If you accept taxpayer money, you have to accept that you’re going to receive public scrutiny.
That simple point seems to be eluding Minnesota Teen Challenge (MNTC), the faith-based drug treatment program which secured a federal earmark in early 2008 arranged by Rep. Jim Ramstad and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for its “Know the Truth” program which aims to prevent drug use.
Operating close to the border of church and state, the group’s members are unrealistic if they think their work is not going to get attention.
Klobuchar’s deputy chief of staff, Andrea Mokros, explains the senator’s role in requesting the earmark. “The Senator joined several members of the state delegation, including Jim Ramstad and Keith Ellison, in submitting the request for a Minnesota program to prevent drug abuse. As a former prosecutor, she has long been concerned about the impact of drug abuse on both individuals and the community, and she has worked with a range of groups that work to prevent and treat drug addiction.”
MNTC officials were upset by my coverage of their public statements, publicly available employment application materials and publicly available information about their ties to the national organization that spawned the local operation. Maia Szalavitz, a Huffington Post writer with expertise in traumatized youth, also wrote about the Ramstad earmark. While Szalavitz and I published similar articles on the same day, we haven’t ever communicated with each other.
In response, MNTC executive director Rich Scherber sent a nearly identically worded letter to both the Minnesota Independent and the Huffington Post.
The point of my article was not to suggest that MNTC was not successful or beneficial, as Scherber implies. Rather it was to point out the overtly religious nature of the organization and that the program has historically been controversial. In the interest of brevity, I left some examples out. For instance, MNTC’s stance on Halloween verges on the comical (”Halloween is a day set up totally for Satan … The more people who go out dressed as demons, ghosts, witches and goblins, the more glory Satan receives”). Scherber’s claim that the Holy Spirit told an MNTC bus driver to avoid the 35-W bridge on the day of its collapse in August 2007 is touching but, let us say, unverified.
I don’t question that faith-based programs can be very effective for those that share the programs’ faith. Faith is a huge motivator in people’s lives. I think MNTC has been very effective for the clients it serves. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate for judges, prosecutors or public defenders to suggest the program as an alternative to jail. (Szalavitz, by the way, vehemently disagrees with MNTC’s claims about its success rate).
I also wrote about a local media report that points to the possibility that Know the Truth staff have discussed their religious conversions in relation to their recovery at a local church. That’s not a bad thing in itself, except the Know the Truth program is paid for by people who don’t share that religious faith. Were those Know the Truth representatives telling the same stories in public schools? Scherber didn’t address the issue in any complaint letters.
At least one Twin Cities school has decided to pass on MNTC’s offer to appear. Know the Truth had a presentation scheduled at South High School in Minneapolis next month. The school canceled the appearance after tightening the restrictions on outside groups that speak at the school, a concerned parent told the Minnesota Independent.
One thing is clear. The pressure to keep a positive public image is important to MNTC at this time. As the group’s Web site acknowledges, MNTC invested money in Fidelis Foundation, an institution created by Christian philanthropist Tom Petters, who is now under investigation for organizing a Ponzi scheme and defrauding investors such as the Fidelis Foundation. MNTC lost a lot of money and Klobuchar’s proposed earmark will certainly help ease the burden a little. What else could explain sending form letters to every media outlet that runs an article critical of the organization?
Correction: The article previously read, “According to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Web site, the senator is requesting (PDF) an additional $500,000 this year — a sum that would more than double the program’s budget.”
The document on Klobuchar’s site is for fiscal year 2009, although the document itself does not indicate as such. She requested the same earmark as Ramstad. Additional money is not being requested for FY2010.