CU experiments on drug-addicted teens raise consent questions

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DENVER -- At first glance, the row of brick houses that line Princeton Circle on the old Fort Logan military base in Denver could pass for college fraternities.

The reality is this: The homes are mostly filled with patients participating in what the University of Colorado calls Addiction Research and Treatment Services.

For more than 30 years, CU has operated a place called Synergy Residential, an adolescent male-only drug treatment program, run out of what’s now building number 3660.

After complaints about the reported treatment of residents, FOX31 Problem Solvers launched a long-term investigation focused on three key areas of concern:

  1. Whether teenagers, as young as 13-years-old, understood their rights to consent to certain tests, studies and therapies conducted by CU staff and students.
  2. Controversial methods of control and discipline of patients living in the residential program.
  3. What kind of success rate for drug treatments, if any, could be documented?

“Patient A”

He came to us after seeing a FOX31 Denver investigation into the widespread use of psychotropic medications within the Colorado Division of Youth Corrections.

He asked we not identify him fearing retaliation, but allowed our reporters to speak with him, his family, and provided us with documents about his nine-month stay at Synergy Residential.

The former child patient, who lived with about 25 other troubled boys, told investigative reporter Chris Halsne, “For me, it was super scary. I`m not going to say I wasn`t scared. I was terrified.”

"Patient A" during interview

"Patient A" during interview

“Patient A.” for purposes of this article, said he`s stepping forward to share his concerns of how minors were used for medical, drug and psychological experimentation in CU research projects, in his case, without informed consent.

Halsne: "Did you think you had any rights? You were a kid.”
Patient A:  "No. They distinctively told us that our rights had been taken away because we were property of the state."

He ended up at Synergy after a juvenile court judge gave him a choice: Enter the drug rehabilitation program at Synergy or face doing harder time in a juvenile lock-up facility.

The State Department of Human Services labels Synergy as a “residential placement” where there are no locked doors. If a juvenile chooses to walk away, or not participate in the various levels of treatment, they can be arrested.

It’s that veiled threat in which Patient A said gave Synergy staff a great deal of power. He told Halsne, “I was doing everything they would say. Even if they said jump off a bridge, I was going to do it because if you did question authority there, you were going to be there longer.”

The patient reported CU performed a scan of his brain for one study and in others, he said, they gave him various unknown medications.

During an on-camera interview, he said, “The staff said things like ‘we have a grant from the University for medications’ and basically they started prescribing us medication. I feel like I was absolutely a guinea pig. I should have never, never been prescribed those medications in the first place.”

The young man’s family told FOX31 Denver they never signed consent forms to have him participate in studies.

Records requests, filed with CU and Synergy, don’t prove one way or another which patients consent to studies. The released records mostly contain large areas of blacked out sections where University of Colorado attorneys cited medical confidentiality concerns.

The director of communications at CU emailed FOX31 Denver denying the children are part of a study on medications, rather, are prescribed medications through a physician.

Ann Williams wrote, “There are absolutely no clinical trials for medications at Synergy, so we are unsure how this question could even come up. There are FDA approved medications prescribed for some of the patients, but the youth must consent to taking medications and so must the parent or legal guardian, if they are in the picture. Patients can and do occasionally refuse their medications, and when that happens, their refusal and reasons are documented but they are never forced to take medication.”

National Health grant funding records do confirm that Synergy spent years studying genetic risk factors and GNOME sequencing in minors with substance abuse problems. The studies, according to Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Dr. Joseph Sakai, “were disappointing.” The study, he says, is no longer part of Synergy.

As for the study in which young patients participated in brain scans of drug addicted residents – it is related to CU trying to identify risk-taking behaviors.

Former Synergy patient, Tyler Fenn, said he gave his consent for the brain MRI study and that “they gave me a check for 50 bucks or so" to participate.

During an on-camera interview with FOX31 Denver, Fenn said CU was upfront about what they were doing when he was there in 2007. “They told me from the get-go that they`re doing research to see how addicts at a young age -- how it affects their brain and because I had issues with cocaine they said they wanted to scan it.”

Fenn said Synergy saved his life, giving him new skills to deal with drug addiction. He did share his concerns, however, that it’s up to CU to make certain both young patients and their families or care-givers are informed in all cases.

“I feel if the child’s parents aren’t involved then there shouldn’t be any experimentation,” Fenn told Halsne. “We should be all involved in trying to be committed together and unify as one not this person is doing this while this is doing this.”

Forced mediation: Punishment or therapy?

MONAD stands for Meditation Over Negative Actions and Decisions. According to multiple former Synergy residents who spoke with FOX31 Problem Solvers, MONAD has been a daily ritual inside the house for at least a decade.

Patients are ordered to stand with their nose to the wall, hands to their sides, and quietly stay there until told they can move.

