Obama drug czar pick linked to fraud, Christian right, anti-Semitism

President-elect Barack Obama‘s reported pick for Drug Czar, Minnesota’s Republican Rep. Jim Ramstad, is called out by Maia Szalavitz on Huffington Post Dec. 9 under the lurid title “Obama Drug Czar Pick Tied to Abusive Christian Rehab Linked to Contributor Charged with $3.5 Billion Fraud”:

If his opposition to needle exchange and maintenance treatment for addictions isn’t enough to convince you that Jim Ramstad isn’t qualified to serve in Obama’s cabinet as “drug czar,” how about an earmark funding a Christian addiction “program” that uses outdated and abusive tactics and tries to “complete” Jews? Now add a connection between that program and a man who is charged with swindling investors out of $3.5 billion dollars.

That’s right. Jim Ramstad was the sole sponsor of an earmark providing $235,000 to Minnesota Teen Challenge, a branch of a national anti-addiction group which believes that recruiting people into the Assemblies of God ministry will cure their addiction.

Yes, this is the same Teen Challenge that prompted George W. Bush to de-regulate faith-based addiction treatment in Texas in 1997. The program couldn’t meet basic education standards required for qualified counselors, but Bush wanted it kept open.

After he became President, Texas actually re-regulated faith-based programs when the predicted spate of abuse and maltreatment that comes with unregulated facilities rapidly materialized.

Back then, Bush praised Teen Challenge for its practices, saying that while inside, “if you don’t work, you don’t eat.” That’s right: the program uses unpaid, forced labor backed by the threat of food deprivation as “addiction treatment.”

Further, according to Teen Challenge, “Addiction is a sin, not a disease.” Consequently, the program does not allow the use of medication.

Beyond this, it humiliates and attempts to “break down” people with addictions, using techniques that I have covered extensively elsewhere that are known to do more harm than good.

Since half of all addicts have a co-existing mental illness which often requires medication, banning it is not exactly evidence-based practice. And since there are medications that can help treat particular addictions, this is even more absurd. Given that Ramstad sponsored a bill to change the name of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to the National Institute on Diseases of Addiction, it is deeply troubling that he’d support an organization which views it as sin.

But his ties to Teen Challenge seem close. Here’s a photo of him at a benefit for Minnesota Teen Challenge, with Tom Petters, the campaign contributor now charged with bilking investors out of billions. Minnesota Teen Challenge was one of Petters favorite charities–and it has been hit hard by Petters’ fall.

One wonders, however, why it needed 260 staff members to serve 400 clients annually.

Ramstad almost certainly knew nothing of Petters’ fraudulent dealings–it’s impossible for a politician to know everything about every contributor.

But his support for Teen Challenge shows a disregard for evidence-based treatment and either a willingness to abandon his deeply held beliefs about treating addiction as a disease or a failure to investigate what kinds of programs he funds. Neither possibility reflects well on his qualifications to serve as drug czar.

Obama has said that he supports the use of faith-based services where evidence exists that they are effective. Though Teen Challenge makes the usual anecdote and flawed research-based claims of high success rates, in fact, its approach is completely contrary to almost everything we know about what makes addiction treatment work. It seems unlikely, then, that Obama would favor it.

Also, unlike Bush, Obama does not support allowing faith-based groups to discriminate against members of other religions in hiring. Teen Challenge admitted in Congressional testimony in 2001 that it does this—and that it had successfully converted some Jews who entered the program, using the offensive term “completed Jews” for such converts.

Given that Ramstad has spent much time and energy seeking compassion for recovering addicts and championing the idea that addiction is a disease, not a moral problem, it is astonishing that he would fund and promote Teen Challenge. The fact that he does suggests—just like his opposition to needle exchange—that he does not know how to carefully evaluate data and vet addiction programs. President-elect Obama, are you listening?

[Much thanks to Ken Avidor of the Dump Bachmann blog for alerting me to this story]

P.S. Mainstream media where are you? A $3.5 billion fraud case isn’t a national story?

