‘The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping’ Explained: Are Lichfield Brothers, Robert And Narvin Alive?


The Program: Cons, Cults, and Kidnapping is not just a documentary; it is an act of retaliation from a survivor who just refused to surrender to her circumstances. Katherine Kubler, the director of the series, was sent to Ivy Ridge, an institute that came under the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. These institutes proclaimed that they catered to troubled teens who were suffering from some kind of disorder or addiction. They claimed to be educational institutes, but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that they were cults whose main agenda was to earn money at the expense of the lives of teenagers.

Why was Katherine sent to Ivy Ridge? 

Katherine was studying in a school on Long Island, and one day, the authorities decided to take action against her when they found her drinking hard lemonade on the school premises. Katherine had no clue that her entire life was going to change in a couple of hours, as any prudent person couldn’t imagine they could have to face months of torture because of such a trivial matter. A few strangers came, and they took Katherine away with them without telling her where she was being taken. Apparently, Katherine’s father had decided to put her in a residential program where the curriculum was created to cater to “troubled teens” and bring them back to the right path. There was an entire troubled teen industry operating in the United States of America and many other countries, too, where the kids had to undergo a behavioral modification program. The facility promised 100 percent results, but the reality was very different from what they showed in their advertising campaigns. Ivy Ridge was located in Ogdensburg, and they operated at such a large scale because they had political backing, and nobody had any clue how the kids were tortured inside. The authorities at Ivy Ridge told Katherine that there were certain rules that she needed to follow if she wanted to graduate from the school.

In The Program, Katherine Kubler told the audience that the kind of deplorable conditions they were put in made her realize that she was not a student but a prisoner there. The facility had some bizarre rules, and if those poor souls wouldn’t have been there to testify to them, one could have never believed that anything like that could have existed in a civic society. But this time, the truth was stranger than fiction, and till now, when Katherine and other survivors like her think about it, it sends shivers down their spines. The girls and the boys were kept in different blocks altogether, and no one was allowed to talk to anybody. Katherine said that they were not allowed to look out of the window; they were not allowed to make friends; they were not allowed to give a call to their parents; and additionally, they were punished if the warden heard them defaming the practices of the college.

The CCTV camera footage that is shown in The Program, where the wardens and the caretakers are ruthlessly thrashing the teenagers, is just a peek into the trauma inflicted upon the teenagers. The parents also didn’t have any knowledge about what was happening with their kids, and there came a time when the kids also stopped telling them anything because they were scared of being demoted and forced to start the curriculum all over again from scratch. Katherine could never understand what she had done to deserve such behavior, and her experiences made her so bitter that after she came out of the institution, she stopped talking to her father. Katherine was one of the lucky ones, as her father realized that something was not right at the school, and he took her out in 15 months. There were others who were there in captivity for more than 3 years, and one cannot even begin to understand how they would have survived there.

What happened during the seminars? 

As if the daily torture was not enough, there were seminars organized by institutes like Ivy Ridge where the coordinators used pseudo-psychological tactics to mentally break the kid and make them believe that whatever was happening in their lives was completely their fault. There were girls who had lost their parents when they were toddlers, and somehow, during the seminars, these self-proclaimed coaches made them accept that it was their fault. The first exercise was always something that would drain the teenagers physically, and then coercive persuasion methods were employed so that the students would give up their individualism and accept what was being told to them. A few survivors said that they were locked inside a room for more than 12 hours and had to continuously repeat one single sentence. They said that after a point in time, they entered into a trance-like state where their mind wasn’t able to function. Their self-esteem was broken, they lost faith in their own abilities, and they were forced to accept that they were at fault. There were girls who said that they hadn’t touched drugs in their lifetime, but in their report, they accepted that they were drug addicts, as they were too scared to go against the organization, and they wanted to come out of that god-forsaken place. Imagine the plight of a young person who realizes that nobody will believe in them and nobody will come to their rescue, even if they are dying. The entire philosophy of tough love was propagated by such illegal institutions, and the most shocking thing was that not even one of the teachers or coordinators working there had any kind of certification in psychology to give that kind of advice. In The Program, we saw how helpless and shattered Katherine and other girls felt, but kudos to them that after so many years, they came back to Ivy Ridge to bring the truth to light. 

Why didn’t the parents believe their children? 

These institutions, like Ivy Ridge, were the brainchild of Charles E. Dederick, who started Synanon back in the day, which was supposed to be a drug rehabilitation center. He had these bizarre therapies, like the attack therapy, where the patient was assaulted and tortured. The experts found the weak point of the patients, and they were often beaten to the extent that they had to be hospitalized. Now, the centers under the Worldwide Associations of Specialty Programs and Institutes also functioned on pretty similar lines. The practices that were incorporated could be safely termed child abuse. There was CCTV footage shown in The Program, where a teenager named Quinton was mercilessly beaten by the wardens. He was the one who organized a protest inside the institute, and he had to bear the consequences of his actions. Now, the main question that would come to anybody’s mind is: amidst all this, why didn’t even a single parent report the issue, and why didn’t they believe what their kids were saying? First of all, Ivy Ridge and all the other similar institutes made sure that information about what happened within the walls of the facility didn’t go out at all. They misled the general public with their fake marketing campaigns, and in addition to that, the masterstroke was that they conducted seminars for the parents, too. So basically, it could be said that they were running a cult not for the teenagers but for the parents. The parents, too, were brainwashed into believing that he had sent their kids to the best place. There were times when they got suspicious about the practice, but the internal team of the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools made sure that they did everything to suppress those doubts and make the parents believe in their genuineness. 

What Happened To Lichfield brothers? 

Since the time Katherine decided to hold people accountable and started doing research for her documentary, she wanted to find out where all the money was going and who was behind this entire scam. She figured out there were several shell companies where all the money was being transferred, and that’s when she realized that a man named Robert Lichfield was the one who owned most of these specialty institutes. His brother, Narvin Lichfield, was also an active participant in the scheme of things and played a key role in the administration. Robert started the WWASPS around 1998, and since then, he has opened quite a few institutes throughout the US.

The first school that Robert opened was called Cross Creek Manor, and it served as a testing ground where he created a blueprint for how he was going to scam the parents and destroy the lives of the teenagers. As of today, neither Robert nor Narvin have been charged with any crime, and they were able to take complete advantage of the loopholes in the system. Robert and Narvin knew that a situation might arise where their fraudulent activities would come to light, and so they made sure that they had the written consent of the concerned parties before doing anything, though we know how the brothers influenced that decision. Katherine Kubler says that the Netflix documentary is just the beginning, and she will not stop until she has put the perpetrators behind bars. Katherine got to know that Narvin was in La Verkin, Utah, and she went to a local pub just to look at the man who had ruined their lives. She didn’t go and talk to him because she knew that she still didn’t have solid evidence that could establish a direct link between the Lichfield brothers and the abuse the children had to go through in the various specialty institutes. 

As of now, Robert and Narvin are still running many specialty schools, though they have changed the name of the initiative so that they do not come under the radar of the law enforcement authorities. After the scandal, the Lichfield brothers kept a low profile and remained out of the limelight; therefore, not much is known about their current whereabouts. But according to Narvin’s son, he still does not feel even an ounce of guilt for what he has done. Katherine hopes that one day some government agency will take action on the issue and find a way to put them behind bars. 

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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