Survivor Testimony of High Impact Tecate Mexico 2002
By Chelsea Filer
I turned 15 in November 2001, 3 months later I was sent to Casa By the Sea and then in July of that year transferred to a “boot camp” called High Impact. Dace Goulding, owner of Casa By the Sea and Jade Robinson, administrator, both had personal conversations with my mother essentially convincing her against her better judgment that High Impact was the best place for me. The reason Jade Robinson sent me to High Impact because on my first day at Casa I was crying hysterically and I demanded to speak with my mother so they decided to throw me in RR (Restriction Room) where I was forced to stay for more than a week maybe two by my estimation of time. At some point, (because I was not “following directions” to be COMPLETELY still while sitting in a painful position) Jade Robinson came into the small bathroom I was being held in and tackled me, he violently restrained me until I was afraid I would die of asphyxiation. He had several staff and upper levels come in and hold my legs in different painful submissions, which caused me to receive a huge gash on my leg from the broken tile. During this struggle to regain the ability to breathe, he somehow got a scratch from my fingernail (I did not intentionally scratch him and I had religiously bitten my nails all my life, so I find this to be highly unlikely). Jade Robinson told my mother (mind you 5 months after this incident) that I had “physically attacked a staff member leaving him injured” and recommended that I NEEDED to go to High Impact. (Which was complete nonsense of course) At no point during my time in Casa was I ever a danger to myself or others and the use of this restraint was not only unnecessary, unethical and excessive it was often misused as a way to make an example out of one child in order to portray dominance and sow the seeds of fear in the other students just to further their ability to control them. The fact that these two men, as well as the director on the boys side Jason Finlinson participated in these acts of child abuse while running a facility in Mexico makes me highly suspect as to what is going on today in the schools that they run today. Which are: Darrington Academy, (*now closed) Academy at Ivy Ridge (*now closed) and Horizon Academy (*now closed, but moved to La Verkin Utah).
Both Casa By the Sea and High Impact were located in Mexico and owned and operated by the same people, except the High Impact compound was located on the private property of 2 (formerly CBS) staff members, Miguel Rodriguez and Allie Hernandez. High Impact was only a program within a program meaning that very rarely would a child be enrolled without first being sent to a WWASP school and then transferred. The conditions, which were described by Mexican authorities as “deplorable” were harsh, unsanitary and void of any modern resources (such as a kitchen or a telephone). The compound was comprised of 3 fenced-in areas, the boy’s area, the girl’s area and the “laps” area. There were 2 crude concrete buildings that served as both the bathrooms and the staff rooms on either side of the boys and girl’s areas and in the middle of each, a concrete slab (which we slept on in sleeping bags) with a large military tent and a stone fire pit where we made our meals. The dog cages sat at the entrance to the facility usually filled with kids sprawled out on their faces out in the blaring summer sun.
Our daily activities at High Impact usually incorporated a strict schedule. We would wake up in the morning and do our chores, which consisted of unnecessary labor like raking the sand in specific patterns, sweeping and mopping the concrete and “finger picking” for small pieces of trash and rocks. Then we would go out to the laps area to walk in circles and count off however many laps we had walked. The more laps you walked the more points you got, the more points you got the sooner you got to go home. We walked laps probably 4 – 5 times a day. The other counterpart to the High Impact program was the AA cassette tape that we sat and listened to over and over again for hours on end and taking the same multiple choice question test every time the tape ended. This was the extent of our education in High Impact, we were not allowed to do school or any other activities besides writing our parents once a week. Anytime we were in the tent we were expected to endure stress positions called “structure”. Sitting in structure meant that your legs were crossed and your hands were behind your back, your head was down, and you were not allowed to move, even the slightest twitch. We would have to maintain these stress positions for hours on end, through tapes and all day through bad weather, even during meals. This more often than not would completely cut off the circulation to your legs leaving them numb with pins and needles and as useless as jelly. I remember the first time I tried to stand up after sitting in this position for an hour, I couldn’t feel my feet, my ankles gave out and I fell to the floor.
However it wasn’t as easy to keep your points as it was to get them. Every time you broke a rule you got a “consequence” similar to the consequences at CBS and other WWASP schools only at High Impact, pretty much the only consequence you got was for “not following directions” which could literally be interpreted as almost ANYTHING. What you must realize is that what would be considered a “direction” or even a “rule” lets say in a public school is no where even close to what I am referring to. “rules” were usually things like moving your fingers (even in the slightest little twitch), shifting your weight when sitting down, scratching an itch without first asking for permission, clearing your throat without permission, removing your eyes from the ground without permission or licking your lips. These of course are only a few of the rules that we were regularly punished for, and often restrained for as well. Because I was from Casa, I was expected to already know these rules and was “special cased” to receive every consequence as a cat 2, even one of which would wipe out every point I could earn in a day.