“Completed Jews,” eh? How charming. Yet of course, Ramstad is 300% pro-Israel. On The Issues informs us he co-sponsored a 2002 House resolution on “Solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism.” Another case of the paradoxical politics of anti-Semitism.

World War 4 Report. Support it or lose it:

  1. Minnesota Teen Challenge responds to Szalavitz
    Received via e-mail:

    Dear Editor,

    We are very concerned after reading the article by Maia Szalavitz, “Obama Drug Czar Pick Tied to Abusive Christian Rehab Linked to Contributor Charged with $3.5 Billion Fraud.”

    The article presents a very inaccurate portrayal of Minnesota Teen Challenge which we would like to address. Recognizing the global reach of the blog, there is little doubt that this hit piece has harmed the image and reputation of Minnesota Teen Challenge among many readers.

    Minnesota Teen Challenge is a leading and respected treatment center in Minnesota, part of a large network of Teen Challenge centers across the United States. Each program is independently controlled and autonomous in operation and methodology. As such, it is entirely improper to attribute alleged incidents and practices at one center as being common to all.

    Minnesota Teen Challenge’s beliefs and practices bear no resemblance to the portrayal in the article.

    1. It is important to note that the federal earmark sponsored by Congressman Ramstad – approved with bipartisan sponsorship including Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) and Congressman Keith Ellison (D) – was designated for Minnesota Teen Challenge’s Know the Truth drug and alcohol abuse prevention program. This program is completely separate from our recovery program and is entirely non-religious in nature. This widely respected program has been presented to more than 30,000 junior and senior high school students across the state of Minnesota.

    2. Minnesota Teen Challenge does not recruit members into the Assemblies of God denomination as a means to cure addiction. We are an independent 501c3 charitable organization that is non-denominational in nature and we do not recruit participants to join any particular church or denomination.

    3. Minnesota Teen Challenge employs qualified licensed chemical dependency counselors and operates a program licensed by the Minnesota Department of Human Services. We follow the same rules and procedures for client care as all other treatment programs in the state.

    4. Minnesota Teen Challenge does not use forced labor backed by the threat of food deprivation and does not use humiliation or other abusive tactics. All clients are treated with dignity and respect and they voluntarily participate in the program. Our program is regularly reviewed by city, county, and state officials to ensure quality care is being provided. An independent research study indicated that 83% of those surveyed rated the quality of our program as “very good” or “outstanding.”

    5. Minnesota Teen Challenge does allow its clients to use medications and we do recognize that many addicts have a co-occurring mental illness. In fact, we employ nurses to help monitor client’s medications and work regularly with community mental health providers.

    6. A 2007 independent scientific research study conducted by the Wilder Foundation and nationally recognized researcher, Dr. Patricia Owen revealed that 74% of 2005 graduates had been abstinent in the previous six months. Additionally, 87% of graduates stated that their circumstances today would be a lot worse if they hadn’t gone through the Teen Challenge program.

    7. Minnesota Teen Challenge does not engage in illegal discrimination of applicants with differing beliefs and our application process makes it clear that those with different or no religious belief are eligible for employment.

    8. Our staffing levels reflect the fact that we operate eight separate residential programs in seven locations that provide round the clock care with food services, etc., as well as a respected drug prevention program with a dedicated staff.

    We are very troubled that such a recklessly penned article can be dissemminated without us having an opportunity to respond to any questions or concerns.

    We would like to see a prominent correction or clarification run with similar placement as the original article. We also stand ready to craft a commentary article for your website if you choose to extend that offer to us. I look forward to your prompt reply.


    Rich Sherber

    Executive Director

    CC: Jennifer Reedstrom-Bishop, Gray, Plant, Mooty, Mooty & Bennett

  2. Szalavitz responds to Minnesota Teen Challenge
    Maia Szalavitz responds:

    Minnesota Teen Challenge has complained about my coverage of their organization and its connection to the Teen Challenge national organization and its practices. Their response will be posted soon (I’ll add link then), but they basically say that they do not use the practices I’ve reported in here relation to the national organization.

