "Just about everything I say, it's already been prefaced on the front end that I'm a moron."
What cult? Ex-Crossroads client Jeff Winkler calls the 
program's detractors "a bunch of bitter-ass people."
Becca Young
What cult? Ex-Crossroads client Jeff Winkler calls the program's detractors "a bunch of bitter-ass people."

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."

At first Moreland managed to keep her mom and stepdad in the dark. But then came the mood swings. She dropped out of school, fought constantly with her mother and ran away from home for weeks on end. When Beth Roussel found a bag of pot in her daughter's purse, she sent Aimee to rehab.

"I thought it was strange," explains Roussel, adding that she came to Crossroads as a last resort after taking Aimee to other drug counselors. "These were a bunch of counselors who looked barely older than my daughter. They dressed just like her, they were all chain smoking, cussing. But you're desperate, so you think: Whatever works."

At age eighteen, Aimee Moreland is a diminutive young woman with pale skin, hazel eyes and shoulder-length blond hair. On an unseasonably warm day in March, she and her mother have opted for an indoor bar table at a Houlihan's in Carbondale, Illinois. Over salads, grilled chicken sandwiches and cigarettes, Moreland recalls her first Crossroads support-group meeting.

"There were tons of people there that were my age. I had, like, 30 people coming up to me saying, 'Oh hi! What's your name?' They're, like, hugging me, saying, my name is blah-blah-blah, asking me what kind of drugs I did. Everybody gathered around me, and they're, like -- everything I did was, like, so awesome, and, like, my clothes were awesome, and my hair was awesome.

"I was kind of freaked out," says Moreland. "They all wanted to talk to me, and I thought: At least I'm not in the hospital."

Before she awoke the following morning, Moreland says, she'd received several messages from group members. "They were, like: We're going to play capture the flag," she says. When Moreland declined the invitation explaining that she lived in Illinois and didn't have a car, the group members persisted: They'd pick her up. Within a few days, she was hooked. She quickly adopted the Crossroads lifestyle, going to meetings, staying out late and attending social functions. Still, problems at home persisted. Soon after entering the group, Moreland ran away.

Distressed, her mother called a Crossroads counselor for advice. "They said it would be really awesome if I let her go and not question her, not give her a time to come home. They said as long as she's with Crossroads kids, she'll be fine. And they said, 'Give her some money,'" Roussel recalls.

That wasn't all.

"The counselor set it up so Aimee had another place to live," says Roussel. "They basically found a host family for her to stay with. They explained to us that if she's over in Illinois, she'd have her old friends around; if she's living in St. Louis, she'll be able to get to the meetings. We were so drained from all the drama with her that it seemed like a very good option."


Citing the confidential nature of the program, Frank Szachta declined to open Crossroads meetings to the Riverfront Times. But interviews with dozens of current and former clients and counselors confirm that Moreland's initial experience is typical of the program.

"When you're new to the group, they treat you like you're the best thing in the world," says Bailey La Cour, a former client who left Crossroads six months ago after a two-and-a-half-year run. "They leave gifts and posters that say 'I Love You' on your doorstep. Everybody's giving you hugs, wanting to give you rides, wanting to hang out with you."

La Cour, who at eighteen is tall and willowy with long red hair, was a member of Crossroads' steering committee, a troupe of charismatic clients that facilitates discussion during support-group meetings. "The thing I was really good at was recruiting. Whenever new people came in, the counselors would always put them in my car. I would always stay with the new girl. I'd always hang out with the new guy," La Cour says. "I think that's the reason that kids get so drawn in: Because you go there and you see all these pretty girls and cute guys, and they're all in the newest clothes, and they all are smoking and swearing -- and it's okay."

"The group would call it reaching out," says Szachta, who describes Crossroads as a treatment center that offers a free support group. "Is it part of the program? Yes. But is it a forced, like, 'Now what you need to do is make them feel welcome'? No. It's a natural thing that happens if you're in a group that's trying to get sober."

Szachta's characterization differs from that of many former counselors, who say the group's free support-group meetings double as an intake mechanism for Crossroads' $7,000 intensive outpatient treatment program.

"We'll throw a bunch of hot chicks at [a new kid] to kind of suck him in. This happens all the time," says Mike Trapani, a former Crossroads counselor who left the group early last year. "Then we'll go to the parents and say: 'Hey, did you know your kid's doing this, this and this?' And the parents go: 'Oh my God! I had no idea!' And we're, like, 'Pretty much your kid needs [outpatient] treatment, or it's just going to get worse, your kid will probably end up dying."

