Cults and the Law

ICSA Today 12.2, 2021, pg. 9-15

Cults and the Law

Phil Elberg

Editor’s Note: This paper is based upon a talk given at ICSA’s New York monthly meeting on October 25, 2019. The talk has been edited for publication.

Let me begin this talk by explaining how I got here, and I don’t mean on New Jersey Transit and the 1 train. I don’t think any of us expected some years back to be sitting in this church basement tonight. I know I did not, but here we are; and since I am the speaker, I will indulge for a few minutes. I hope that my story helps provide a context for and perhaps some credibility to my conclusions, which have evolved over the years and are grounded in my own efforts to resolve the tension between my practical experience as a practicing lawyer and my personal experience as someone whose life was impacted by cultic involvement in my family.

My Story—How I Got Here

In 1998, a bit more than 20 years ago, I was 53 years old and the managing partner of a small but successful law firm located in Newark, New Jersey. We didn’t advertise in any way or work on a large volume of cases. Our office was in Newark’s premier office address rather than in a neighborhood. Our work was primarily referred by other lawyers, and a portion of it was medical malpractice work. All of it was litigation. My partner was one of the best-known civil litigators in the state. I was his second chair, generated much of the business, and managed our firm. I am comfortable saying that my firm had a solid reputation among the judiciary and the bar.

The First KIDS Case

There was a case in my office being doggedly pursued by a younger lawyer. It involved a young woman in her twenties suffering from bipolar disorder with a history of mental illness and hospitalizations. Her mother sought a lawyer to pursue a case against a behavior-modification/drug-treatment center where her daughter had been treated for 4-1/2 years, between the ages of 15 and 19. A therapist had encouraged the mom to find a lawyer because he believed that improper treatment at the rehab had aggravated and made her daughter’s bipolar disorder more intractable. For many reasons, malpractice cases for psychiatric damages sought on behalf of plaintiffs with histories of mental illness who had been confined at what was generally thought of as a drug rehab are not economically viable. As a result, lawyers, particularly good lawyers, are hard to find. In this case, as with many mental illnesses, even the diagnosis was ambiguous; and the head of the treatment center was an impressive man with credentials and the support of wealthy people, including the CEO of, who provided the startup funds for the program. Politicians, including the national fundraising chairman of the Republican Party, a man named Mel Sembler, were supporters. Treatment experts also provided letters of support and testimonials. The head of the treatment center had written a book, published by a reputable publisher, about the challenges of adolescence. And he was surrounded by a group of devoted followers who believed he had saved their lives or their children’s lives. These followers backed up that fervor with their energy, their time, and their money. The case was also problematic because, when people heard about it, their typical reaction was to wonder why, if the facility was as bad as we were going to claim, the young girl’s parents had left her there for 4 years. If the treatment center was that bad, she should sue her parents.

At the same time, the program and its leader were controversial. There had been a TV show in which former patients and families described KIDS as cultlike. There were reports of physical abuse, and of people staying for years and never leaving. And there was a treating psychiatrist willing to help.

After 2 years on the case, the lawyer in my firm was considering giving up and letting it go. It was a contingent-fee case, which meant that if we didn’t collect money, we would not be paid. And the lawyer was worried about investing more time and money in a marginal matter.

I was at a point in my life where I was bored, restless, and looking for something to throw myself into. I started looking at the file. First, I put a toe in, and then more and more of me, until eventually I was working on little else. That case, the first of what I refer to as “the KIDS cases” because that was then the name of the rehab center, took over and eventually changed my life. I figured out over a period of time that the rehab center’s founder, a man named Miller Newton, was a real-deal cult leader in the Jim-Jones, Keith-Raniere sense. Desperate and unsuspecting parents looking for help were conned into turning their lives and their children’s’ lives over to Newton, only to eventually face enormous and sometimes insurmountable difficulty in getting their children and their lives back. It is fair to say that, by the time the five KIDS cases I handled2 were over, the situation had become, like most cult stories, an unbelievable but nevertheless true tale that you think can’t get any worse. Only it does, over and over again, until you realize that you may never find the hellish bottom. The KIDS story, once I understood it, did to me something with a parallel in what cults do to their members. It divided the world into people who get it and people who don’t, and it became like tar: Once on, it is hard to get off.

Why did I pick up the file and put my toes in, and why did I then get sucked in?

