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Former members allege reckless and isolating behavior at Kansas City teenage addiction program

18-year-old Tatum Veach stands outside the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center on Troost, smiling and holding her cell phone and keys.
Noah Taborda
KCUR 89.3
Tatum Veatch spent nearly two years as a member of the Full Circle, an enthusiastic sobriety program for teens and young adults. She’s one of 64 people in Kansas and Missouri alleging these groups encourage reckless behavior.

When teenagers and young adults in Missouri and Kansas struggle with addiction and alcohol abuse, some turn to outpatient groups based on the idea that substance abuse treatment has to be fun and feel good for it to stick — but former clients say the programs pushed them into reckless behavior.

When Tatum Veatch was 16, she felt like her drinking was getting out of control, so the Blue Valley sophomore turned to a sobriety group she found through a friend. For nearly two years, members of the group — Full Circle in Overland Park — told her it was the only way to get better and stay in a good place.

Veatch later realized that while she was too young to drink at the time, she wasn’t actually out of control. However, at the moment she panicked and told her parents she needed to seek help.

In the beginning, Veatch, now 18, said she was showered with praise and affection, a practice she later came to know as love-bombing. The group made her feel seen and validated her concerns that she was drinking too much.

They used this initial validation to hook Veatch, encouraging her to limit ties with friends and family. Cutting out bad influences is standard practice for many programs, but Veatch said Full Circle went further.

She said counselors led her to believe she should not be talking to any of her old supports — even her family, a positive influence — because they would not be there for her like the group would be.

It got to the point Veatch stopped speaking with her father, a skeptic of the program.

“You don't really notice it, but they try to steer you more towards the group, instead of your life outside of the group,” Veatch said. “So it's a thing where, oh, you're safe with (Full Circle). We'll take care of you as long as you're with us.”

Veatch said the only people she spoke to outside the group during this time were coworkers. At one point she bailed on the program temporarily, but past friends were not eager to welcome her back after she cut them off. She returned to Full Circle shortly after.

The lobby of a business is shown. There are a pair of gray metal doors to the left and to the right is a book case and black file cabinet. On the light gray wall is a sign that reads "Full Circle."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The offices at Full Circle sit behind a nondescript building front in south Overland Park, Kansas.

Sarah Feldstein Ewing is a professor in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Psychology whose work centers around looking at the neural response in adolescents to determine what best activates the brain during behavioral treatment sessions.

She said it’s important for youth in treatment to rebuild their social networks and cut out bad influences, but cutting out all past friends and even family members and focusing solely on the group or treatment program can be counterproductive.

"One of the best predictors of who is likely to engage in less risky behavior is family dinners," Feldstein Ewing said. "If that's a regular thing that you do, then when things come up like substance use or friends making poor choices, it's actually much easier to talk about in that setting."

The isolation made Veatch doubt she could leave the group and stay in control of her life, and made her eventual decision to leave the group that much harder.

Veatch isn’t alone. The Enthusiastic Sobriety Abuse Alliance (ESAA) is a group of former members who say their experiences in programs like Full Circle and Crossroads — an enthusiastic sobriety program that co-hosts some weekend events with Full Circle — were traumatizing. They allege these behaviors continue today in chapters across the country.

Several former members reached out to KCUR about these local enthusiastic sobriety programs after KCUR's Up to Date ran a segment about Full Circle last year.

A collection of unenthusiastic reports

Former clients accuse enthusiastic sobriety programs of being a “cult” that encourages teens to engage in risky and sometimes illegal behavior. They say the groups encourage homophobia, racism and shaming people for the personal trauma and abuses they suffered.

Full Circle and Crossroads did not respond to requests for comment on the story.

However, Glenn E. Davis, an attorney representing Full Circle and Crossroads, rebuffed the accusations as part of a smear campaign in an email to KCUR last year. He described the alliance as a small group of former employees or participants with personal gripes about the programs.

Davis declined to comment any further for this story.

The survivor group has collected more than 280 complaints — including 64 in Kansas and Missouri — as part of an effort to gather enough testimony to make formal complaints with regulatory agencies. The group has already used submissions about Arizona programs to file a complaint with that state’s Department of Health Services, and is finalizing reports to submit to several other states.

Veatch says some former members she has spoken to are scared to leave the program because they may not have people to turn to after cutting off friends and family. Others feel shame for having participated in the group or in some of the activities that occurred there.

