Captivity By the Sea
A Survivor’s Account of Casa By the Sea Ensenada, Mexico and High Impact Tecate, Mexico 2001 – 2003
To say I was a troubled teen wouldn’t necessarily be an appropriate assessment of my challenges, and by most peoples standards I was never out of control. Did I make mistakes? Yea sure, but I wasn’t a bad kid. I had been struggling in school since kindergarten, but I was always creative, bold, loving and as silly as they came, so how could things have gotten bad enough that I would find myself in a program? At age 11 I was officially diagnosed with ADD, I began treatment and was later diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder. I must have tried every medication under the sun; uppers, downers, sidewayziers you name it, I was prescribed it. There has always been suspicion in my mind that the constant change of prescription drugs played a role in my teenage woes, but that’s neither here nor there. In all reality, I was sent to CBS because my parents were worried about me, not because of any serious drug use or other criminal activity but rather because they claimed that I might be headed down that path. I was independent, a bit rebellious and trivial trouble seemed to follow me everywhere, but I was certainly not on a road to jail or death. In my opinion the hysteria that drove my mother to seek out CBS was not based on any of my actions being out of control but rather her loss of control over me. Call me crazy but in my humble opinion that is hardly reason to have a child incarcerated.
It was just before dawn when I was rudely awakened by two butch looking female escorts, I was told: “We can either do this the easy way or the hard way, either way you are coming with us” so I went with them and didn’t make a fuss, but consider my surprise being as I had no previous criminal record, suicidal risk, nor significant drug problem to speak of. I asked if I could put on my sweatshirt, but I was told that I wasn’t allowed to take ANY of my belongings, I wasn’t even allowed to change my clothes. I asked where I was going but they refused to tell me until we had crossed the border into Mexico. Somewhere between Tijuana and Rosarito I learned, I was headed to Casa by the Sea, in seaside, sunny Ensenada.
The only thing I can remember about the drive into Ensenada was that it smelled putrid. It might have been because Mexico has one of the most inadequate sewer systems in the world, or it might have just been “La Bufadora”. Either way, it was a bit of a surprise that we would arrive at what looked like a fortress from the outside but only a midsized old run down motel on the inside. It was right on the beach but you wouldn’t know it, 10 ft tall concrete walls surrounded the place giving you only a glimpse of the ocean through a painted red rod iron gate. At sunset the sun would glow orange and bounce off the waves, and sometimes you could even see dolphins or see a cruise ship on the horizon. One would have to assume at some point in the past this might have been a place where families would come to stay, touring the local sights, and enjoying the beach below us but sometime between then and February 8th 2001, this hotel had become my worst nightmare.
When I arrived I saw several lines of what seemed to be female inmates, all wearing blue sweat pants, and their hair in disheveled knots on top of their heads. They didn’t even bother to look up at me, they just starred disillusioned at the asphalt beneath them. I remember the reality of this atmosphere was hard to grasp, I could just sense the malcontent oozing from every corner of this place… To be perfectly honest it was hard to pinpoint a specific feature of this facility that caused me to feel so unnerved but the vibe of the whole place was just sketchy. Call it intuition or just a healthy sense of distrust, but as soon as I walked through those big red gates, I knew I wanted out.
The first staff member I met seemed nice enough, she was portly and spoke enough broken english, that I was able to understand her. She reminded me a bit of a housekeeper, but I could sense she had some kind of an authority over the girls so I followed her lead into a room called “the mama’s house”. She introduced her self as “mama” and told me to undress for a strip search. I wasn’t fond of the idea that I would be naked in front of what was beginning to become a group of people; both staff and upper levels as well as my level 3 buddy, but it didn’t seem like they were giving me much of a choice. They gave me a pair of sweatpants and sweatshirt to wear that even at my meager size of 115 lbs was way too small and they were god awfully ugly to boot. (How such a ridiculous pair of clothing would ever come into existence is really beyond me, but my best guess is to blame it on the 80’s) I don’t know if that’s when it finally hit me but at that moment I just felt mortified, doomed and abandoned.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand why my mom would want to send me away, after all she wasn’t very fond of my decision to move to Sacramento to live with my grandfather and my decision to spend most of my time with my boyfriend, I can see why she would feel the need to be worried about me, but this?… This was just extreme. I thought to myself, there has GOT to be some mistake, my mother would NEVER send me to a place like this… would she?… I told the “mama” that I needed to call my mother, but as I would quickly find out such requests would get me into trouble. By trouble I mean, pummeled to the floor, physically assaulted and held captive in what used to be a small, grimy bathroom, but now was just a torture room with the toilet ripped out. This whole thing just felt so surreal, I just couldn’t believe that a place like this would even exist, but it was all too real and I was going to be living in it for an undetermined amount of time. Even though I found it shocking, heart wrenching and terrifying, I soon realized that I had no choice but to accept reality and do what I was told because I had just become a prisoner.