Though Crossroads' intensive outpatient program generally lasts six weeks, there's no set time limit. Discharge is based on progress, and many clients stay in treatment longer. The price tag is high by local standards -- a six-week intensive treatment at Booneville Valley Hope costs $2,500, while two weeks at Highland Behavioral Health runs about the same -- but insurance occasionally picks up part of the tab. (Representatives from other treatment centers say their programs' costs are routinely covered by insurance.)

Parents who have enrolled a kid in Crossroads' intensive outpatient treatment report a rapid and remarkable turnaround in behavior: Teens go from fighting with their parents on a regular basis to frequently reminding them that they love them.

"After his initial weekend [at Crossroads], my son came to me and he said, 'Mom, I've made a commitment to being sober,'" recounts Jennifer Philippe, whose son entered the program at age thirteen in October of 2003. "It was a complete turnaround: 'I love you, Mom' -- all of that. Of course, I cried like a baby."

Philippe, a pleasant, zaftig woman who wears her auburn hair pulled dramatically back from her face, says that after months of having other counselors throw up their hands in despair, she felt she finally had her son back. Before entering the program, the teen was busted for stealing a bike. He threw tantrums and punched holes in her walls. Though she'd long suspected he was using drugs, she had no proof. But where other counselors had foundered on her son's evasions and dissembling, Crossroads counselors got him to open up.

"We'd meet separately with the counselors, and then they'd say: 'Oh my God, your son is far gone. You need to get him in here now,'" Philippe recalls. "Soon he was asking when he was going to go to outpatient."

So impressed was Philippe with her son's progress that she scaled back his schooling to three hours a day so he could attend intensive outpatient treatment. To cover the costs, she borrowed money from her father. What she didn't know was that the improved behavior was due to the "Parent Game."

"The Parent Game is: You've got to learn what parents want to hear. Parents won't care if you stay out till three o'clock in the morning if your room's clean, so clean your room," says former counselor Van Pelt. "All of a sudden their kid is starting to act better. It becomes pretty easy to get [parents] to stroke a $7,000 check."

Former Crossroads parent Jack Bader begs to differ. "We never spent a dime," counters Bader, whose teen "dabbled" in marijuana and alcohol before attending Crossroads meetings all through high school. "What the program offers a lot of kids is community. They see something there that they like: They're all smoking cigarettes. They're all staying out late. They're all roughhousing, having a good time, and it's fun. However, to stay in that fun program, they have to work a [twelve step] program. They've got to get honest with their parents."

Szachta uses two acronyms to describe the Parent Game: P.I.S.S. and C.R.A.P. (Properly Interpreting Social Situations and Communication Resolves All Problems). "I've heard them talk about that in a jaded kind of cynical way, but it's not a conspiracy to get you to b.s. your parents," he says. "It's really a way to understand where [your parents] are at, and, 'How can I communicate with them and have a better relationship with them?'"

The intensive outpatient program for school-age kids meets weekdays from one o'clock until five -- an impossible conflict with regular school hours. Jennifer Philippe says she was ultimately persuaded to place her son in an alternative school with reduced hours, an experience echoed by other Crossroads parents.

While many drug counselors say withdrawing from school for a short period can be beneficial, they're skeptical about the practice. "I've made that recommendation myself, but it's usually kids that are in college," says Dr. James Mulligan, medical director for the Seabrook House, a drug-recovery center in New Jersey. "They come in for three or four weeks, and they want to get back out so they can finish their semester. I think they should go to school. Taking them out doesn't make any sense to me."

Says Szachta: "People say we're anti-school. It's not true. We do care about school, and we do push kids on school. Is it always perfect? Is it always on time? Is it always everything you would want for your kid to be a high achiever? Well, no. But there's only so much you can make somebody do."

Philippe didn't like having to scale back on schooling. Nor did she like the smoking and the late hours. But Crossroads had succeeded where she had failed, and she was convinced the counselors knew more about her son than she did: "It got to the point where I was questioning everything I'd been doing as a parent. I almost felt like I needed to ask the counselors what I should do about everything."

Philippe's insecurity doesn't surprise former counselor Rob Van Pelt. "They chop the legs out from beneath these parents, and they do it quickly," he says. "You've got to remember: These parents are embarrassed. They're failures. This is one that I remember vividly [telling parents]: 'You've had sixteen years to help your kid adjust and run his life. Did you do a good job? Because you just brought him to me with a needle sticking out of his arm. You're missing the boat somewhere along the line. And I got the answers that kid needs.' You get a real heavy bat to swing."