My Sister

Let me back up from 1998 to 1970, almost 30 years earlier. During the summer of 1970, I was a third-year law student trying to get over being dumped by my college girlfriend. I found a talk therapist and moved out of New York City to New Jersey, where Rutgers Law School was located. I was 24 years old. My sister, Gail, was 2 years younger. I will not describe her other than to say that she was the sincerest person I’d known, and that every good quality I had, she had more of. What she did not seem to have was my anger or my angst, or the chip that seemed to sometimes find its way onto my shoulder. She returned that summer from a year as a Vista volunteer on a Native American reservation in Nevada. She had been in a relationship with another volunteer, which he ended when their year was over and they headed together back to their respective homes on the East Coast. She had no plans other than that she wanted to do good and help others and make friends.

Gail saw a small ad in The Village Voice for a program based on the educational philosophy expressed in the book Summerhill, which advocated a new philosophy of education based on giving children more freedom in choosing their curriculum and deemphasized academic achievement as the goal of primary education. Gail attended meetings on a couple of Friday nights in a meeting room that, in my imagination, was much like this one, where she met the individual who had placed the ad. His name was Fred Newman. He had a PhD in philosophy and was a former philosophy professor at City College.

Gail and Fred began a relationship that Gail and the family members she introduced him to, including me, thought was monogamous. In short order, he was her boyfriend and she became one of the first members of what evolved over the years into a series of groups that operated under many names and seemed to keep growing in influence in both New York politics and in the talk-therapy world. I had no understanding of cults, but it was just after the ‘60s. We were involved in the antiwar, political, and cultural movements of the time, and everyone worth knowing smoked a fair amount of grass and was experimenting, or too afraid to be experimenting, with new kinds of relationships and sometimes wacky ideas.

Our mother—think of Jerry Seinfeld’s mother on his TV show—started telling me that she was worried about Gail. Her concerns increased with time. When the Anti-Defamation League said that Gail’s group was anti-Semitic, my mother became more concerned, called me more often, and sent me more information. It is fair to say that I treated my mother the way Jerry Seinfeld treated his. I tried to be a good son and I listened. I did very little to help because Gail was committed to Fred, my mother seemed committed to being heartbroken, and me—well, I had other commitments. I called it a phase. My mother called it a cult.

I finished law school, got married, had my first child, and in time started a law firm. I saw Gail from time to time; but each time, she came with one or more members of her group and then left quickly to get somewhere else. Once in a while she invited me to one of her group’s functions, where she would explain that she and they were part of something revolutionary, and that they were developing ever-increasing influence, which in retrospect I have to admit was true.

In 1996, 26 years after Gail met Fred Newman and 2 years before I began working on the KIDS cases, our mother died. Her will divided her savings among her children, but left me as the trustee of a small trust for Gail’s benefit, with instructions not to give her the principal as long as she was involved with Newman and his group. I was initially going to just give Gail the money; but after several lunch meetings with her in the aftermath of my mother’s death, I changed my mind. By then, Gail was 48 years old and had never worked at a job outside the group for any length of time. With the responsibility now mine, I had no choice other than to admit to myself that if I gave her the money, she would give it to Newman. I knew Gail would need the money someday, and I decided to do exactly what my mother asked me to do.

Back to The KIDS Cases

I started looking at the KIDS file a year or so after I did not give Gail the money. The story of those cases is told in a book written by Maia Szalavitz, Help at Any Cost (2006), in which the author focused on the trial of the case involving one of my clients, Lulu Corter. Lulu was in the program for 13 years between the ages of 13 and 27, even though she had never engaged in drug use or compulsive behavior of any kind. There is no time to go through the details; but as you all know, every cult, whether large or small, is different in the details but remarkably similar in its impact on both the members and their loved ones. There were parents who figured it out eventually, but by then their kids were under Newton’s control. There were kids who figured it out and ran away, but couldn’t or wouldn’t reconnect with their parents because those parents remained under Newton’s control.

One night, as I was becoming more committed to the KIDS cases, three former Newton patients/employees agreed to meet with me at a diner on a New Jersey highway. One told me he was owed $20,000 in wages, but Newton told him it would violate his first step (Alcoholics Anonymous/Twelve Step) for him to try to recover what he was owed. Another was clearly depressed and explained that he had recently jumped out of a moving car to get away. The third had a regular job but was asked to lie on a government form and say he worked at the center, to help the program avoid losing Medicaid coverage. Later, I learned these three had a fourth friend waiting outside in the parking lot if it turned out that I had another agenda and was really there to try to take them back. I drove home that night feeling as if I was looking evil or the devil in the eye, and that I better not blink. “Just keep working,” I told myself. I was up all that night, and many more, reading and learning the Newton story. “Learn the story and you’ll figure it out” was my mantra. “Don’t worry about the legal theory; you’ll figure it out.” I didn’t know that “if I built it, they would come.” I just knew I wanted and needed to build it.

