CSAP: From Shut Up to Shut Down

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“Shut the f**k up, bitch!” That one ill-mannered and vulgar sentence has propelled the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) from a federal backwater to a target for conservatives critical of its multi-mushy thinking and ingrained lackluster performance. With the abolish-the-Department-of-Education crowd in search of an alternative target, CSAP (fiscal ’02 budget: $198 million, plus about $340 million in block grant authority) has managed to stumble into the shoot-to-kill zone of conservative social policy activists.

Big trouble for CSAP began at an official November gathering in Baltimore to discuss expanding Girl Power!, an Internet-centered effort to educate girls 9-14 on health and social development matters, including the adverse consequences of drug abuse. Girl Power! took wing in 1996 as a pet project of former Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Donna Shalala and Nelba Chavez, the administrator of CSAP’s parent agency, the $3 billion per year Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

By fiscal ’01, the first year of the Bush administration, the obscure girls program in cyberspace (www.girlpower.gov) was spending $1,247,459 to promote itself, mostly through a government contractor, ORC/MACRO of Calverton, Md. Many of CSAP’s female-heavy 110 staffers were swept away by Girl Power! So swept away that Alvera Stern, acting director of CSAP’s Division of Prevention Application, claimed – at a December workshop at the annual conference of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CACDA) – that “9,000 communities” had Girl Power! programs in operation. By January CSAP – led since November 2000 by Ruth Sanchez-Way – was claiming 22,000. It arrived at that total by figuring that anyone who ordered 10 or more free T-shirts or other Girl Power! paraphernalia should count as a program.

Drug-prevention programs have a long, expensive and silly history of giving kids embossed bumper stickers, red ribbons, trinkets and other amulets – not so much to ward off the evils of drug abuse as to gain adult visibility and government funds for their often long-on-adult enthusiasm, short-on-youth credibility programs. Just what these 22,000 Girl Power! programs do, or who they are sponsored by, remains a mystery. Maybe they’re the renamed successor to the equally ephemeral Just Say No! clubs championed a generation ago by Nancy Reagan.

Perhaps noting that new HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was talking up the importance of fatherhood, CSAP decided to launch Boy Talk, a proposed separate but not-quite-equal counterpart to Girl Power!

Up until then, CSAP had scrupulously observed the bureaucrat’s dictum of national political transitions: Be not noticed by the new régime. An essential element of that rule is to escape the attention of the inside-the-Beltway pundit class, especially those allied with those newly arrived in power. But inexplicably, CSAP put together as culturally and politically combustible a group as can be assembled in this multi-everything nation: from Joe Ereneta, the “wellness coordinator” from the Young Men’s Program LYRIC in San Francisco and a self described “pan-sexual,” to Julie Garreau from the Sioux Nation-serving Billy Mills Youth Center in Eagle Butte, S.D.

Most prominent among the participants was Christina Hoff Sommers. She’s a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), along with second lady Lynn Cheney, social policy critic Charles Murray, and Doug Besharov, a national child welfare expert. Hoff Sommers is the author of The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men, which offers a thought-provoking and controversial critique of the very public policy assumptions of victimhood (as opposed to positive youth development) underpinning Girl Power!

Cast by fate in the role of defender of CSAP, Girl Power! and the already designed Boy Talk was Jay C. Wade, a psychology professor at Sanchez-Way’s alma mater, Fordham University in New York City. An academic expert on African-American men, Wade teaches a graduate course on clinical interviewing. There, says Fordham’s website, “students develop attending and listening skills, and learn to respond therapeutically in a decision-making framework.”

Hoff Sommers thought she was invited to speak as part of CSAP’s decision-making framework. Filling out the room were about 25 other people, including Dave Mineta of the Asian Youth Alliance in Daly City, Calif., and son of Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. At least seven (including Stern) from CSAP’s Rockville, Md., headquarters attended. The poorly run meeting was, unfortunately for CSAP, captured on tape.

