Problems plaguing program for youths

Date: 2004-04-17

Amy Joi Bryson
Deseret Morning News

Allegations of sexual abuse and assault, which have sparked recent criminal probes here and in two other states, continue to plague a Utah-based program for troubled children.

The trouble linked to programs or services associated with the Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS) also has a California congressman demanding a federal investigation by the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, Utah licensing officials say there is little they can do about complaints that come in for programs like WWASPS, which remain unlicensed because they are "boarding schools."

"Unless they are licensed, we do not have the right to go in unannounced, talk to anyone or interview the kids to see what is happening," said Ken Stettler, director of the state Department of Human Services Office of Licensing.

Criminal investigations into abuse and assault have taken place in:

Rich County, where a 13-year-old boy was allegedly assaulted at the company's Majestic Ranch.

Montana, resulting in a former staffer pleading guilty to felony criminal endangerment.

New York, where two men stand accused of assaulting a teen they were transporting to a WWASPS facility in that state.

WWASPS officials say allegations of assault and other mistreatment are fabricated by students who want to go home.

"There have not been any substantiated allegations that I am aware of, ever," said Ken Kay, president. "These kids have a long history of fabricating the truth and not functioning well in mainstream society."

Rep. George Miller, D-California, renewed his plea last month for the investigation to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, asking again that the Justice Department probe WWASPS for allegations of human-rights violations, fraudulent and deceptive advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment under the Internal Revenue Code.

The attorney general, based on a request first made by Miller late last year, initially declined to investigate WWASPS, saying its authority does not extend to WWASPS affiliates outside the country or privately owned facilities.

Miller is not dissuaded, saying private ownership is immaterial to an investigation into possible violations of federal law. He is waiting for a second response.

Utah connections

WWASPS, based in St. George, was founded by Utahn Robert Lichfield and is an umbrella organization with 11 boarding schools or residential treatment programs, including three facilities overseas.

Here in Utah, investigators with the state Division of Child and Family Services, along with Rich County sheriff's deputies, were called to WWASPS affiliate Majestic Ranch north of Randolph to probe a possible assault of a 13-year-old boy.

The incident, which involved a Majestic Ranch staff member, happened March 3 and had facility management concerned about whether or not "their own use of force policies had been violated," according to a press release.

The Rich County Sheriff's Office, on advice of the county attorney, declined to release the deputy's initial incident report on the allegations, even though it is classified as a public document under the Government Records Access and Management Act. The Deseret Morning News is appealing the decision.

Although DCFS officials say one of the allegations of abuse was supported, the Rich County Attorney's Office declined to file criminal charges.

Assault allegations

In Montana just this week, a man who had been a staff member at WWASPS affiliate Spring Creek Lodge Academy in Thompson Falls pleaded guilty to criminal endangerment, a felony.

Initially, the man was charged by the Sanders County Prosecutor's Office with sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent stemming from allegations involving a 14-year-old boy and a 17-year-old boy.

The county attorney's office said the defendant received a three-year deferred sentence of probation, with credit for 11 days served in jail.

Although the Montana employee did enter a guilty plea, Kay stressed the charge "does not mean anything inappropriate happened."

"It may mean he (the defendant) may have had the child in a predicament or a situation where there was the possibility that something could have happened, not that it did happen."

He said the employee was fired immediately for violating policy -- which prohibits staff members from being alone with students.

In New York, two men were accused in March of assaulting a 17-year-old boy while he was en route to the WWASPS Academy at Ivy Ridge, located near the Canadian border.

Police there say the teen was beaten while in cuffs after he grabbed the steering wheel of the car and caused it to crash.

The men, who have pleaded not guilty, were contracted by La Verkin-based Teen Escort Service to do the transport of the teen. WWASPS officials say Teen Escort is not affiliated with their organization, but is one of three approved transport services that is recommended to parents.

The alleged assault happened after the men woke the boy, handcuffed him and led him out to a waiting car -- a style of transport that investigators said had the parents consent.

The rough way the boy was treated and what officials say is a lack of apparent regulatory oversight, has the case being reviewed by the New York Attorney General's Office. A spokeswoman there said investigators there have not yet decided on the scope of the review.

Legislation sought

But Miller, the ranking minority member on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said government needs to take greater action and initiative to protect youth in WWASPS programs in the United States and overseas.

In his letter to Ashcroft, he writes that the only action taken so far by the federal government was a cautionary notice on using behavior modification facilities issued by the state department in January. The notice came after Miller's request for investigation and on the heels of a riot at WWASPS affiliate in Costa Rica.

There, foreign child protection workers and police swooped into the facility, which one local child advocacy group described as a site of "torture."

One woman, a former director of the Costa Rican school, asked the national minister of child welfare to begin an investigation last year.

Utah licensing officials, coupled with the Attorney General's Office, have urged lawmakers to pass legislation imposing more regulatory control on such programs here without success.

"Our concern is that there is currently very little, if any oversight," Stettler said.

While licensed facilities have to meet minimum requirements for health and safety purposes, programs termed as "boarding schools" such as Majestic Ranch are outside the state's purview.



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