Scientology-affiliated group makes waves in the Capitol

Captital Weekly/December 15, 2005
By Malcolm Maclachlan

Members of a group affiliated with the Church of Scientology have been in the Capitol, targeting Legislators with an interest in mental health issues.

Scientologists' outspoken opinions on psychiatric drugs--and psychiatry in general--have been in the news this year because of Tom Cruise's televised outbursts on the subject. However, members of the Citizens Crusade for Human Rights seem to have been downplaying the group's affiliation with the Church of Scientology, instead positioning themselves within a growing movement of psychiatry skeptics outside of the Church.

The CCHR has been pushing for greater limits on the use of psychotropic drugs, and they have gained traction with some legislators. A spokeswoman for the CCHR, Cassandra Auerbach, was quoted in a press release last year from Asm. Dennis Mountjoy, R-Monrovia. Asm. Ray Haynes, R-Murrieta, is shown on the CCHR's Web site performing a ribbon cutting for a display the group ran in outside the Capitol last spring about what they see as the dangers of psychiatry.

"What people have traditionally done is say that because they [Scientologists] are involved, there's no credibility there," said Joelle Cudney, a legislative assistant with Mountjoy. "But these people were the only ones doing this originally. Now there's a whole myriad of people who don't belong to the Church who are concerned about these issues."

Assemblyman Haynes echoed some of Cudney's comments, noting that the CCHR came early to an issue that is now gaining wider prominence.

"I won't attack psychiatrists, I don't agree with their politics in the way they present the debate," Haynes said. "There are some folks for whom these drugs have had significant and lasting benefit. I just think it should be the treatment of last resort, not the treatment of first resort."

Both Mountjoy and Haynes have family histories involving psychiatric drugs. Cudney said Mountjoy's young son was briefly forced onto Ritalin by his school, turning him into "a zombie." Haynes described a similar experience with his nephew.

However, Randall Hagar, governmental affairs director of the California Psychiatric Association, said he would like to see proof of these incidents. According to his understanding, Hagar said, California schools do not have the right to force students on to psychiatric drugs.

"They find someone to say 'my kid was told that they had to take psychotropics or they would be kicked out of school,'" Hagar said. "We need to have those charges demonstrated. It's a legitimate thing to ask."

Cudney said that Mountjoy started putting forward bills on psychiatric drugs before he had any contact with the CCHR. Most of these have been defeated, something Mountjoy has blamed on "the Democratic majority."

Among the defeated measures is Mountjoy's AB 1424, which would have given parents the right to refuse to allow their children to be put on psychiatric medication. Auerbach, who has been a Church member since 1969, was quoted in a press release from Mountjoy's office supporting AB 1424 in her role as a representative for CCHR Los Angeles. Auerbach did not reply to several requests for comment on this article.

More recently, Auerbach and at least one other CCHR member were in the Capitol talking to staffers about SB 524, which stalled on the Assembly floor earlier this year. This bill would have mandated ongoing education for psychiatrists and other physicians who prescribe anti-depressants. According to their Web site, one of the CCHR's principal issues is the alleged link between psychiatric drugs and suicide.

The CCHR was founded by the Church of Scientology, but became financially independent in 1993. According to Jeff Griffin, the executive director of CCHR Los Angeles, the group closely coordinates all of their efforts with the Social Reform Offices of the Church of Scientology.

"We are not a lobbying group," said Jeff Griffin, executive director of CCHR Los Angeles. "We spend the majority of our funds distributing information and helping those who have been abused."

Some CCHR members may have contact with legislators and staffers, Griffin acknowledged. But he said this was not part of the group's official activities. "If someone wants to do something, that's them doing it" [as an individual].

Griffin said that his group is against "anything that would have forwarded the activity of the mental health industry." Most of the group's literature focuses on anti-depressant medication and the use of physical restraints in psychiatry, a practice the CCHR claims is widespread. Griffin said his group is not seeking a ban on psychiatry, acknowledging that if someone wants to see a therapist, "that's their right."

"I'm skeptical of their financial motives, said Jason Young a spokesman for the American Psychiatric Association, of the CCHR. "They pretty much offer a directly competing treatment, which is to join Scientology."

But some who have dealt with the CCHR say it is a successful alternative for many. Conservative activist Steve Frank did work for both the Church of Scientology and the CCHR between 1989 and 1996 during his career as a Sacramento lobbyist. He said several of the people he met in the church had histories of substance abuse or family tragedy. This view was echoed by another lobbyist, lobbyist D.J. Smith, partner in the Sacramento firm Smith Watson Co., who the Church retained for six months in 2003 to deal with a traffic issue near their property.

In other words, both said, many members had the kinds of histories you often hear about from people in the criminal justice or mental health systems. "Religion in general has people who have found redemption from their pasts, regardless of whether it's Scientology, Catholicism or Lutheranism," Frank said. "Better that they do it in a church than through a bottle or drugs."

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