My Legal Strategy

In the end, I did figure it out. I litigated all the KIDS cases on two parallel tracks. First, I treated the cases as malpractice cases. Miller Newton’s KIDS program held itself out as a treatment center for behavioral disorders. Treatment begins with a diagnosis, presumably a differential diagnosis, so I asked whether the diagnosis was correct and whether the care that was provided was consistent with the standard of care for the condition the patient had or they claimed she had. We were able to demonstrate that what they were doing was inconsistent with the standard of care for whatever conditions these kids have because beatings, food deprivation, bringing kids back after they were 18, and keeping kids out of school was not OK. In effect, I prepared a traditional malpractice case.

At the same time, now fascinated by what I was learning about Newton and still involved with Newman and Gail because I was managing the money for her, I pursued the possibility of proving that the treatment center was a cult. I read Cults in our Midst by Margaret Singer and Janja Lalich, and I learned about Robert Lifton’s work from Bill Goldberg, a cult expert I hired. Bill wrote a first-rate report applying each of the Lifton (1960/1989) criteria (milieu control, demand for purity, the cult of confession, sacred science, loading the language, mystical manipulation, doctrine over person, and dispensing of existence) to KIDS. This framework made sense to me; and in my mind, when I applied the criteria to my sister’s group, it was obviously a cult too. I also read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the fictional classic depicting an ivory trader’s descent into cultic depravity, and other Lifton work. On a family vacation at Disney World, while my wife went on the rides with our son, I stayed back in the room and read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. I was all in. I knew my life had changed.

I workshopped the case and the two approaches—medical malpractice and cult. I did mock trials behind one-way mirrors, with mock jurors selected to duplicate the potential jury pool. It became clear that the cult analysis got me nothing and devolved into discussions of what is and what is not a cult.

Newton’s group was a cult. I knew it and concluded that, if I just told the story as I had learned it, the jury would get it. They’d call it a cult. I would not have to use the C word. or brainwashing, the B word. In fact, using those words made it harder for my audience—a judge and a jury—to appreciate the monstrous nature of what the victims experienced. The C word and the B word were conclusions. They were not facts. The conclusions made the KIDS organization seem weird and wacky, but the weirdness and wackiness were ways to avoid a simpler truth. We were talking about evil. If I started with the cult allegation and accusation, I would lose my audience’s attention. If I just told the story in exquisite detail, the judge and jury would do my work.

Making the Cult Connection

“How Do You Convince a Jury That Your Client Was a Victim of a Cult?” That was the headline in a lead story in the New Jersey Law Journal. And the article went on to say,

For Philip Elberg, you don’t present expert witnesses and you don’t utter the word. Through witnesses and records, you let the story tell itself. For the past three weeks, the partner in Newark’s Medvin & Elberg firm has been presenting evidence to a Hudson County jury about why his client should be compensated for the years she spent in a rehabilitation center. (O’Brien, 2003)

All my cult-related cases ended successfully for many reasons, including the fact that Newton’s desire for credibility caused him to dress up what he was doing with medical directors and insurance. As a result, the cases had a potential payoff at the end, which gave me my partner’s support to pursue them.

After I had settled the first case for a substantial sum, my fascination and my desire to learn—and frankly, to feel more, did not go away. I went to a cult conference (ICSA) in Seattle. I attended the preconference events, where I sat with parents and felt a bit out of place because I wasn’t nearly as consumed by Gail’s life as they were in what felt to them like the loss of their children. But I indulged in the story of Gail and my family and thought about my mother, who called Fred Newman’s group a cult for years, while I called it a phase or a choice.

I attended the educational sessions, but I was troubled by the focus on the questions of what is and what is not a cult: Is AA a cult? Are the Waldorf schools cultic? How do you prove something is a cult in court? Do you hire an expert who would define a cult? And I was initially confused at the conference when I first heard about the controversy in which a majority of sociologists seemed to say that what I knew was a cult was just a new religion, as if by changing what you called it, heinous evil conduct could be excused and studied rather than prosecuted.

And then I heard Margaret Singer speak. She was old. She was past her prime. Her face had more wrinkles than a raisin. She spoke, seemingly extemporaneously, for just 10 or 15 minutes. She said,

Forget about all this complicated stuff. Cults are cons, and the people that run them are con men. Think of the people playing Three-Card Monte on the city streets, or the people that make telemarketing calls to old people trying to separate them from their savings. These are cons; and the way to expose a con artist is to learn how it is done and describe it.