The gathering was both tedious and tendentious. Hoff Sommers criticized Girl Power!, finding it deficient in empirical research that demonstrates it actually reduces drug abuse among girls 8 to 14 years old.

This robust display of intellectual independence is alien to most CSAP staffers, who are used to often-obsequious behavior from grantees and consultants economically dependent on CSAP’s continued good graces. One of the few participants willing to discuss the meeting on the record is Alberto Mata, who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. Most CSAP staff, says Mata “think it’s their own agency” and had “already decided the agenda” for the meeting that was tasked with simply rubber-stamping the new Boy Talk endeavor.

No one had tipped off Hoff Sommers that the fix was in. As she pushed on, Linda Bass, CSAP’s acting branch chief of public education, could take no more and began cutting off Hoff Sommers and declared any discussion of Girl Power! off limits. That’s when Professor “learn-to-respond-therapeutically” Wade intervened with “Shut the f**ck up, bitch.” His words were greeted by nervous laughter and have been reverberating at increasing volume throughout HHS ever since. One brave CSAP staffer, not even listed on the official CSAP-provided attendance list given to a reporter, sought vainly to restore decorum.

Wade would later claim that this civil servant was “the guy who stood up and shoved me.” Hoff Sommers says the charge is “a complete and utter fabrication,” a view corroborated by several other witnesses.

A grossed-out Hoff Sommers left after demanding to know, “Is that on tape? And I want to know who the … who your boss is? Who is in charge of this? What government – is this a government sponsored program?”

Mata found the reaction of CSAP’s staff “rude and wrong.” Another participant youth worker, Urooj Arshad, of the D.C.-based National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which supports programs and services for gays, says she is still “in shock. … Wow, there was a lot of anger” in the meeting.

One participant who supported the Boy Talk idea is Hector Perez Pacheco, director of community resource development of the L.A.-based National Latino Fatherhood & Family Institute. He pronounced himself “very happy with the outcome” of the consultation.

In the days to follow, CSAP did nothing, said nothing, hoping Hoff Sommers would shrug the matter off. Girl Power! stalwarts take cheer: she did not.

A month later, a story by Stanley Kurtz appeared in the National Review Online (www.nationalreview.com), recounting the sorry episode and CSAP’s failure to admonish Wade or apologize to Hoff Sommers. Soon the right was at full throat attacking CSAP. Psychiatrist Sally Satel, an AEI fellow and author of P.C.M.D., a book attacking political correctness in medicine, weighed in with “The Sorry CSAP Flap: It’s Worse Than It Looks.” She took off after the CSAP-funded West Dallas Community Center’s “Rites of Passage Primary Prevention Program.” Satel reports the project director as writing in the final report that drug abuse among black youth is caused by social forces including “scientific colonialism.”

By mid-December the National Review’s Kurtz was back with an “Abolish CSAP” story, while Hoff Sommers was interviewed on Fox News’ “O’Reilly Factor.” “I knew the moment I got there [the CSAP meeting] that it was sort-of-a politically correct farce. The expert they flew in from California was a young man who identified himself as a pan-sexual,” Hoff Sommers told show host Bill O’Reilly, who in turn called CSAP “a backwater little area.”

Currie Talk

Thrust reluctantly into the fray is Charles Currie, who was sworn in as administrator of SAMHSA on Armistice Day. A thoughtful administrator with 20 years of experience as a program manager and public administrator, he served as former Gov. Tom Ridge’s deputy secretary for mental health and substance abuse in the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Previously he was director of risk management services for Henry S. Lehr Inc., a Bethlehem, Pa., insurance company that works with many child welfare and youth-serving agencies nationwide.

Currie became aware of the flap a day after the incident, as did Deputy Administrator Dr. Joseph Autry. But initial corrective action at CSAP was left to Sanchez-Way. Amazingly, the only CSAP staffer to get slapped with a rebuke was the guy who objected to Wade’s utterance. Even three months later, still feeling the wrath of his colleagues, he urged that his name not be revealed.