In High Impact “restraint” was not used to actually restrain a child from any kind of destructive action, instead it was used as a punishment, a punishment that the staff were trigger happy to dole out. I can’t even count how many times I was restrained but I remember that it was more than normal for there to be at least 2 or 3 different girls restrained on a daily basis. The first indication that you are about to be restrained is that the staff will scream at the top of their lungs “Suelo” which is a Spanish word for ground, (caerse al suelo : to fall down, to hit the ground) and every kid in the compound would automatically drop to the ground from where they stood and cover their faces with their arms. Imagine your sense of fear as you realized what was to come next would be truly the most physically painful and emotionally torturous experience in your young life, and there was nothing you could do to stop it from happening. Call for help all you want but no one would hear you and nothing you could do would stop the pain before the staff chose to release you. The first step is for the staff to swiftly tackle the child (usually from a standing position) to the ground. Once the child is on the ground the staff either in groups of 2 or 3 would twist the limbs of the child into excruciatingly painful submissions. They would apply a great deal of pressure by on one knee that is dug into the child’s back while they simultaneously hold the arms behind the back pressing them the furthest they can stretch up the back to the point where the arms pop out of the sockets and the hands touch the back of the ears. (Try putting your hands behind your back and reach for your ears) Then they slam the head down flat on the chin (by pulling the hair) into the rocky dirt (as well actually grinding the chin into the dirt resulting in lacerations and loss of skin). The child didn’t have to resist for this restraint to be very violent, in fact often if a child wasn’t moving or reacting anymore, they would switch positions of restraint in order to ensure that the child is in continuous pain and would not stop until the child had stopped begging for mercy, crying and or if the staff simply became tired. I remember one time I exclaimed to the staff that I couldn’t breathe and they replied: “If you can’t breathe then why are you still screaming?”
These “restraints” would often last anywhere from 20 minutes to hours. After the child stopped struggling the staff would simply sit on top of the child in a hogtied position. After the staff determined that the child was adequately subdued, they would leave the child under staff supervision, in a dog cage where the child would be instructed to either sit or lay in a very painful position for the rest of the day and if it was determined that the child was “not following directions” (which meant moving even in the slightest way), the child would be subjected to another round of “restraint”. To this day, I suffer from a spinal injury that I sustained during restraint that has caused me a great deal of physical pain and labor limitations.
I think its important to point out here that although the techniques used by staff were labeled as “restraint”, I do not believe that these methods could in reality be classified as a legitimate restraint. Specifically “restraint” is a bit of a convoluted phrase, because from an outsiders perspective the word represents an action taken to prevent violence, when on the contrary in my experience, the “restraint” used by WWASP staff is in fact a violent act in and of itself. In my opinion there isn’t necessarily any room for reform with restraints in institutional programs, but rather clarification and ideally eradication of any physical restraint that may cause pain or harm to a patient. I know there are certain times when a patient would require an intervention before they physically harm themselves or others, but there are non violent techniques that are not only effective but in my experience seem to defuse the situation long before anyone ends up getting hurt… like for instance the “Bear Hug” and the arm bind, where the staff will put their arms between the patients elbows behind their back, these are what I would consider a “restraint”. However when a grown man would tackle a young man or woman, hog tie them or sit on top of them all the while applying extreme pressure to the joints, airways, spine and cause injury to the head and face, this can ONLY be classified as TORTURE and should never be considered an accepted form of restraint. Furthermore, I believe it is all too necessary to see that these methods of torture are outlawed in the United States and that practitioners of such techniques be brought up on criminal charges.
When I arrived at High Impact I weighed around 165 lbs (which was about 35 lbs more than I was when I arrived at CBS) When I left High Impact I was likely anywhere from 85 – 95 lbs. Even in my thinnest days as a teen I was usually between 107 and 120. The food at high impact only served one factor into me losing this much weight because on the surface you would think that 3 meals a day (which were small to medium portions of oatmeal, beans and rice and chicken and rice each about a 400 calorie meal) would suffice the body but it was the massive amounts of grueling exercise that caused us all to emaciate. We literally exercised on average 6 hours a day… and this was not only just walking and running in circles it was also hundreds of jumping jacks, push ups, sit ups and many other exercises every day that for a normal person in the gym would probably burn hundreds if not thousands of calories. There were times they would over exercise us all until almost every one of us either passed out, vomited, urinated or defecated on ourselves. It got to the point where 500 sit-ups became a breeze for me, and all I could do was dream about food.