I sat there saying to myself, “That is what I am talking about.” That was what I had accomplished. I had learned how Newton did it, and I had learned that the way to get him was to expose the specifics of his perfidy, including the serial lies that helped him get away with it.

During the couple of years following that first meeting where I heard Margaret Singer speak, I had a meteoric rise and an even quicker fall as President of ICSA. I separated myself from the group, knowing that for me “exposing the con” and activism were more appealing than definitional debates. At the same time, I was drawn to the fight against the growing troubled-teen industry (TTI). The industry’s origins were in a cultic group, Synanon, that claimed the way to cure addiction was to break people down and then remake them. Synanon’s techniques, based on confessions and confrontations, were adapted to adolescents both by wannabe cult leaders, such as Miller Newton, and by ambitious entrepreneurs, such as the founders of WWASP (the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs). These programs, some cultic, some not, used different language to describe what they were doing. But they all “stole” therapeutic language shamelessly, realizing that there was big money to be made if you could convince people that abuse, redefined as tough love, was therapeutic. Motivated by the harm to kids and families I was seeing and hearing about, I became an activist and the go-to volunteer lawyer fighting the tough-love industry. I am proud of my TTI work and glad that I introduced many survivors of the TTI to cult concepts because, for many of them, recovery from the trauma they had experienced was analogous to recovery issues for former cult members and second-generation cult survivors.

I did occasionally attend cult conferences if they were in locations I wanted to visit. But I have to admit that I was generally unhappy with the legal presentations because they were not based on the reality of our legal system, and they too often missed the boat by choosing to focus on “cult expertise” and social-science research rather than the con—criminality, fraud, and tortious conduct.

Now that I am at a point in my life with the time to reflect, I appreciate the opportunity to talk and write about what I have learned in years of litigating and, more importantly, in getting to know victims of cultic groups and the TTI. I feel very much at home when I have attended these Friday-night meetings, and I appreciate the opportunity to share my views tonight.

The Law Today

There is simply no law with respect to cults. Saying it differently, cult is a word with no legal significance. Efforts to define a cult legally or to apply a separate definition of undue influence as applied to cultic groups have not generally been successful, and in my view, are more likely to be counterproductive than helpful.

Because there is no special law with respect to cults, there are no experts in cult law and no cult lawyers. There are First Amendment experts and family-law experts with relevant knowledge, and there are trust and estate experts with relevant knowledge, and sexual abuse experts with relevant knowledge; but there are no cult-law experts because there is no cult law.

In contrast, there are cult leaders who harm their followers and their followers’ families. An understanding of what cultic groups are, how people are tricked into becoming part of them, and the problems these followers and their families face as a result of their participation can make a good lawyer more effective in helping victims.

Lack of a Law That Pertains to Cults

Why is there no law with respect to cults? First, there is no consensus about what a cult is. The Lifton criteria are helpful, but they don’t account for cultic relationships in very small groups. There is now the “cult” around former President Trump; there are former cults that have become mainstream religions; and there are people who argue that those religions are still cultic. There are the most orthodox or extreme groups within every mainstream religion; and there is abuse of the vulnerable and defenseless, especially children and young women, in every institution that does not have a strong system of checks and balances as part of its culture.

Additionally, the term cult doesn’t lend itself to a definition that would be meaningful legally. In recent years, more and more attention has been paid, and properly so, to very small cultic relationships. In turn, as related work in psychoanalysis, particularly that of Dan Shaw (e.g., Traumatic Narcissism and other writings), focuses on what the villain gets from the cultic relationship, the phenomenon of these relationships becomes clear. All these efforts take us further away from a definition of a cult that could lead to a legal standard. Every time I hear people debate whether a particular group is or is not a cult, such as in those discussions I heard at the first ICSA meeting I attended, the deliberation reinforces my belief that there is no possibility of a legal standard or definition.

The best proof that I have about the absence of any cult law is evidenced by the absence of cases based on cult law. The two most significant cult cases in the civil and criminal law in the past 20 years are, I believe, my civil cases against Newton and the criminal case against NXIVM. Both cases involved cults. In both instances, the juries and the courts knew that the case was about cults; but my case was a malpractice case, and the NXIVM criminal charges were sex trafficking, RICO violations, and some credit-card and immigration fraud.