The dark glass door and windows of a business front are shown. Above them is a light blue awning. The address 16068 is above the door.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
This office building in Overland Park houses Full Circle, a drug and alcohol recovery program for teens and young adults.

Liz Nickerson, founder of the ESAA and a former group member in Georgia and North Carolina, said her program had a “no victims, only volunteers” mentality. She was made to share in explicit detail her sexual abuse as a child and listen as her peers and counselors picked apart how she was at fault.

“I was also being told how I'm gonna stay sober is that I take responsibility for these things," Nickerson said. "If not, I'll get drunk and I'll die."

Then, Nickerson turned that on others in the group. She said the groups adopted a mob mentality not dissimilar from the way a cult would operate.

“We carry a lot of the same guilt for the abuses we're calling out,” she said. “We are more than likely complicit in doing the same thing to others.”

A history of Enthusiastic Sobriety programs

Enthusiastic sobriety groups usually promise addiction treatment for teenagers and young adults based on the idea that it has to be fun and feel good for it to stick.

In an appearance on KCUR’s Up to Date last year, Max Muller, Full Circle’s Kansas City Chapter coordinator, said it is not a treatment program but a group using a 12-step method — akin to Alcoholics Anonymous, but for youth. He described the enthusiastic approach as “fun, love, and enthusiasm” that makes sobriety and recovery attractive.

“We help them find a new group of friends,” Muller said. “They say in recovery, the only thing you have to change is everything, and that starts with the environment.”

Feldstein Ewing, the psychology professor, said behavioral interventions for adolescents are about 30% successful. They often apply methods proven to be effective with adults, who likely have been engaging in addictive behavior much longer, to the treatment of youth — even though adolescent brains are developmentally distinct from adult brains.

"One, they didn't want to come to see you in the first place, so they're not treatment-seeking the way adults are," Feldstein Ewing said. "And two, they don't have these same entrenched pathways because they just have been using for a year or two and very rarely more than three or four years."

She said while adolescent brains present unique challenges, they are also much more adaptable, allowing teens to change behavior more easily to fit in.

On the Full Circle website, the group lists its goals as improving a young person’s self-worth and interpersonal relationship skills while keeping them true to themselves. Clients pay for optional social events on weekends.

Full Circle serves about 40 people in Overland Park — one of many chapters throughout the country. The Crossroads Program offers intensive outpatient services in Kansas City, Missouri, Columbia and the St. Louis area, in addition to branches in other states.

Full Circle has a branch in Colorado, where former members have come forward with concerns.

Both Full Circle and Crossroads programs typically run about 2.5 years, with some members staying as long as five years.

The glass doors of a business front are shown. The address 13860 is shown above the door. Some cars can be seen reflected in the glass.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Crossroads Alcohol and Drug Rehab Treatment Center in Kansas City, Missouri.

On the Crossroads Program website, the frequently asked questions section encourages parents to book appointments with them regardless of whether they have proof their child is taking drugs or drinking. Instead, they encourage parents to go off of intuition.

Feldstein Ewing encouraged parents to carefully vet and research programs and treatment approaches.

"I would be very nervous about sending my kid somewhere that doesn't have any empirical evaluation," she said. "Unfortunately, people really take advantage of people's desperation and sometimes, unfortunately, pull people into these groups that maybe don't have kids’ interests at heart."

The idea of enthusiastic sobriety programs comes from Bob Meehan. Meehan’s book, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road, was a central text for enthusiastic sobriety programs.

Critics of the method have long alleged that Meehan and the counselors turn participants away from their past lives and push the “fun sobriety” approach to the extreme by encouraging unruly activities. Meehan termed these activities “fun felonies.”

ESAA members say these reckless acts can range from property destruction to racing down highways and shooting fireworks at or around people.

Feldstein Ewing balked at the approaches taken by these groups.

"I wish everything in life could be fun," she said. "Behavior changes in particular, unfortunately, are not fun."

Meehan retired from the network of enthusiastic sobriety centers in 2005 after an ABC News expose showed Meehan singing racial slurs in a training video for the Meehan Insititute. The institute remains the in-house training program for counselors of Full Circle and Crossroads, among others.

Christina Warden, now the secretary for ESAA, went through the institute training after graduating from an enthusiastic sobriety program in Georgia and served as a staff member from 2003 to 2005. She said staff are not adequately prepared to handle trauma, attachment or mental health.