Two weeks after completing Crossroads' intensive outpatient program, Philippe's son relapsed. He would later tell her that he used drugs during much of the ensuing five-month period, during which he continued attending group meetings. He ultimately left Crossroads when he was busted for smoking pot at school and ordered by a judge to attend an inpatient rehab program.

Szachta says the program is based on honesty and does not administer drug testing. Members must adhere to three rules: "No fixing. No fighting. No fucking." (Many former clients complain that the program regulates dating, though that's a common practice among drug-rehab programs.) He doesn't publish sobriety success rates for his program and says Crossroads last tabulated a success rate in the late 1990s, defining "success" as a client who remained sober for a year after completing intensive outpatient. By that measure, he says Crossroads boasted a success rate of 80 percent.

On the topic of school, Szachta says the dropout rate among clients hovers around 8 percent, although that figure includes only clients who attend support-group meetings and does not account for those currently in outpatient treatment. "A lot of those kids are still pursuing school," he asserts. "Parents will say: 'He's sober now -- when's he going to go to college?' Well, hold on! A minute ago you were, like, 'I hope he doesn't die next week,' and now you're wondering when he's going to go to college?

"There are no 30-day wonders or instant cures," Szachta adds. "I would love to say we could do a couple of appointments with people and they'd be all better. But if sobriety's the goal, it's not that easy."


In addition to the twice-weekly support-group meetings and myriad social functions, Beth Roussel soon enrolled her daughter in Crossroads' intensive outpatient program.

"I saw a change, in that I knew she wasn't getting high. She seemed happy," says Roussel, who'd begun attending weekly meetings for Crossroads parents. "But really, there was nothing to fight about: I never saw her. I saw her on Friday nights for about fifteen minutes to say, 'How's the week been going? What are you guys doing tonight? Here's your money. Here's your cigarettes. Have a good time. Be careful. Put your seatbelt on, and I love you.' Aside from that, I never really saw her.

"She'd come in and give me a hug. It was always, 'I love you,' with a big hug. What parent doesn't like that?" Roussel asks. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh, they're making such a big breakthrough with my kid. Apparently they've made her realize that her mom and dad really love her.' But what you don't know is that [your kid is] playing the Parent Game."

Roussel says Moreland seemed happy in intensive outpatient treatment. Like most Crossroads kids, she'd cut ties with her old doping buddies and made fast friends with fellow clients. Roussel says counselors were generally positive in their reports about Aimee's progress. Most important, she knew her daughter wasn't getting high. So it came as a shock when after four weeks Roussel was informed that her daughter "just wasn't getting it."

She says Aimee's counselors advised that she be sent to Step Two, an intensive inpatient treatment program in Arizona that was affiliated with Crossroads and owned by Frank Szachta's mentor, Bob Meehan.

"Now I've got her counselors, who I trusted completely, telling me that they're afraid she's going to use again in two weeks when she got out [of outpatient], so we better do something quick," Roussel says.

When word got out that she was leaning toward sending her daughter for 45 days in Arizona, Roussel says, her fellow Crossroads parents lined up to support her. "They give you a lot of love. You get a lot more attention," she says. "When people know you're sending your kid [for intensive treatment], you get kudos. It's like: 'Oh! You're such an awesome parent that you'll just do anything for your child!'"

Through her home-healthcare business, Roussel had managed to accumulate some savings she'd planned to spend on remodeling her kitchen. Instead, she says, she emptied her bank account to purchase a plane ticket to Arizona and draw up a cashier's check for about $14,000.

Aimee Moreland says a girl in the group held a sleepover in her honor the night before her flight, attended by nearly every girl in the program: "I've got, like, 30 kids following me around the airport," she says of the sendoff. "They're singing, telling me they love me."


Begun in St. Louis as the Palmer Drug Abuse Program in 1982, the program switched its name to Crossroads in 1986. Szachta underwent treatment there in the early 1980s and became program director in 1986. He took the company private in 1991.

The program continues to draw heavily on the teachings of its founder, the controversial drug-and-alcohol recovery expert Bob Meehan.

A self-described ex-con, thief and drug addict, Meehan first gained national prominence in 1979, when he successfully treated comedian Carol Burnett's daughter for substance abuse. Burnett's friend and fellow comic Tim Conway was so taken with Meehan's approach to "enthusiastic sobriety" that he penned the foreword to Meehan's 1984 book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road: Our Children and Drugs.