Only later would I realize that I was a prisoner for the profit of a multi-million dollar industry, fore-fronted by a powerful, well connected, Utah (Mormon) based company. An umbrella corporation, that operated multiple facilities in US and abroad that all practiced a “tough love” system that abused kids and conned hysterical/ desperate parents. A system that was carefully designed to manipulate parents into paying thousands of dollars to have their kids reprogrammed. Only problem was, the system was faulty, mainly because it was based on an experimental psychology, developed by B.F. Skinner, called “Aversion Therapy” that has been considered a volatile psycho-therapy and the practice of such techniques have been a controversial issue of ethics since it was first introduced.
“Several people have criticized the level of training required to perform behavior modification procedures, especially those which are restrictive or use aversives, aversion therapy or punishment protocols. Some desire to limit such restrictive procedures only to licensed psychologist or licensed counselors. Still others desire to create an independent practice of behavior analysis through licensure to offer consumers choices between proven techniques and unproven ones (see Professional practice of behavior analysis). Level of training and consumer protection remain of critical importance in applied behavior analysis and behavior modification.” – Quote from “behavior modification” wiki
The program used fear, guilt, peer-persuasion and punishment to condition children into obedience, which in reality was just reciting program jargon like bible verses. Honestly it surprises me some of the things this company was able to convince people to do, consider the alarm most people would have if any other institution required sending their children to a foreign country, with no papers, no admissions process, not even considering their medical or school records or even recommending consult with a third party professional. On top of all that, you’re not allowed to even speak to your child for any undetermined amount of time. Instead you are to depend on staff members who have no qualifications to even be working with your child to be the middle man, and tell you how your child is progressing in a program you really know nothing about. How could a place that would operate in such a way REALLY be legit? The level of ignorance you would have to have in order to not see these red flags is absolutely astounding to me. Parents were actually warned by the staff that we would send letters home claiming to have been abused, and that the conditions were unsanitary but that this was all manipulation in order to get pulled. Our case managers had one simple message for our parents every week, If we didn’t remain in the program until we graduated, we would end up dead insane or in jail. So of course our ever devoted parents would keep sending those checks every month and write us every week to tell us to “work your program”.
Starting from my first day at the facility, I was kept in a small room the staff called R&R (short for “Restriction Room”) for 2 weeks, at least that was my comprehension of the time I spent facing the yellow tiles in the corner of the room, sitting indian style with my hands behind my back. The cold tile was almost as numbing as the pins and needles you’d get when your circulation gets cut off, but that only started after the 6 hours was up and they let you stretch your legs. This was the go-to stress position, if you’re lucky, you’d only have to sit like that for 4-6 hours, (But oddly enough, this was much less “stressful” than laying on your stomach with your palms up and chin flat on the floor, I’d like to find out, scientifically why that hurt so much.)… but I wasn’t lucky, I got at least 10 hours a day. Throughout this stint in RR I was restrained on numerous occasions for what seemed like any reason at all. Even slightly shifting my weight or moving my fingers and the upper levels would have to report that I was “not following directions” to the staff who left them in charge while they gossiped and drank coffee in the “mama’s house”. This of course would be reason enough for them to assign me another round of “restraint”, a violent, gut wrenching bout of joint manipulating submissions, I couldn’t resist them and I didn’t even try all I could do was cry and plead for them to stop, but nothing I could say would make them stop, (I don’t think they even understood English). They would only let up when I was too beaten down to even utter a moan and left lifelessly panting on the floor.
Being restrained felt like being jumped, first the staff would take you to the ground and apply a generous amount of pressure into your spine by pressing their knee into the small of your back, then they would force your arms into a contorted position being pushed far up the middle of your back. Once they had you in a controlled position often with 2 or more staff members sitting on your legs then they would apply the finishing touch to make sure your chin was laying flat on the ground by pulling your hair and banging/ grinding your chin into the floor. Despite the violent nature of these acts, and their punitive reasons for inflicting them, they always claimed that these “restraints” were for our own safety.