On my first day at High Impact a staff member determined that I was not walking the laps fast enough. She instructed me to run and I started to jog, she told me that wasn’t fast enough and she started pushing me. She stayed behind me for several minutes just pushing me over and over as I attempted to run fast enough to get away from her but she would always catch up to me and push me again. I turned around and told her “This is abuse! I just wont take it!” I was restrained by her and another staff member for about 20 minutes on the dirt track that we walked laps on before I was escorted to the cages for more. It dawned on 4pm and I was called out of the cage for what I was told would be “teaching me to survive” I was simply instructed (with no prior knowledge) to make a fire on the fire pit that they used to boil the chicken. After many attempts, and many times the staff member stepping in to call me stupid and push or hit me in the back of the head, she called in another detainee to show me how to start the fire. I was instructed to walk back and forth to the wood pile to collect wood to fuel the fire and once I got it going, it raged 4 feet high. I was instructed to stand not 2 feet away from the fire pit and wait until the fire needed more wood. I could feel the heat burning my skin so I moved about 4 feet away to avoid the heat. The staff member told me I wasn’t following directions and pushed me closer, the heat from the fire burned my skin and a winced and tried to lean away from the jumping flames. Once again she said I was still not following directions and she pushed me even closer to the fire and this is when I can tell you honestly even besides the scorching heat, the flames actually touched my skin, burning the hair on my arm completely off and leaving me with bright red burn marks. I flailed back and held my burning arm, but the staff member stood behind me and shoved me as hard as she could into the fire pit which I had to brace myself against to push backwards. I started choking on the fumes and was able to turn to the right to escape being shoved into the flames, as I was bent over coughing I was tackled and restrained.
There was another incident that came further into my time at High Impact, this was a day when we were doing our laundry and we each had buckets filled with soapy water that we soaked our clothes in before we washed them on these cement sinks that had ridges on them like a wash board. The owner of the program, Miguel, who was not usually around on a day to day basis came down to talk with the students about what they were “learning”. He must have come up to me first because I don’t recall him speaking to anyone else. He started asking me specific questions, I believe it was about something I mentioned in my letters home to my family and I don’t recall exactly what I said to him but suddenly he called out “Suelo” and he began to administer restraint. The other staff members stepped in and Miguel dumped a bucket of soapy water over my head. This time was fairly different than the other times I was restrained because Miguel didn’t grind my chin into the ground, he held my face down into the mud and I could not breathe. I remember thinking this was how I was going to die, and for a short time I panicked but there was a point where I actually felt as if I was having an out of body experience. To this day the way I remember it is not in 1st person, I can actually see this man holding my face into the ground. I don’t know when this stopped or if I had actually gone unconscious, my assumption is that I did but when I came back into awareness I was laying on my back and the staff were still holding me but I don’t remember being restrained at that point. After the incident Miguel kept repeating that I needed to learn the lesson to be grateful for my life he said this a few times to me even after I graduated and he came to work at Casa By the Sea. I am more than positive that I could have died that day and the sad thing is, considering the amount of pain I was in I would have gladly accepted it.
I was punished repeatedly for licking my lips when they were chapped. When I asked the staff to use some chapstick they decided to give me a candy bar sized piece of wood that they instructed me to clench between my teeth to keep me from licking my lips. I was not allowed to take out the piece of wood out of my mouth for anything but eating or sleeping for 2 weeks, and by that time I was used to the sides of my mouth bleeding and getting splinters in my tongue and lips. I was also (and yes during the same time as the wood in my mouth) instructed to carry a 35-40 lb bag of sand on my back, this bag was big enough that the sand collected at the ends of the bag and would hang around my neck causing a great deal of pain and discomfort. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere without this bag for nearly 2 months and I was even instructed to sleep with it on top of me.
One time when I got sick, most likely from dehydration, I vomited almost immediately after I ate which was considered by the staff to be “wasting food”. They told me to eat it again. I refused so one of the staff members grabbed a hand full of my vomit, pulled my head back by pulling my hair and tried to force me to open my mouth. I would not so I was restrained. This also happened again when I chose not to eat a piece of the skin that was left on the chicken (it still had feathers on it)
At High Impact the staff liked to get creative with their punishments. One was to instruct us all to draw lines in the sand with our toothbrushes, after finishing a large area the staff would inspected it, deemed our lines not straight enough stepped all over our lines and told us to start over again. Another punishment they would use was to instruct girls to clean the bathrooms with their tooth brushes and of course we still had to use them after. One particularly grueling punishment was to dig holes in the ground 5 ft deep and 5 ft wide using only a spoon and having the hot desert sun beat down on you all day until you were literally delirious with heat stroke. I later found out that these holes were used to set the concrete bases that would hold the new metal structure that they built to cover the back side of the girls area.