Saying that you can ignore proving that a group is a cult or invoking cult law is the easy part. In fact, since I first made the point to a skeptical cult-conference audience 20 years ago that there was no cult law, that premise has now been generally accepted. But making the point does not explain why there aren’t more cult cases along the lines that I pursued and the prosecutors in the NXIVM trial pursued. I can point to an answer to that question by again referring to my cases, to NXIVM, and to my sister’s group.

All In

It took my obsession, my being all in, in part motivated by my sister’s story and the prospect of a big payoff at the end, to give me the time and space to commit to the case that led to my telling the KIDS story and sending Newton to Florida as a make-believe priest with a small church. But before that, there was a show on CBS television in 1989 (West 57th Street KIDS & Straight Inc., 1989), in which the cult accusation was made clearly regarding Newton and KIDS. When I called Bill Goldberg about becoming an expert and asked if he’d ever heard of the KIDS treatment center, he knew all about it because he and Lorna, his wife, had been helping Newton’s victims for years. At the time of the 1989 show, my client Lulu had already been in the group for 5 years and subjected to cruel abuse.

As a result of the publicity around the show, the police raided the warehouse where the kids were kept and told the kids over 18 that they could leave. But the group simply reorganized, made a small change in its name (from KIDS of Bergen County to KIDS of North Jersey), moved from one warehouse to another, and went on for another 10 years. Questions were raised, but nobody shut them down.

NXIVM was around for many years. Everyone is impressed by the NXIVM story, but there was a cover story in Forbes magazine in 2003 about NXIVM, and a Vanity Fair article in 2010 describing how the Bronfman heirs had been conned. And there was an impressive multipart expose detailing missing women and sex with underage girls in 2012 in the Albany Times Union. I knew the NXIVM cult story in detail back in 2012 because I represented an ex-member subjected to hideous legal harassment; and then in 2014 I represented the mother of Raniere’s child who was in hiding. It was all there except for the branding and DOS, but nobody did anything effective about it while lawyers earned millions of dollars defending evil by using the law to punish its critics.

Keith Raniere, using Claire Bronfman’s money and ignorance, exploited our legal system to abuse the group’s former members, children, and the immigration laws. It was only in late 2017, when the branding story broke in The New York Times, that there were indictments, a cover story in The Sunday Times magazine, a trial with so many spectators that there was an overflow room, and then movies, books, and so on. It was the horror of the branding and the image of attractive women becoming sex slaves, against a backdrop of the “Me-Too” movement, that caused a group of young women prosecutors with the unlimited resources of the United States Attorney’s office to go all in and make NXIVM the center of their professional lives. That is what brought Raniere down.

And in the case of my sister’s group, Fred Newman’s con flourished and grew for years by promoting something called social therapy, in which people seeking help to get through a rough period in their lives or perhaps feeling lonely and disconnected were presented with a cure that consisted largely of group therapy. There, in exchange for “confession,” participants were provided with a set of political beliefs; a set of seemingly unconnected, but actually entirely connected, charitable endeavors; and a community of friends, all wrapped up as a package. Not surprisingly, feeling connected to new “friends” and beliefs and even charitable endeavors made Newman’s victims felt less lonely and disconnected. While I was representing a therapist facing disciplinary charges for giving a small Christmas gift to a manipulative patient, Fred Newman’s group was engaging in practices that ignored every conceivable boundary and, instead of being disciplined by anyone, they presented their so-called “revolutionary” approach at American Psychological Association conferences.

Why weren’t these groups exposed and brought down sooner? It was not the absence of a legal definition of cults or the absence of a law that expanded the undue-influence concept. The wrongdoing was not hard to find. It was right there if you looked carefully. Part of the answer was that they all had money, and in the NXIVM case, obscene amounts of money, which gave them access to good lawyers. And part of the answer was that they had the support of politicians for a variety of reasons and, in some cases, the First Amendment seemed to be on their side. But it was more than that: Doing so was just too hard!

What makes it too hard flows from the nature of cultic groups. The people who could go after cults, whether they are lawyers litigating a case, an ex-member, or a family member, have to balance the effort it will take in terms of time, money, and emotional energy in fighting the group with the other priorities in their lives. Our lives have many parts. Our families, our jobs, our hobbies, our friends, our relatives, perhaps our religious affiliation. When things go wrong in one part of our lives, we turn to the other parts for help. I remember that, when I was running a lot and wanted to run a faster marathon, perhaps qualify to run in Boston, I realized that the additional training I would need to do would cost me my day job or my family. I could not do all three, so I got used to running slower.

