Survivor Testimony – Cross Creek Manor – La Verkin, Utah 2007
By Xandir O’Cando
On May 10th of 2007 at around 2:30 in the morning two strangers barged into my bedroom. I started screaming and crying, as in my mind I was sure that these two strangers had broken into my house and were going to abduct me, rape me, kill me, or in some way harm me. They immediately told me that if I did not shut up that they would handcuff me. I was not being in any way violent or threatening. I was reacting in fear for my life by being vocal and hoping that someone would come to help. I had no idea what was going on. I stopped screaming, still in fear for my life. They started going through my closet digging out clothes as I was only in a night gown. They still had not explained what was going on. I asked, frightened, what the wanted from me, trying to see if I could in some way appease them and get them to leave. They then explained that they were going to take me to a school. It took me a second to understand what they meant by this, as this was an extremely bizarre way to introduce a child to a new school. It then occurred to me that this was what my mother had arranged for my brother several years ago when she had him shipped away to Cross Creek. The two strangers were from Teen Escort Service, a for-profit company that transports teenagers, usually by force, to WWASP (World Wide Association of Specialty Programs) facilities.
I was extremely upset and cried the entire trip, but I obeyed all of their orders. Even though I was being cooperative they said it was their policy to put a belt around the bust of the child and hold the belt so that there would be no chance of attempting to run. It was so humiliating to be led around like a fucking dog around the airport. It was also extremely uncomfortable to have this strange older male putting his hand so close to my breast. I never understood how any of this was legal but definitely knew that none of it was ethical. To this day I feel extremely angered, disturbed, and violated by this entire experience. In addition to this they “forgot” all of the psychiatric medication I had been on at my house. It’s not that I am for psychiatric meds, but it certainly did not feel healthy or normal to go from taking this medication regularly, to just not having it and stopping with out tapering off of it.
From the moment I arrived at Cross Creek, I was treated as though I was broken, dirty, and inhuman. During my stay I saw many others treated this way. I had never spoken to R., the program director, before and my first experience with him was horrible. He asked me why I was there, and I told him all of the things I’d done that I could think of that could possibly be perceived as “bad”. He yelled at me, saying that I was lying and that I didn’t love or care about my parents. I was shocked and confused, unsure of what I had done to deserve this treatment from someone I had just met. To this day, the only thing I can think of that I possibly could have left out was my attraction to other females. In one of the Parent-Child seminars we were made to attend, my mother shared with me that this was one of the biggest “issues” that caused her to send me to Cross Creek. Not the drugs, not the sex (she told me she had no knowledge of me being sexually active prior to being forced to disclose it to her), not the issues with school, but just the fact that there was a possibility that one day I might fall in love with a female. Sorry for not realizing what a horrible, broken child this made me, R.
Shortly after I arrived, my “HOPE buddy” (the student they assign to “mentor” you and teach you the rules in your first few weeks) started asking me about my past, why I was there, and what issues I needed to work on. I talked briefly about my experimentation with soft drugs, my issues with depression (something I’m pretty sure most teenagers experience), and the abusive relationship I had been in with my first girlfriend. As soon as I said the words “girl” and “relationship” in the same sentence she said “STOP! STOP! We can’t talk about that.” I was filled with shame regarding my sexuality simply from the fact that I was not even allowed to talk about homosexuality in any way shape or form. Shortly after this incident I started talking to the therapist they assigned me to there about this abusive relationship I had experienced, and how it bothered me that I was not allowed to talk about a part of me that I have no control over. His response was that I DID have a choice over whether or not I was attracted to females and that I should just deal with these thoughts of same sex attraction. His opinion was that this was probably a result of some anger I had toward men, particularly my dad and that I probably just wanted to be with females because they were “safer” (even though I had been with an abusive female before!!!) He also said that ultimately this was probably just a phase and a result of my crazy teenage hormones. He believed that if I tried hard enough and ignored these thoughts and feelings one day I might marry a nice boy.