    Minnesota Teen Challenge says that it is independent—but here is its listing on the national teen challenge website:

    Minnesota Teen Challenge also says that it does not recruit into the Assemblies of God Ministry—but if you go to the national website of the Assemblies of God, look under “adult ministries,” you will find Teen Challenge listed as one of their ministries, with a direct link to the national teen challenge website, which, of course, links the Minnesota branch.

    If Minnesota Teen Challenge is truly an independent organization that does not attempt to convert participants to a particular form of Christianity, why does it use the same name as an organization that does and allow them to claim a link on their national website?

    If it is independent, why does it start its history like this, with the same founding story as the national group?

    The application form for Minnesota Teen Challenge is very explicit about the Christian, faith-based nature of the program.

    Here is a quote from Minnesota Teen Challenge’s own newsletter [pdf] from 2001: “On October 3, 84 Minnesota Teen Challenge students were baptized, publicly confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and personal savior. They were bound by sin, but each one has been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.”

    That same issue contains an interview with a Teen Challenge participant who says he was previously a member of a Satanic cult. Here are a few excerpts:

    Q: Which Halloween experience was the scariest?

    A: “Different moons require different sacrifices. One Halloween, we received a letter from the head church in San Diego with blood and a crow’s foot on it. This meant that there had to be a human sacrifice. The leader of our group walked over to an older, unimportant man and handed him a knife, saying:’You know what you need to do.’ The man took the knife and split his stomach open, letting his intestines spill out on the ground. He screamed in agony, and as he fell to his knees he
    cried out, ‘Satan, take me home!’

    An editorial in the same issue says:

    This Teen Challenge student’s testimony of involvement in the occult is not an isolated incident…One of the goals of the Satanic church is to make evil cute and cuddly. They are accomplishing this goal through games such as Pokemon, Dungeons and Dragons, Majick, and Ouija boards…Much of what our society reads, watches, and listens to is demonically influenced. Teen Challenge combats these lies in the Name of Jesus.

    Many national organizations have regional variations. But these excerpts suggest that Minnesota Teen Challenge participants are not exactly being given mainstream drug education and that their counselors and newsletter editors may have some difficulty distinguishing between truth and teen exaggeration.

    Finally, if Minnesota Teen Challenge is as different from the national organization in philosophy and practices as it claims to be, why on earth would it use the same name?

    [Note: I will have more about their “study” soon as it is an excellent example of how to mislead with addiction statistics].

    1. Re: Teen Challenge
      I appreciate your concern and agree that these types of treatment environments can harbor abuse. I think that there needs to be some tangible level of public accountability for religious programs such as these, especially where there have been substantial reports of abuse made. Nevertheless, it seems clear by observing the history of modern addiction recovery (reference 12 step groups) that a spiritually-centered approach brings the greatest change in lives affected by addiction. No, this may not be entirely quantifiable, but then many of the most important facets of life are not. This is a fact that I believe anyone who has any real personal knowledge of the internal changes required for addiction recovery and who is honest with himself will have a hard time denying. Spiritual practice/ principles/ discipline is ‘pointed’ by nature in that it is directive to at least some degree, even if ‘toned down’ in secular addiction recovery programs. Even the most basic moral psychology is bound to offend someone- for instance those who don’t believe there is any right or wrong, or who are die-hard atheists (though even atheists can accept many principles of moral psychology, albeit without understanding them to have any clear teleological implications in terms of a central or objective meaning of life. At least this is my current understanding). I do think your concern about possible restriction of medications in some of these faith-based programs is very valid, in that I believe there are some cases of severe mental illness that need medical attention in addition to moral psychology. I do appreciate your sharing your concerns, and found your entries thought-provoking and challenging though perhaps somewhat heavy-handed.

      Sean Richardson