But Meehan ran afoul of the public's good graces when his San Diego drug-treatment facility, Freeway, was shut down in 1986 amid allegations that he was unfit to run it and that he fostered a cultlike adoration in his clients. According to a Los Angeles Times article dated May 28, 1986, Kathleen Chambers, the San Diego licensing supervisor for the California Department of Social Services, denied Meehan's license application because "his dealings with the state have been less than honest and responsible."

Meehan's drug-treatment methods, though, have endured. To this day Szachta describes Meehan as his "mentor."

"He was the founder of the philosophy; he wrote the book," says Szachta, adding that until recently Meehan visited Crossroads several times each year.

There are four Meehan-inspired treatment centers scattered across the nation: Programs in Atlanta (Atlanta Insight) and Tempe, Arizona (Pathway Drug Abuse Program) are owned by Meehan's son-in-law, Clint Stonebraker; in addition to Crossroads (which has satellite groups in Columbia and Kansas City), Szachta owns Cornerstone Drug Abuse Program in Denver. Meehan himself owns two facilities (Step One and Step Two Recovery Centers, both in Phoenix), where Crossroads and its brethren refer clients for intensive, 45-day stays that cost about $15,000. He also directs the Atlanta-based Meehan Institute for Counselor Training, a nonprofit facility where virtually every counselor who works in the allied programs has undergone training.

Together the entities form the International Coalition of Enthusiastic Chemical Abuse Programs, or ICECAP, which Szachta describes as a "coalition of people who think alike philosophically -- basically employing the same approach [with] similar modalities that share a training program."

Or did until recently. After an ABC affiliate in Phoenix aired a TV news report critical of Meehan and his programs, officials from the Arizona Department of Health Services investigated Meehan's Arizona operations. Scott Tiffany, a team leader at the Arizona Office of Behavioral Health Licensing, says the facilities passed inspection. "We didn't come up with any information that would warrant further investigation," says Tiffany. (The agency continues to maintain a phone line dedicated to tips, comments and grievances about the two centers.)

Still, the controversy was enough to prompt Meehan to sever his ties to the affiliated programs. According to Szachta, Meehan is transferring ownership of his recovery centers to two former employees. Szachta and Stonebraker subsequently dissolved ICECAP.

"As of March 1, 2005, Bob Meehan retired from his positions with all Enthusiastic Recovery programs and institutions," Meehan's attorney J. Max Davis writes in a press release. "Part of the reason for [his] decision was to allow these institutions a chance to continue their work unimpeded by any media-generated controversy over Mr. Meehan's personality."

Szachta says Meehan's involvement with Crossroads was minimal anyway. "It's my company; I've owned it since 1991," Szachta asserts. "Meehan has never owned this program, run this program, controlled this program. When it was a nonprofit, I was a director; I worked for a board of directors."

But former counselors point to the Meehan Institute and his intensive-treatment centers as proof of his ongoing influence.

"All arrows point to Meehan," maintains former counselor Van Pelt. "He's messing with people's core belief systems. He's picking people off the street, going after sick people and kicking out the crutches."

Former Crossroads counselor Mike Trapani says Meehan's training went even further. "When I went to counselor training, I was told that we have to understand that niggers are a lower form of the human species," recounts Trapani, who says he left the program after the death of his father. (Trapani also says that toward the end of his employment he stole several hundred dollars in petty cash from Crossroads; Szachta says he has no knowledge of the incident.) "[Meehan told us that] it's okay for niggers to rape each other because that's how they have sex."

Racism is also tolerated in the group, says former Crossroads client Bailey La Cour. "I came out and 'nigger' was a part of my everyday vocabulary," says La Cour. "Like, rap would come on and I'd be like, 'Turn that nigger music off.'"

Trapani is a member of a small cadre of former counselors who've set up a Web site, www.ontheemmis.com, where former ICECAP clients and counselors share horror stories. A perusal of the site nets links to cult experts, charges of mind control and unflattering video clips in which Meehan speaks disparagingly of blacks and fat people and instructs counselors to "forget" their training after they've passed their certification exam.

"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."

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."


At the end of the intensive treatment program, Beth Roussel flew to Phoenix for a "significant other" meeting with her daughter, an emotional encounter during which Moreland copped to the extent of her past drug use. "It was everything you ever wanted to hear," Roussel says. "Everybody hugs. Then they have other kids come out and say how great your kid is."

