ICSA Today, Volume 8, Number 3, 2017, pages 12 - 13
By Elizabeth A. Ianelli, LCSW
I am a survivor of the troubled-teen industry. I was a forced participant of a program at the time known as The Family (a group unrelated to The Family/Children of God). The program was also known as The Family School and The Family Foundation School, and was later renamed Allynwood Academy. The acronym most often used to identify the program is FFS.1 I was 15 years old when I arrived at the program and was there from September 1994 until June of 1997. I was abused there for 993 days, which explains why my signature as an artist and elsewhere on social media is Survivor Nineninethree.
The FFS program was marketed to parents and professionals as a therapeutic boarding school for troubled teens that would instill positive values, principles, and good morals. Essentially, the program offered an option to outsource parenting to a bucolic country setting for families who felt their teenagers were unmanageable. But this scenario couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The program used attack therapy and forced confessions, and peers often were left in charge of punishments that ranged from public humiliation, manual labor, and being wrapped up in blankets and duct tape, to being restrained by other students, physical abuse by staff, food control, sleep deprivation, and mind control. The treatment methodology in which pure and impure behaviors were capriciously defined created in me a crucible of inner torment, thus leaving me disconnected from my authentic self as a child and teenager.
Many of the program’s staff members had previously lived at East Ridge Recovery Center in Calicoon, New York before they subsequently joined FFS. East Ridge is a small community that defines itself as “a laboratory for learning to live the All Addicts Anonymous Program…,”2 which “essentially consists of the Four Absolutes of the Oxford Group, and the Twelve Steps and Ten Points of Alcoholics Anonymous….”3,4 The All Addicts Anonymous organization adapted these guidelines for all addicts and all compulsions, which it has loosely grouped into two types: substance addicts and mental addicts. Substance addicts include drug addicts, alcohol addicts, tobacco addicts, coffee addicts, and food addicts. Mental addicts include lying-and-cheating addicts, resenting-and-hating addicts, worry-and-anxiety addicts, sex addicts, and depression-moping-and-sulking addicts. The FFS program also claimed to be able to treat the same types of addictions while it was disguised as a structured, therapeutic, educational environment.
While at FFS, I endured repeated sexual, mental, and physical abuse. Like many other survivors of the harmful programs of the troubled-teen industry, I was forced to be simultaneously a witness, a perpetrator, and a victim of abuse. Although the program was loosely based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous, it was rogue, unchecked, and unregulated.
Mail from program-approved family members and relatives was closely monitored, and outgoing phone calls were limited and supervised. No outside influences such as radio, television, other accounts of current events, or popular music were allowed. Letters home were checked and had to be preapproved.
If we reported abuse or asked to come home, parents were told that we were lying, manipulating them, or both. Parents were convinced by the program staff that they were saving the lives of their children by showing “tough love.” While at the program, I was told I was unwanted and no longer part of my family at home. At the same time, my parents were being told I was “not working my program, and not progressing at all.”
The effects of my trauma now have spanned more than 20 years. My nuclear family was fractured, and our relationship has never fully recovered.
I left the program after I turned 18, and I endured a long road back to reality. During that time, I barely made it through college and struggled socially, largely because I couldn’t trust anyone. I worked in emergency medical services and eventually went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Marist College and a master’s degree from Fordham University, both in New York. It was not an easy road, and I struggled often to make sense of what had happened to me. My first attempt to seek therapy occurred about 5 years after I left the FFS program. After I explained my experience, the therapist told me I “had a very interesting imagination.” It was clear to me at that time that no one believed me and I would have to depend on myself to navigate through the world.
I worked for a Federal agency and, out of fear and shame, I never publicly disclosed my experience with the FFS. I remained silent about it for more than 20 years.