She said enthusiastic sobriety programs are a system of social indoctrination that shuts kids off from the rest of their social life. The group informed heavily who you dated, where you worked and how you presented yourself to the world.

“It is a very closed, isolated social system where you're pressured to not communicate with others and to not seek out belonging with anyone else,” she said. “But (participants) are taught that your recovery is entirely based on how much you commit yourself to belonging to this group.”

Kansas and Missouri concerns

Veatch said the Kansas City Full Circle chapter rarely went beyond setting massive, unruly fires in remote areas.

Rachel McMillen, a former member of the Kansas City from 2006 to 2010 and the St. Louis chapters of Crossroads from 2011 to 2015, said her experience was a bit more extreme. Her group went on regular “fear missions” where they would scare a new person for a thrill.

McMillen recalled program leaders gave her a heavily caffeinated “blue sex drink” that she likened to “crack coffee.” She said she was encouraged to stay up all night in a practice known as “wedging.”

“They call it because it feels like you have something wedged in your brain,” she said. “At one point I stayed up for two or three days and two nights, and then at the end I got an award for being the most wedged.”

McMillen went into the Kansas City program because she was having trouble with alcohol, coupled with hard drugs like cocaine, psychedelics and various pills.

McMillen graduated after four years in the Kansas City chapter. Usually, participants are given a 30-day notice of a graduation party. Those who are selected to be counselors stay on; the rest are thrust back into the real world.

Many say they realize after graduation that the program did not give them any tangible skills to control their urges. McMillen figured after all that work she could better control how much she drank. But following a DUI, she felt she had no choice but to return to Crossroads.

“I've been told if you drink again, you're going to die. If you leave this group in an inappropriate way, you're going to die or go to jail or be put in a mental institution,” she said. “I blew a 0.248 and I looked at that and I was just like, oh my God, they're right.”

She went to see her counselor, and within a day she was headed to the St. Louis branch. McMillen acknowledges it was her choice, but said she felt there was no other option.

“I remember (him) saying, ‘if we don't, if we don't get you out there now, then you're going to change your mind,’” she said.

Looking back, she says the aspect that concerns her the most was how the group manipulated her perception of her issues. McMillen said she realized this discrepancy when her mom found an empty beer bottle while she was back from college.

Instead of freaking out, her mom was calm and said it was all right because she was old enough to drink now, a stark contrast to what she’d heard from Crossroads.

McMillen recognizes some experiences may differ in the program, especially among older participants who were able to take the good and leave the bad. But for younger participants, she felt the emotional manipulation went too far.

ESAA’s ongoing efforts

The ESAA was founded in 2021, building off a 2020 Facebook group that grew rapidly with people sharing their experiences in enthusiastic sobriety programs.

Within six months, ESAA created an anonymous mass complaint form and have since collected 280 complaints from across the country.

That includes 64 from Kansas and Missouri, made up of 47 minors and17 young adults, including nine former staff. Almost all reported driving recklessly — either with a sleep-deprived driver or moving at reckless speeds.

Nearly 30 witnessed injuries, crashes or first responders being called to the scene.

Respondents also frequently witnessed fire-related “fun felonies,” in addition to property damage.

Many also witnessed or were party to uncomfortable or invasive conversations about sexual misconduct or abuse.

“What was alarming was that it didn't matter what years you were there or which program or from which states,” said Nickerson, the founder of the group. “All of our stories were practically identical.”

Nickerson joined The Insight Program — another enthusiastic sobriety group — in 2004, when she was 16. She can remember setting off fireworks in a gas station, stories from counselors of wrecking car washes and a night spent stranded at a Waffle House.

During her years in the program, she said she was repeatedly told that “normys” — anybody who was not a drug addict — were just as dangerous to sobriety as another drug addict because they would say a participant was not an addict themselves.

"They controlled where I lived, what I ate, who I associated with, who I dated," she said. "It's really hard to even grapple with your own belief system again, your own morality again, after leaving."

Corrected: February 24, 2023 at 2:59 PM CST
A previous version of this story misstated the location of Full Circle's local chapter. It is in Overland Park, Kansas.

It also mistakenly described Colorado branches of enthusiastic sobriety groups — only Full Circle has a branch in Colorado.

It was updated to clarify the numbers of former members and staff who filed complaints and to better describe the relationship between Full Circle and Crossroads.
As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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