At some point within the seemingly endless days of pain and isolation, I met a man named Jade Robinson. This man was easily twice my size, all muscle mass and had a violent streak to match. He didn’t seem to like me very much and added to that fact, he had just been told by an upper level student that I was “being defiant”. He took it upon himself to administer his own version of restraint which included him, sitting on top of me and twisting my extremities until I couldn’t breathe, and couldn’t even move. At some point during my struggle to regain the ability to breathe I supposedly scratched him with a fingernail, (nails of which I have religiously bitten my whole life) which promoted him to declare me a threat to myself and others, thus constituting more restraining, and more time in this tiny, gutted bathroom. When he had had enough fun testing the flexibility of my arm sockets he would move on to my legs twisting my ankles and then bending my legs up and sitting on them, making my knees feel like they were about to snap in two. At some point during one of the various restraining sessions my leg was gashed open by some jagged tile on the floor, I bled profusely for about an hour or 2 before a nurse came to disinfect and wrap my wound… which was funny because she was actually mad at ME because she had to be called in on her day off. I’m pretty sure I could have used stitches, but apparently those kinds of luxuries were not given to prisoners of Casa By the Sea.
Eventually I was allowed to join the rest of the girls and was administered into what we called a “family”. I was assigned a “buddy” who would explain the rules and be my personal tattle tale. At first it would seem as though I might have had a hard time adjusting to the “rules” of the program, because it was difficult for me to remember to raise my hand before I spoke, stood or looked out of line, and I frequently got consequences for forgetting my water bottle somewhere, being off task for more than 20 seconds or forgetting I had put my pen in my hair before I walked in the bathroom. These might seem in the real world like arbitrary mistakes, but in CBS, these were violations in which you received “consequences” for and once you got 10 consequences, you got a “trend” and that sent you straight to “worksheets” for a whole 8 hours of listening to cassette tapes and staring at a wall. You were not allowed to do school work, and were not allowed to speak, laugh sign or communicate in any way to anyone.
After about 6 months in the program, there wasn’t much improvement. Although I graduated the required seminars with ease, I was still forgetting these minor rules, and receiving tends which sent me to worksheets almost everyday. Because I kept losing my daily points I remained on level one, and was not allowed to speak to my mother on the phone, and most of the other students in my family. Because of CBS’s irrational rules, and their extreme punishments, I remained on Level 1, 0 points my entire program. Spending about 80% of my whole program in worksheets is exactly what cost me 2 years of my life and the entirety of my high school education.
This lack of progress was not because of any defiance on my part and I was not breaking any other rules besides these little “cat 1’s”. It hadn’t become clear to me then, but the reason I was struggling at moving up in the levels at CBS was because of my pre-existing conditions, (ADD and Bipolar II), the symptoms of which, (memory problems, impulsive speech, and being easily distracted) were in direct violation of the rules set forth by CBS. First and foremost, why would CBS even have rules like this? Was it because they boasted in their marketing materials that they were equipped to cure kids of their ADD and in their attempt to control a chemical imbalance their solution was to punish us when we forgot things? Or were those marketing materials simply deceptive because in reality CBS was not properly designed to accommodate the needs and certainly not treat a teenager struggling with these disorders. To any educated mental health professional my struggles with the “rules” at Casa would only further prove that the symptoms of and needs according to my disorder were not compatible with the system in place in the program. Any qualified professional would have recommended my release, or if they had considered my medical records before admission never granted entrance into this program in the first place… This was in fact, something the psychologist Dr. Chappuis mentioned, however since my mother couldn’t afford the $4000 a month tuition to send me to Cross Creek Manor, another WWASP program, Casa By the Sea was where I was left to rot until I either graduated or turned 18.
It only took 6 months of this “lack of progress” before I was sent to High Impact. High Impact couldn’t really be classified a “wilderness program” as they marketed it, and “boot camp” didn’t really do it justice, I’d have to say the only thing that would come close to defining this kind of atmosphere would be a concentration camp. Except they couldn’t exterminate us or they wouldn’t be able to cash our parents checks. Physical, verbal and emotional abuse was just as much a part of this program as was the constant exercise and stress positions we endured for 15 hours a day. If you thought RR was bad, High Impact was RR x 99 out in the middle of the desert. This “program” was nothing short of torture, and that was the general idea, that we all for some reason, (because we “got ourselves there”) deserved to be tortured every hour of every day. My stay at High Impact lasted 2 months and even in that seemingly short amount of time, I witnessed and endured a lifetime worth of abuse. I was also, very nearly murdered. The memory of which will never stop haunting me.
My mother has told me that Jade Robinson had called her himself to recommend that I be sent to High Impact, and oddly enough sited an incident 6 months before when during one of the many violent restraints I was subjected to on my first week, he had supposedly gotten injured (remember the fingernail scratch?) and this was reason enough for me to deserve the stint in H.I.