When someone decides to go after a cult, they must decide how important that fight is to them and how much of their life they are willing to give to that fight. Going after a cult leader is somewhat akin to being a whistleblower, and being a whistleblower is a most unpleasant and lonely experience.

The challenge of blowing a whistle on cults is even greater. One reason people stay in a group is because their group becomes everything to them. It takes the place of their job, family, religion, hobbies, friends. That is why it is hard to leave. It can feel like there is nowhere to go. But while they are following their leader and someone tries to expose the con, what price will they pay, or won’t they pay, to sustain the leader and keep the group going? Where there is a real-deal cult leader and followers who have become deployable agents in a group that meets the Lifton criteria in terms of loaded language, mystical manipulation, and the rest, they are all in. Because they believe they are part of something that is world changing, you don’t get them by calling them a name or by hurting their arm. They are simply playing by a different set of rules, with its own language, different values, and a belief that what is right and good is on their side.

I represented a very religious man in a serious accident case many years ago. He came for his deposition. I went to prepare him. He told me not to worry. He sat in my waiting room, reading his religious book. The deposition started and he seemed to compose a story that was coherent. He didn’t seem to sweat. He would have passed a lie detector test. I didn’t know whether he even thought he was making it up because he just thought the rules of the litigation were a game, and he was playing by a different set of rules. In his mind, he was being true, as he understood it, to what was in the book he read in my waiting room.

Legal Issues and Cult Involvement

My focus on the absence of cult law, and hence the absence of cult-law experts, is not intended to suggest that there are not ways that lawyers and our legal system can be helpful to people with family members in toxic groups or to ex-members. Rather, it is intended to provide a framework within which we can understand and approach each of the legal issues that concerns us. That process starts with an understanding of the law generally, and then of its particular application to the unique circumstances implicated by cultic involvement.

The issues that arise with respect to cultic involvement are well known. They are

  • Keeping a family member from joining a toxic group;

  • Getting a family member out of the group if they are in;

  • Once a family member is in a toxic group, preventing a loved one from turning over financial assets to the group;

  • A former member attempting to speak out about a cultic group (particularly on the Internet) after leaving, as part of the healing process, and with the goal of helping others;

  • Suing the group or its leaders for economic and emotional damages arising from one’s cult involvement;

  • Dealing with family-court issues of custody and visitation when one parent remains in the group and one leaves;

  • Using proof of brainwashing to excuse criminal conduct, to mitigate a criminal penalty, or to convince prosecutors to pursue a prosecution of a group or its leader.

In this paper, I have explained why there is no cult law and there are no cult-law experts. From my perspective, recognition that there is no cult law does not end the discussion. It should be the starting place. I look forward to presenting my views in a follow-up presentation that addresses each of these issues, based again on my experience as a practicing lawyer and as someone who now appreciates the unique and troublesome issues that arise from cultic involvement.


Lifton, R. J. (1961/1989). Thought reform and the psychology of totalism. University of North Carolina Press.

O’Brien, T. (2003, July 7). Keeping ‘cult’ out of the case. New Jersey Law Journal. Reprinted by Cult Education Institute.

Szalavitz, M. (2006). Help at any cost: How the troubled-teen industry cons parents and hurts kids. Riverhead Books.

Newton, M. (1995). Adolescence: Guiding youth through the perilous ordeal (1st edition). W. W. Norton.

West 57th KIDS and Straight Inc. (1989). Virgil Miller Newton Exposed. CBS newsmagazine.

About the Author

Phil Elberg is a retired New Jersey attorney who served as President of the ICSA. He was the first recipient of ICSA’s Margaret Singer award for his contribution to the understanding of coercive influence. During a successful career as a practicing lawyer, he represented individuals harmed in abusive rehabilitation facilities and by medical professionals. With a small group of activists and friends, he was an early leader in the fight to close and draw attention to abusive, tough-love, behavior-modification facilities. He has been a speaker at American Bar Association webinars on legal issues associated with the troubled-teen industry.


[1] Refers to the KIDS of Bergen County, later known as KIDS of North Jersey behavior-modification/drug-treatment center. It operated from 1983 to 1999. KIDS was an offshoot of a similar program called Straight, Inc., in which Newton served as its National Clinical Director.

[2] I litigated five KIDS cases between 1997 and 2007. The plaintiff in the first case was Rebecca Ehrlich. In the second case, discussed at length in Help At Any Cost (Szalavitz, 2006), the plaintiff was Lulu Corter. The total recoveries paid on behalf of KIDS, Newton, and the program’s medical directors was $17,125,000.