CU has a written policy on the length of time a Synergy resident can stand in MONAD – it’s 15 minutes. However, several former patients told our reporters that time limit is often greatly surpassed either to punish misbehavior or to “test the patient’s willingness to give in to authority.”

CHRIS HALSNEPatient A told us, “You would stand there and you would be on this wall for a long time. For the last level I had to get, I had to be on there for about five hours. Just staring at the wall.”

When we asked why he thought MONAD lasted longer than the 15-minute policy time limit, Patient A told Halsne, “They didn’t want to deal with us – the staff. If you have thirty kids running around and you can’t control them, you create something where you can basically put them in a time out and get control of everything that way. It’s definitely not the right way, but that is what they would do.”

Using records requests, FOX31 Denver discovered Synergy kept a log book which tracked the length of time residents spent on the wall.

When we asked to see a copy of that logbook, CU declined to provide it.

After FOX31 Denver’s legal team applied pressure for CU to produce the public record, a CU attorney responded in writing that “Synergy staff has not been able to locate the previously utilized log."

But losing the historical MONAD time logs isn’t the worst of it.

After FOX31 Denver met privately with Synergy and CU staff as part of our research into patient complaints (but before we filed our official records request for the time logs) CU apparently decided to start destroying MONAD time logs every day.

CU’s attorney wrote, “Synergy staff created a laminated log, erased on a daily basis, in order to reduce paper. With respect for your request for future logs -- since Request Slip Logs are not retained at all, they do not constitute records defined by CORA (The Colorado Open Records Act)."

CU did provide FOX31 Denver a statement on the use of MONAD which reads: “… regarding monad, there is no forced isolation at Synergy, so being made to stare at a wall for five hours would not be acceptable. Monad is used as a management tool, similar to time out … it can typically last for 5 seconds to 15 minutes. If the patient and/or staff feels they are not ready to interact and talk after 15 minutes, they can choose to continue MONAD until they feel ready to re-engage in the milieu.”

Neither Synergy staff, nor the University of Colorado would agree to our repeated requests for an on-camera interview. However, when FOX31 Denver showed up in front of the facility recently to shoot video of the Synergy campus from the sidewalk, Program Coordinator Darren Conner came out to tell Halsne he was not authorized by administration to say much.

“I do want to look into their complaints of mistreatment,” Conner told Halsne. “I think that’s fair and need to be addressed. I do think there needs to be a conversation if those concerns have been made. I’ve worked here for 15 years and granted we’ve had some disgruntled former clients or family members but I mean I think we’ve always been open to hear those concerns and to answer any concerns that have happened.”

Within hours of that visit, CU sent FOX31 Denver news managers an email, letting us know that we were not welcome near the facility.

Williams wrote, “… know that we have notified security of your presence on-site in order to protect our employees and program participants if necessary. Our treatment facilities and administrative offices at Fort Logan are not public, and therefore will not be accessible to the media.”

Complaints investigated by state and police

Records show in 2013, an investigator from the Colorado Department of Human Services showed up at Synergy to investigate a complaint that the facility failed to properly report allegations of sexual misconduct or abuse between patients. During that visit, the state investigator noted concerns over a program called “marathon treatment sessions.”

The state noted it could find no “written approval from caseworkers and parents” to conduct sleepless marathon sessions which “last just under 24 hours.”

Synergy responded by telling the state investigator the patients never complained about such sessions, even liked the idea of participating.

Former patient Fenn told FOX31 Denver, in his opinion, that’s an unlikely scenario. “The only time they do marathons is when there are multiple kids having drugs and alcohol in the house, contraband, trying to sneak out at night,” Fenn said. “That`s if the whole positive peer culture has failed and peers aren`t holding each other accountable and there’s too many secrets being held.”

Other controversial “management tools” described by former patients to FOX31 Denver were called “walking limbo” and “paper chains.”

Patients said walking limbo is allegedly a way to get a young patient to focus on some misdeed or violation of house rules by repeatedly walking hallways and while citing a few motivational words over and over. It’s akin to having a student write the same phrase over and over on a chalkboard.

Patient A said that paper chaining is when two patients, who have a disagreement, have their wrists linked together with paper cuffs until they can work out their differences. If a link is broken, staff reportedly shortens the distance or number of links, putting the pair in even closer proximity.

CU denies such activities occur, saying staff never uses restrains.

And as might be expected when a group of troubled boys live together, Denver Police have been called to the residence a number of times, according to police service call logs.

Since 2010, police responded to Synergy 103 times. Reports reflect investigation into eight assaults, criminal mischief, disturbances, missing teens and runaways, narcotics, two sexual assaults, two thefts and five threats.

As noted previously in this article, CU and Synergy does not want to directly address questions from FOX31 Denver reporters.

If you’d like to read the University of Colorado’s two-page letter explaining Synergy's history -- and reasons why they can't speak with us about anything we just reported, you can see it in its entirety here.