Currie moved to check external damage control, calling, writing and lunching with Hoff Sommers to profusely apologize. He wrote to the National Review’s Kurtz, “I was appalled to learn about the disrespectful manner” in which Hoff Sommers was “addressed and treated.” As for CSAP staff, wrote Currie, “Corrective action is being taken in this case.” In an interview, Currie said the outburst by Wade warranted “immediate intervention” by CSAP staff. The incident, says SAMHSA spokesman Mark Weber, is now in the hands of an “independent investigator.”

Alluding to a reorganization to be implemented through a strategic plan in development with the assistance of John Carnevale, a straight-shooting nonpartisan former White House deputy drug czar during the Clinton administration, Currie said it was “premature to talk about CSAP’s future.”

As for the ill-fated Boy Talk, Currie dismissed it in December as “just a concept.” By January, SAMHSA spokesman Weber confirmed that there will be no more talk of Boy Talk: “It’s not going forward.” Perhaps hinting at CSAP’s fate, Currie says, “You can’t separate prevention from treatment.” Now CSAP is managed separately from the Center on Substance Abuse Treatment, ably run by Dr. H. Westley Clark. Says Currie, “I’m not taking anything off the table.” Except Boy Talk.

The Weakest Link

CSAP has long been a deeply troubled, dysfunctional agency. After one management-by-abuse tongue lashing from then-SAMHSA director Chavez, CSAP director Karol Kumpfer was literally carried out on a stretcher and later fired by Chavez. Consider, for example, CSAP proudly announcing in November 2000 that it had won an “Outstanding Evaluation Award” from the American Evaluation Association (AEA) for its National High-Risk Youth Demonstration Program. The kudos enabled CSAP’s evaluation director, Soledad Sambrano, to travel to the AEA annual conference in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, to accept the award.

But when a reporter repeatedly tried to get a copy of the aforementioned document, CSAP spokesman Curtis Austin said it was not even finished. Nor has it ever been made available in the 16 months since. Now, says SAMHSA, the evaluation of the 48 youth programs in the study can finally be revealed – as if anyone still cares.

Insiders despair at the bureaucratic constipation that keeps CSAP in what one critic calls “a time warp.” Sanchez-Way, says another, got the CSAP job in November 2000 because Chavez’s antics made Sanchez-Way “the only one left standing.” Neither Chavez nor Currie have doctorates as decreed necessary by Congress. That effectively eliminates most career practitioners with relevant managerial expertise from the CSAP job.

For Currie, this early and unexpected test of his mettle is not over. In the Jan. 14 issue of the conservative Weekly Standard, Hoff Sommers thoroughly trashes Girl Power! by citing such Girl Power! “Fun Facts” as females outnumber males in college 56 percent to 44 percent. What’s so funny, Hoff Sommers wants to know, about a National Urban League’s The State of Blacks in America study finding that African-American female college students outnumber their male counterparts by two-to-one?

SAMHSA’s Weber says Girl Power! is “still a campaign at SAMHSA.” However, writes CSAP critic Satel, “Now that a handful of dishonorable bureaucrats have put their agency in the spotlight, CSAP should get the unflinching scrutiny it has long deserved.” That scrutiny can be expected when CSAP’s already flat-as-a-pancake budget comes before congressional appropriators in the coming months.

CSAP (or at least prevention) does have its defenders. One is Steve Hornberger, director of behavioral health at the Child Welfare League of America and the new president of the National Drug Prevention League (made up of about 30 national groups ranging from CADCA to the Kansas City-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes). He laments the entire fiasco, noting that CSAP “has done some good work in best practices and promoting evidence-based interventions. There’s more to prevention than if Girl Power! or Boy Talk should remain.” With its self-inflicted wounds, that remains to be seen. Contact: CSAP (301) 443-0365.