I had no interest in having a relationship with anyone there, but when other girls formed relationships with each other, the repercussions were pretty extreme. I understood why it was not allowed, as relationships are generally distracting no matter the gender of either partner, but the way people were treated was pretty unnecessary in my opinion. It usually involved lots of yelling, ostracizing, and shaming. I remember one R. meeting where two girls were being confronted about this and R. was yelling about how stupid they were being and how no one would be able to trust them now. He went on to say that he had “nothing against homosexuality, but it was not the way God intended things.” and that the Bible definitely did not condone it. These “God” and bible references were used on a regular basis, along with religious videos, praying, etc. even though Cross Creek claimed that they were not in any way religious. The rule book and protocol also appeared to be directly based off of the Mormon religion (no caffeine etc.) The program reprimanded children for telling their parents about this religious influence and regularly tried to hide it from parents. I am in no way against people having their own beliefs and following what ever religion is right for them, however I think that it’s completely and totally immoral to lie to parents about what they are getting. More on this later.
The queer shaming was present in nearly every aspect of the program, including the language used. We were not allowed to use curse words such as “shit”, or “bitch”, but I never saw anyone reprimanded for saying “fag” or “faggot.” This fostered an environment in which teasing and bullying for all sorts of things were fully tolerated. I even remember a facilitator in a seminar trying to trigger a girl by calling her a “dyke.” And no, before you say something, I really don’t care about breaking confidentiality of seminars at this point because I am fed up. What these people said and did broke me down and created so much shame inside of me.
In addition to shaming people on basis of sexual orientation, they taught children that sex was evil and damaging outside of marriage, another blatantly religious notion. We were forced to regularly watch videos involving horror stories of abortions gone wrong, shown gruesome pictures of STDs that had been left unattended for long periods of time, and told that if we had sex before marriage we would likely die or get some horrible ailment. Rather than promoting safer sex methods, we were shown that abstinence was the only option that would not result in death or unwanted pregnancy.
Rigid gender roles were also a big part of the Cross Creek way of life. Many of the rules were extremely gender based. Boys were allowed to crack their backs and knuckles, though girls were not because it was “unladylike”. Boys got meal portions double the size of girls. Boys were allowed to use more curse words than girls were. The list goes on.
I remember when they moved the girls from Center 1 to Pro 1 (these are all names of the dorms we stayed in.) The boys had been living in Pro 1, and when they moved the girls in the dorms were extremely messy. Rather than having the boys come back and clean up this mess, they made the girls clean all day. This was completely, and totally humiliating. What a great way to build confidence and teach girls how to be independent and stand up for themselves.
Before I say this next part, I want to state that it is not my intention to bash all of the staff at Cross Creek. Some of the staff were very supportive (A.D., M.C., etc.) and this is not in any way meant to be directed at you, nor is it a blanket statement. There were staff however, that made me feel very unsafe and uncomfortable. Some of the staff, in my opinion, were downright cruel, hurtful and borderline (if not blatantly) abusive. I can’t tell you how many times I saw staff make comments about myself or others insinuating that we were bad children, unclean, impure, dirty, not innocent, untrustable, the list goes on. The grievance system that was in place was, in my opinion, ineffective on the whole. From being a part of the student government system for some time that handled grievances, I observed that grievance system, like everything else at Cross Creek, put the blame on the student and diverted responsibility away from the adult.
I’d also like to mention how many times I saw staff and administration, tackle and restrain children when it was completely unnecessary. So many times I saw kids simply refuse to go to gym class or get out of bed and as punishment they were violently tackled, restrained in a painful position, and taken to a small isolation room where they were usually watched by two or three staff members. This was also what they did when a child harmed themselves. This method is extremely violent, and I remember at least one incident that happened when I was there where they tackled a girl and restrained her face down against the ground and as a result she got rug burn on her face to the point that she was bleeding and had visible scabs on her face. Another time a girl shared that being tackled and restrained gave her flashbacks of a rape she’d experienced, to which the program director responded that he felt no remorse for it and that it was really her fault for doing what ever she’d done to be restrained. You could argue that this might be appropriate in cases where a kid is being violent towards others, but from what I saw, more often than not, this was absolutely not the case and the child being restrained was not being violent. In addition to tackling and restraint being (in my humble opinion) immoral, it is unsafe, and this has been proven. If you look on the website for the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse, (Organization under reorganizing) You can see a long list of deaths that have occurred in “behavioral modification” facilities not unlike Cross Creek as a result of tackling and restraint: Holy the Children Memorial; also GAO Report: Concerns Regarding Abuse and Death in Certain Programs for Troubled Youth.
