California School For 'Troubled Teens' Had Roots In A Notorious, Militant Cult

The controversial Cedu School had roots in the violent cult Synanon, as explored on the podcast “Lost Kids” and Oxygen’s “Deadly Cults.”

Daniel Yuen 2

Lisa and Wayne Yuen felt they were running out of options for helping their 16-year-old son, Daniel, who was both socially withdrawn and acting out at school. The Edison, New Jersey couple took him to a number of psychiatrists and eventually decided to send him to a specialized school in San Bernardino, California in January 2004. 

Only 10 days after his enrollment, the Yuens got a call from the school: They were told Daniel had run away. Fifteen years later, they still have no idea where he is. 

In UCP's new podcast series “The Lost Kids,” host Josh Bloch and his team spoke with the Yuens and took a deep dive into the controversial Cedu behavioral school from which Daniel had vanished. They found a disturbing pattern of aggressive, frightening “therapy” and hundreds of alleged disappearances by runaways fleeing the school that was supposed to fix them. 

And Cedu had roots in the notorious, violent American cult Synanon, Bloch found. 

“We start looking into this program, and one of the first remarkable things we discover is that hundreds of kids have run away from this place,” Bloch told Oxygen.com. “As we peel back the layers, we discover that the form of therapy they're running there is very aggressive.” 

Practices at Cedu were intended to fix the behavior of so-called “troubled” youth, and included aggressive “encounter” therapies, in which one student would sit in the center of an entire group as they “laid into them in a loud and aggressive way,” Bloch said. 

There were marathon therapy workshops that would last for days and include sleep deprivation, and these treatments apparently were a big reason so many kids ran from Cedu. 

“We spoke to a number of former residents who said, 'From the moment I set foot in there, my fight or flight instinct kicked in,'” Bloch said. 

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The controversial treatments at Cedu were first popularized in Synanon, a substance abuse treatment program founded in 1958. A recovering alcoholic named Charles Dederich started the program, and his methods “helped” addicts by humiliating and isolating them, forcing them into hard labor and keeping them from sleep, according to Mother Jones.  

He allegedly coined the maxim, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” and envisioned Synanon as the start of a new utopian society — and he was soon well on his way, as the group grew popular and started building their own schools and businesses. 

By the late 1970s, however, with tens of millions of assets, the group became violent, lashing out at people who left, allegedly forcing vasectomies and abortions on members and conspiring to murder its opponents, the New York Times reported in its obituary for Dederich

From Synanon sprang many lucrative behavioral therapy programs for troubled youth, including Cedu and Straight, Inc., which was hailed by former first lady Nancy Reagan but eventually shut down after a number of abuse lawsuits, according to Mother Jones. 

And through the 1990s, such schools and programs were popularized on daytime talk shows and by celebrity testimonials, Bloch said. “The heyday was the 1980s and 1990s, when you had politicians like Nancy Reagan endorsing Straight, and celebrities and politicians saying this was an incredible way to address the ills of our society.” 

Daytime talk shows in particular often featured a troubled youth stomping onto the set and cursing at their parents, before being sent to a special program or camp and reforming quickly.  

“It seemed like incredible television,” he said. “You can see why talk shows were really drawn to this. It shows a great beginning, middle, and end to a story.” 

The problem was, there was little evidence those reforms lasted, and a lot of evidence that it was traumatizing, according to Bloch. 

Cedu closed its schools abruptly in 2005 amid lawsuits and state regulatory crackdowns, according to Bloch. It was too late for the Yuens, who still are searching for a sign that Daniel is alive. 

The Yuens received tips shortly after Daniel’s disappearance that he was seen panhandling in a San Diego area park. Police dogs also picked up a positive scent in the area, according to an ABC News report

And in December 2018, the Yuens received an anonymous call alleging that Daniel was alive and well, but he didn’t want to be found. The case remains open, San Bernardino County authorities told ABC News. 

In the six-part podcast “The Lost Kids,” listeners will follow Bloch’s investigation, including interviews with Daniel’s family and friends, as well as with “troubled teen industry” experts and people who survived their time at Cedu. 

And on the season finale of Oxygen’s “Deadly Cults” on June 14, experience a deep dive into the bizarre world of Synanon, the therapy program that morphed into a cult and then became violent. 

All six episodes of “The Lost Kids” are now available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. 

The season finale of “Deadly Cults” airs Sunday, June 14 at 7/6c on Oxygen

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