In retrospect, Moreland isn't impressed with the Phoenix regimen. "A lot of it is them telling you how messed up you are," she recounts. "One time I was freaking out and they were telling me how other people see you better than you see yourself. They're, like, 'Here, do this,'" she says, placing a splayed palm over her face. "'How many fingers do you see?' And I'm, like, 'I don't know. I see two.' And they're, like, 'I see five. '"

When Moreland returned to St. Louis, she resumed outpatient treatment at Crossroads. She was talkative and loving for about two weeks, Roussel says, but soon it was back to the old routine: She'd see her daughter only on Fridays, when she'd turn up at the parents' meeting to ask for her weekly allotment of money and cigarettes. Occasionally they'd make plans to meet for dinner, but Moreland either wouldn't show up or would appear with two or three Crossroads kids in tow.

"I felt like she was going in the other direction," Roussel says. "I'd talk to her counselor, telling them what she'd done or that she wasn't returning my calls. All of a sudden I'd get a phone call and everything would be really fine for one night."

Having invested about $20,000 in her daughter's recovery, Roussel was beginning to doubt she'd ever see lasting results. "She'd gone through outpatient, she'd gone [to Arizona], she's gone through outpatient again -- let's start talking about going back to school or getting a job," Roussel says. "Your life cannot be just 'hanging out.' They told me she wasn't ready for that. They told me she needed more time sober, she needed to get stronger."

When Roussel's aunt died this past June, matters came to a head. "The counselors called me and said they didn't think Aimee should come [to the funeral]," says Roussel. "I said, 'No, that is not acceptable.' [Then] they were trying to bargain with me on how much time she would have to come for. They were, like, 'Well, you know if she goes back over there into such an emotional situation, that's going to make her want to use.' I said, 'That's bullshit. After all of the money and time she's spent in treatment -- if she can't even come to be with her family during a funeral, then apparently what you've taught her isn't shit.' But they just kept calling me, telling me I was making a wrong decision."

Moreland attended the funeral but left early to get to a Crossroads meeting. "I didn't think they were putting her in a direction to deal with everyday life," Roussel says. "Because you know what? In everyday life you might run into somebody you knew. You might pass that place in the park where you got high. Those things happen; you have to learn to deal with it. But they don't teach you that."

Then Roussel heard about www.ontheemmis.com, the Web site created by former ICECAP counselors. "It was like light bulbs going on in my head," she says. "There were so many people who had been in that program. They all had the same experiences. It was overwhelming."

Moreland left Crossroads, never to return. She says she hasn't spoken with a single Crossroads friend or counselor since dropping out. "When I stopped going to meetings, nobody called me from the group. No one," she says.


In his spacious office in Chesterfield, Frank Szachta has hung a pole between two windows that overlook a parking lot. It's ten feet long, with each foot marked off in black marker. "That's the ten-foot pole that I won't touch things with," Szachta explains. "Some of those situations, we have to go: 'I'm not touching that with a ten-foot pole.'"

The pole seems perfect for the controversy in which Szachta has found himself.

"It's a serious disease we deal with," he says, "and I think some of that" -- meaning the recriminations -- "is at least in part due to the disease. A symptom of denial is not wanting to take ownership. So sometimes people won't make it, or if they go back to using drugs and alcohol they won't say, 'I chose to go back to using drugs and alcohol.'

"They'll say the treatment center was bad, or this was bad, or that was bad. One of the things I always wrestle with is: Do we do enough, or do we do too much? Have there been those situations that somebody did not handle well? Probably," he concedes. "I'm concerned about it -- I'm concerned about all of it."

Szachta says his detractors have prompted him to reassess his program -- and to initiate some changes. Last month Szachta created a Web site, www.thecrossroadsprogram.com, and ushered in a less-intense outpatient program that meets three days a week and after school. He says he plans to scale back the program from two and a half years to 18 to 24 months. And he now requires that intensive outpatient clients attend at least one support group outside the program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. And he has banned smoking inside the Chesterfield facility.

But the biggest change, says Szachta, is his new Bridging the Gap group: a five-week program aimed at helping clients adjust to life outside Crossroads.

"We could stay engaged and kind of soothe that connection, but the whole idea is to end that connection, the whole idea is to graduate and to move on," Szachta says. "We want to try to be as helpful as we can there, but be as helpful as we can while letting go -- because the whole idea is to let go."

The way he sees it, the program is constantly evolving. And, he'd like to think, improving. "We've got more staff, they're better staff, they're better trained and more experienced than they were five years ago," he says. "Hopefully in five years this will look like the Dark Ages."

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