Cross Creek’s methods of “therapy” and recovery were also extremely invasive, humiliating, and in my opinion did much more harm than good. As someone who does intern work at a local rape treatment center and talks with victims of assault on a regular basis, as well as being someone who has survived various forms of violence and abuse, I have seen how damaging it can be to force someone to share about such delicate issues before they are fully prepared and ready. I can not speak for every one, but for me, being forced to disclose information that was not ready to come out was extremely painful and humiliating. The seminars based your success on how “emotional” you were, meaning that if you did not share some horrible part of your life or simply did not have one, or if you were not crying and sniveling while you did it, you were booted out of the seminar and forced to stay in the program another two months. The obsession the program had with “accountability” also led to them blaming people who had experienced abuse for their abusive situations. I vividly remember a facilitator yelling at a girl while kicking her out of a seminar for not participating or being “real” enough. She told her in an extremely vivid and foul language (the f-bomb included) that if she continued the behavior that got her to the program she would be raped again. She had the student write an essay on this.
I will forever be haunted by the day that I was in group and the program director barged in and started saying that it’s as if I have “ABUSE ME” written on my forehead, insinuating that I was just asking to be abused in some way by the way that I carried and presented myself. I carry so much shame from this comment, and because of it constantly have to remind myself not to blame myself for the abuse I have experienced.
The way that Cross Creek taught me to interact with people was to analyze every facial expression, action, and word, and reflect this back to them in a cold, harsh, and usually demeaning way. I feel so much remorse for the way I treated people at Cross Creek, as well as the way I allowed people to treat me. It took me a while after I graduated to discover that this method did not work at all in the real world, and that if I was to have any friends, I would need to drop the robotic, unempathetic, and borderline malicious way of interacting with others that I had learned to use for two and a half years. I’d like to sincerely apologize to those of you who spent time with me at Cross Creek that I treated this way. I feel nothing but sadness when I realize how heartless and programmed I became.
What disturbs me more than anything is that I believed all of the things I was told. When people use the word “brainwashing” to describe what went on at Cross Creek and other WWASP programs, I don’t think it is in any way exaggerating or being over dramatic when you consider all of the media we were FORCED to watch, read, and listen to. The program director used to joke about and downplay the brainwashing claims by saying that some of our brains “could really use some washing.” The “educational/emotional growth” videos we had to watch twice a day, the “motivational” tapes three times a day, the “self-help” books we were forced to read, and more than anything the “motivational seminars” with facilitators up in your face yelling about all the things you did wrong to mess up your life and land yourself in a program all contributed to this. With all of this influence coming at me from every direction at every moment I believed that following the rules, “working my program”, going to the seminars, etc. was genuinely going to improve my self esteem, my relationship with my parents, and the overall outcome of my life. I tried hard to follow the endless list of rules, be “accountable”, and when I got “dirty in my program” (another good example of shaming lingo and language that means you broke rules without giving yourself demerits) I would confess and take the consequences what ever consequences were involved.
I by no means had a perfect program, but I gave it all of my honest effort and did what I could to be a good Cross Creek student. By putting faith in this system however, I also internalized all of the stigma, shame, and religious beliefs forced upon me. I believed that maybe if I just suppressed my sexuality , as well as ignored my obvious attraction to girls, that maybe all of this would go away. My body and subconscious reacted to this. Shortly after arriving at Cross Creek, I stopped getting my period for about 8 months. This was apparently a common thing that happened in the program when girls first arrived, as the body was reacting to some serious stress. I also started wetting the bed shortly after arriving at the program. This had not been an issue for me since the age of 3 or 4. This bed wetting issue continued until I left the program. After I graduated, it stopped completely.
