Ex-counselor cautions: Mind games played here

Examiner, Sep 14, 1999
By Scott Winokur

Richard Santos knew addiction like he knows his own face, but he picked himself up 12 years ago and has been clean and sober ever since.

In July 1997, he left his job as a substance abuse counselor for Santa Clara County and moved to the Central Valley to share his 42 years' worth of hard-earned wisdom with prisoners at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran.

His new employer was Walden House, San Francisco's famed private drug-treatment and rehabilitation program. The sheriff sent his inmates to Walden House. The mayor called Walden House when he needed help in Bayview-Hunters Point. The organization held a five-year, $11 million contract with the state Department of Corrections.

It sounded good. Santos didn't feel right about Walden House's induction ceremony and a few other things, but he didn't let that stop him. He remembers candles, incense and blindfolds. He also remembers huge photos of Walden House founder and CEO Alphonso Acampora on the walls at Corcoran; pictorial monuments like those to Mao, Lenin and Stalin.

Less than a year after going to Corcoran, Santos was fired; the victim, he felt, of a cultish group that had played bizarre mind games and denigrated his professionalism, his humanity and his Mexican ancestry.

He sued, but his was not an ordinary wrongful-termination case, he claimed. It was an attempt to shed light on an alleged scam.

Walden House denied all Santos'charges, rejected any allegation that it was a cult and disputed his claim that it engaged in brutal behavior-modification techniques.

Paul Greenberg, Walden House's staff psychologist, said that while the organization used "different modalities" to induce "profound and enduring change," it was "vigilant in not shaming or humiliating people."

Nonetheless, Santos' attorney, Russell Koch of Visalia, claims his story is proof that Walden House is doing a "con job" on the Corrections Department. Showing he'll put his money where his mouth is, Koch has hired UC-Berkeley cult expert Richard Ofshe to consult.

"What they're doing is getting a lot of money for essentially nothing," Koch asserts.

Santos says he had not been on the job long when it began to look to him as if Walden House was the reincarnation of Synanon, the disbanded and discredited cultlike group based in Tulare County.

Synanon's credo had been tough love. Addicts were psychologically detoxified, claimed Synanon's leader, Charles Dederich Sr., by being verbally abused. It sounded strange and it was. Dederich eventually pleaded no contest to charges that he and two assistants conspired to try to murder a Los Angeles lawyer who'd sued the cult.

Walden House was not Synanon, Santos knew. But it felt like it to him. Its treatment of staff was "virtually identical in terminology and practice" to Synanon's, he claimed in his suit. Acampora, its highly paid founder, had been a Synanon employee.

"(T)he unwritten policy of Walden House," Santos claimed, "is... to ridicule, ostracize and to force out... members... not willing to endorse or accept the Synanon-based philosophy... "

Santos said he was compelled to engage in "confrontational encounter groups or 'games' unrelated to... substance abuse" with other staff members and with prisoners; some of whom could turn violent in an instant.

Abuse brutal convicts for no genuine therapeutic purpose? Was that in his job description? Walden House thought so, Santos claimed.

"(S)taff members were expected to... engage in... threatening and inflammatory exchanges, charges and accusations. Obscene... language was often used and often charges and accusations were of a private and personal nature without relation to the job or whether the charges were true or false."

Walden House's philosophy, Santos concluded, was to reduce people to "zero," then rebuild them. In reality, Santos decided, Walden House merely switched dependencies from dope and booze to... Walden House itself.

When Santos finally said no to it all, he claimed, he was told he wasn't a "good team player" and would be "weeded out."

"All you Mexicans are mud holders," he was allegedly told. And: "There aren't many of you (Mexicans) working in the field of recovery because your people... don't want to get better."

Santos took stress leave in April 1998; he was fired the next month.

Walden House attorney Stephen Kaus dismisses Santos' job-related allegations as the claims of a money-hungry ex-worker and complains that a good organization is being unfairly discredited by a man with an ax to grind.


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