A group of former survivors came together in 2009 to form The Family School Truth Campaign.5 Over the course of the next 5 years, along with others, I (quietly) dedicated myself to the mission of publicly exposing the abuses of the program, especially the mistreatment of children in the care of staff. We provided a safe space online for survivors to post testimonials voluntarily; we also posted findings from the New York State investigation of abuse allegations, along with other documents, some of which were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Among these documents were two cease-and-desist letters issued to the program years apart, along with a letter from a New Jersey criminal-court family judge who suspected that a teen she had sent to the school had been abused. As a collective, the campaign was relentless, and in August of 2014 the FFS program announced it would be closing for financial reasons. The enrollment had dropped from more than 200 students down to about 8 students. Although a combination of factors, including the recession, led to this decline, we believe that the campaign played an important role in the program’s need to abruptly close because prospective parents now had access to information that was not previously available. Thus, as a result of the campaign, parents were able to make a more informed decision about where to safely educate and treat their children.
Also in 2009, my lifetime friend Jon Martin-Crawford bravely testified and shared his experiences in the FFS in front of Congress, in support of the Miller bill (Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008),6 which advocated for the regulation of the troubled-teen industry. One key element of the bill would provide teenagers unrestricted access to phones to call Child Protective Services (CPS). Jon’s testimony, along with others’, started a revolution.7
Jon and I had entered the program around the same time, and we remained very close after we left. Sadly, in the early hours of October 24, 2015, Jon took his own life. This was a great loss not only for the survivor community, but also to me personally. Immediately after delivering his eulogy, I made a vow that, from that very moment forward, I would come out publicly about my experience, to honor Jon, who left life midsentence. His work was far from over.
I left Federal work in 2016 as part of a major life change, and I shifted my work back into private practice. After having treated combat veterans for almost 10 years, I decided to give back to the community from which I come to help them heal. I incorporate artwork into my therapy and use it as a tool to help survivors reconnect with themselves and “paint through, over, and under their past traumas.”
I am self-taught, and I use an unconventional art style as a way of self-expression, in conjunction with journaling and writing. I often affix pages from my journals onto the canvas and paint over them, as if to paste down the 993 days of pain and emotional trauma and meld them onto the canvas. Sometimes I leave just enough of my writing visible, but indecipherable, to encode my secrets below the surface, as I lived for 20 years. I use mainly acrylic, builder, plaster of Paris, concrete, dirt, rocks, or anything else relevant to my traumas. This process is very personal. It has restored my control over my inner narrative and secrets in a way that I find empowering, and it allows me to connect with others in the survivor community in a way that is mutually beneficial and enriching. These two aspects are crucial to the therapeutic process, both for me and for those I treat.
In 2017, Bellator Studios was born as a platform for me to publicly share my art with others. Bellator is the Latin word for warrior. Prints that are purchased from Bellator Studios help fund treatment for survivors who may encounter financial hardships, and also the acquisition of therapeutic art supplies. The financial assistance to survivors is dedicated to and honors Jon Martin-Crawford and all the other lost souls who died after they left FFS.
 Throughout the rest of this piece, references will be to FFS and to the program because survivors choose to identify the group as cult-like and not a school.
 “The East Ridge Recovery Center,” para. 1 (available online at alladdictsanonymous.org/meetings_eastridge.htm).
 “Pioneers in the All Addicts Anonymous Way of Life,” para. 1 (available online at alladdictsanonymous.org/info_pioneers.htm).
 “The All Addicts Anonymous Program” (available online at alladdictsanonymous.org/info_whatis.htm#absolutes).
 The Family Foundation School TRUTH Campaign website is thefamilyschooltruth.com
 H.R. 5876—110th Congress: Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2008. See GovTrack.us, 2008, July 23, 2017 (available online at govtrack.us/congress/bills/110/hr5876).
 Although the Miller bill was never adopted, efforts have continued to pass such a law and are active up to the present time. Congressman Schiff has reintroduced the bill, and the survivor community is currently waiting to see the actual wording because a previous version was vague and still left many programs out of the regulation.
About the Author
Elizabeth A. Ianelli, LCSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York State. She has a private practice in Carmel, New York (Putnam County) where she treats survivors of the troubled-teen industry. She can be reached for consultation at firstname.lastname@example.org Artist page and store: www.survivor993.com
Liz in 1994 before entering the program
May 14, 1979 – October 24th, 2015
Liz in 2017