The program director and other administration on several occasions acknowledged that Tranquility Bay, another WWASP program that has now much to my relief been shut down, did indeed have an infamous history of reported abuse. He used this to say that we were so very “fortunate” to be in Cross Creek and not at programs like that. Yet kids who were “acting out too much” at Cross Creek were sent to Tranquility Bay as punishment. Some have said that Tranquility Bay was merely a “last resort” or that the things that happened at TB were just a “part of Jamaican culture” but I would have to strongly disagree about both of those things. Since when is abuse ever an appropriate option? It isn’t. No matter what someone has done, it’s not okay. It is also extremely racist and ethnocentric to say that abuse is just a part of the culture of Jamaica, especially when you look at American society, which I could very well say the same thing about.
Shortly after I left the program I was raped. I shared what happened with my mother, who then told me, like Cross Creek did, that it was my fault, I asked for it, and that I should have known it would happen. She then proceeded to share her own twisted version of the story with my Cross Creek therapist, who shared it with my group. I was mortified and my self-esteem was completely destroyed by this utter lack of confidentiality and complete betrayal of trust.
It has taken me so much time to recover and de-program myself from all of the lies I was fed at Cross Creek. It took me a while to realize just how badly and inappropriately I and others had been treated at this facility. It’s not to say that there were not a few small kernels of wisdom that I can still use from the program, but they came at such a huge cost. My soul feels wounded from the things I saw and experienced at Cross Creek and healing will be a continual process.
If there was one thing that I gained from my experience at Cross Creek, it was realizing that no one regardless of their past or current actions deserves to be treated the way this program and other WWASP facilities treated me and so many other students. Abuse is abuse, no matter how you slice it. This realization along with other life experiences is partially responsible for my current carreer path regarding abuse prevention and recovery, as well as my involvement and activism in the human rights movement.
Even if you choose not to believe me or anything that I have written, there are piles of evidence to support the idea that there is mistreatment at Cross Creek and other WWASP affiliated facilities. A little bit of research will reveal that this lawsuit is not the first that WWASP or Cross Creek has faced. My therapist used to use a phrase when he suspected that kids were “dirty in their program.” He used to say “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire…” That is certainly the case with WWASP and Cross Creek. There is a reason that the Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse, Community Alliance for The Ethical Treatment of Youth, and many other organizations like them exist. There is a reason why seventeen WWASP affiliated schools have been shut down. There is a reason there have been so many lawsuits. Clearly if all of this has happened, I must not be completely insane.
The rebuttal against this argument has included that Cross Creek is no longer a part of WWASP. This argument is pretty much void seeing as they are still directly affiliated in that all of the WWASP affiliated programs still use the same seminars as each other, the same escort service, the same billing company, and are all still a part of Teen Help LLC, the marketing arm of WWASP and the entity that processes admissions paperwork. They also refer to each other and send children to other WWASP affiliated facilities when one facility can’t handle them. I don’t think it would be at all presumptuous to conclude that the people who ran WWASP are the same people who are still raking in all of the money with these programs.
WWASP officials claim that the organization itself is out of business, probably because of their infamous history of abuse, but clearly all of the WWASP programs are still affiliated and WWASP has not completely faded out. Many schools have changed their names multiple times, including Cross Creek (formerly Browning Academy) and it’s clear to me that there is a lot of shadiness and hiding goes on with in these programs. It seems as though WWASP and it’s affiliates are trying to sweep some things under the rug, and outright lie to parents, students, former students, and the general public.
Here’s a bit about the history of WWASP and Cross Creek. WWASP was founded by Robert Browning Lichfeild. He started Browning Academy, now Cross Creek, the first WWASP affiliated school in 1987, at a time when he had little money and was living in a small apartment with his wife and four children. His field of study was in business (he attained absolutely no credentials or education in psychology, therapy, or education) though he never graduated college and within several years he had become a very rich individual and had added many more schools to his chain of “behavior modification”/”tough love” schools. He was indeed mormon and has, in several interviews stated that God was his inspiration in starting these schools and one of his goals was to “get kids in touch with their higher source.” He is also a major contributor to the Republican party, donating thousands of dollars each year http://www.city-data.com/elec2/elec-LA-VERKIN-UT.html. From what I’ve read his massive sum of money and big political influence have gotten him and his colleagues out of the situations in which he and his criminal organization have been questioned. But please, do not take my word for it. Do your own research. This information is readily available to those who are willing to look.