When kids at High Impact were injured, as they were frequently, they were offered no medical treatment. Once when my sandals that were broken, duct taped fell apart I was told to walk laps barefoot. I cut my foot deeply on a rock and was not given any treatment, they simply washed it off in cold water and sent me back out to walk barefoot again. I saw a girl with a boil the size of a half of a tennis ball on her foot have it lanced and drained out with a hollowed out pen. Often times girls would come back from a “restraint” session missing large patches of skin all over the front of their bodies where the rocky dirt had rubbed them raw. Serious burns were a common place as the hot desert sand would become red hot in the sun and being forced to lay face down in the dirt was like laying on hot lava rocks. I remember completely burning all the skin off the bottoms of my feet, they were like water filled balloons, but I still had to walk on them all day. Often times infections would occur, simply because of the unsanitary atmosphere and not one of us received any medical attention. I remember once I got an infection in my nose that swelled to the size of a pin pong ball, I continuously got nose bleeds and had a constant throbbing pain that caused me to have headaches and blurred vision.
We were purposefully refused proper hygiene, our showers consisted of 7 minutes for at least 7 girls to all use one small stream of water (about the size of a garden hose without an attachment) wash dry and get dressed. We got a very limited amount of toilet paper (about 3 squares) We weren’t allowed to brush our hair or clean the dirt out from under our nails. Often times the staff would cut our nails for us and purposefully cut them too far, leaving them to bleed and get infected from the endless amounts of “finger picking” we had to do.
The staff’s cruelty didn’t stop with the abuse of kids. At one point a stray cat that had taken up shelter on the compound had a litter of kittens and because the kids were “distracted” by them, the staff decided to throw each and every new born kitten over the fence, more than likely killing them all.
High Impact was like nothing else on earth, not like a military boot camp and certainly not a wilderness program, if it is to be compared similar to anything I would say more like a concentration camp, only they wouldn’t exterminate us because then they wouldn’t be able to cash our parents checks. They told us if we ran, they would break our legs, besides we were in the middle of the desert in mexico, we had no where to run. The constant feeling of impending doom was overwhelming, you never knew when or for whatever reason you could be assaulted and caused unfathomable pain… and the sickest part was, your parents thought it was doing you some good. I remember writing letters to my mom and just crying all over them because I was so desperate for her to save me but so afraid if I said anything negative that I would only be here longer.
In September of 2002 I was finally allowed to get off Cat 2’s and start earning points, it wasn’t long before I was able to earn enough points to be considered a “graduate”. It still took a week or so of waiting for my transport to Casa By the Sea before I could be released so I just had to continue going through the motions of the program. We were all out walking laps when we heard the sound of a helicopter over head, and the staff immediately corralled us into the tents. They said it was someone spying on us, and secretly we all felt a rush of hope that we would be rescued, I prayed that the police would come so that I could tell them about what had happened to me in hopes that I wouldn’t be sent back to Casa, but the next day, my transport arrived and back to Casa I went.
Soon after my departure in 2002 the American FBI and the local Mexican authorities raided and shut down High Impact. They sited multiple evidences of abuse and deemed the conditions “deplorable” and arrested many of the staff members on site. After the closure Miguel Rodriguez and Ali Hernandez were invited to come and work for Casa, Ali as an admissions coordinator and Miguel as a family father, where he was responsible for even more brutal beatings and abuse. Miguel Rodriguez is a child abuser who deserves nothing less than a lifetime in jail. He has been accused of several counts of abuse and assault, but also multiple incidents of rape, and in my personal case, attempted murder. Yet he is free to roam the streets, as his victims are haunted by the emotional scars his heinous actions left us to live with. One time after I had left High Impact and I saw him again at Casa By the Sea, I asked him, Why? Why did you do this to us? And he responded “Because you have to go through hard things in life in order to be grateful for what you have”
This man is so sick and twisted he expects us to live with the memories of being tortured and abused for the rest of our lives, all the times I’ve been afraid, had flashbacks and nightmares, paranoid because I lived close enough to Mexico that it was totally possible I could run into him again… and I’m supposed to be grateful for that? Well I’ll tell you the truth, I am not grateful and I won’t be grateful until this man is put behind bars. WWASP hurt us, they scarred us for life and that is something I struggle with every day. All I can do tho, is keep reaching out and hope that my story might touch someone, that it may save a child from enduring the same thing. I know I could have died at this camp, I would have never seen my family again, would have never met my husband or had these two beautiful children… I could be just another name on the list of kids that died in programs , by the hands of “Tough Love”… Hands that leave scars that never fade.
Don’t let your child fall victim to this industry, protect them, love them, keep them home safe. No parent should have to send their child away for help, only to find out that they are never coming home.