I spent 23 months, or what really turned out to be my entire high school career in Casa By the Sea… Even after 2 years I was still kept on level one, still not allowed to speak to my mother (and most of the other students), I was still getting “cat 1” consequences. I was still spending most of my time in worksheets, and despite multiple talks with my case mangers and the administrator (Both Jade Robinson and Luke Hallows) I was still refused requests to do school work. Apparently an education was another privilege they deemed I did not deserve. During this time however I had started working with a therapist named Jan, I opted to join a few of her support groups, mainly to escape the everyday activities of staring at walls and what-not… but also because when I talked to Jan, she didn’t seem so programmized, she actually seemed to get me. She also agreed that CBS was certainly not accurate placement for me, considering my pre-existing conditions and she taught me a bit about the symptoms of these disorders and how they affected me on a daily basis. It was clear to me, as well as many of the other staff and students, that CBS was not the right place for me, and that I did not deserve the treatment I received simply because I struggled with the little rules. I still believe there isn’t anything any of the kids in CBS did that would constitute the amount of human rights violations and crimes committed against them in these programs, (inmates in max. security prisons are allowed more rights) but in my case, I believe this was especially true. I made multiple attempts to communicate these facts to my mother, but for some reason, it never got through.
In a lot of ways, I was made an example out of, I was considered to be “bad” because I was still on level one, (they called that “sitting”) even though I was never violent, never broke any significant rules and I was never a danger to myself or others. So why was I targeted?… Why was I watched like a hawk by staff and given any consequence they could think of giving me? Why was I restrained and sent to RR for frivolous reasons such as falling asleep in worksheets or sleeping through the head count? Why would they even bother keeping me in this program when by the 23rd month I had still made no progress in their system?… Sadly, the answer was because they could, and they could because my mother had been effectively brainwashed. Despite any and all evidence that CBS was doing me harm, including me telling her to her face about High Impact, and no matter how many other people, including 2 different psychologists (who even worked for the program) told her that CBS was not the right placement for me, my mother chose to stay religiously committed to the program. As long as they could keep cashing her checks, they could do any amount of harm to me that they pleased because they knew the one person who could stop them, wouldn’t.
The notion that a person can be brainwashed by these kinds of programs is not an exaggeration, the system was designed with this in mind. The main reason these programs boast so much support from their clients is because in most ways the WWASP program was designed for the parent, to give them relief from their children, and a support group to ease their guilt about sending them away. In turn the program used these seminars to gain their loyalty outside the program so that they didn’t have to spend money on treating the children inside the program. An outsourced company called Resource Realizations ran the seminars, and they taught mostly program jargon like “there is no wrong or right, just working” and “There is no try, only do” and other sayings that a parent might say to a child. However they also taught the parents to believe “If it weren’t for the program, your child would be dead, insane or in jail” and used subliminal mind control techniques that can only be described as brutal psychological attacks. From an outside perspective, this seminar would probably seem like a cult meeting, and for many reasons including the roots of Resource Realizations/ LifeSpring and the history of the behavior modification industry, that would not be an inaccurate assumption.
Just after my 17th birthday (second birthday in the program), I learned that my mother had committed herself to my graduation, and took the programs advice to offer me an “Exit Plan” as incentive to cooperate. Which meant I would be doomed to spend one more aching, exasperating, disconcerting year, pending my 18th birthday when I would be given a bus ticket to the border, $50 and a certified decree that I would be shunned from my family and abandoned to live on the streets. The “exit plan” sounded good to me, I would have taken that in a heartbeat, but the reality that I was going to spend another year in this hell-hole really just bummed me out. In my depression I wrote a letter to my grandmother, I believe I mentioned the utter abyss of darkness that had smothered the life clean out of me, and much to my surprise, she read between the lines. She got on the horn with the woman who was supposedly in direct charge of my care, who not surprisingly failed to answer any of her questions about me, my needs or my conditions. My grandmother only asked them one simple question… “Are you even qualified to be working with my grand-daughter?” and 24 hours later, my ever-devoted mother was called by the administration who recommended that I be discharged and returned into my mother’s care. In order to understand the significance of this you need to realize that kids NEVER leave the program, unless they graduate or the parents get wind of a scandal that prompts them to pull them out on their own free will. The program NEVER forfeits a paycheck for the sake of a child, it was simply NEVER done. If it weren’t for my grandmother’s common sense to ask an all too basic question… I still shudder to think where I might be today had I been forced to endure the future the program had set up for me and my family.