It’s Cheap, But is it Good for Kids?
by Martha Shirk
Why would a behavior modification program for American youth be set up in a foreign country?
The operators of such programs argue that the remote locations protect teens from negative influences, and that the beautiful settings and different cultural traditions open them to change. They also say that operating in developing countries enables them to charge less than domestic programs, putting them within the reach of more youth who need them. Critics say the locations are the problem. Parents and children can’t easily work on their relationships if the children are 8,000 miles away. And the constitutional protections taken for granted in the United States are unknown in the countries in which these programs operate. Youths have no recourse if they are mistreated, since they’re often not permitted to use phones or send uncensored mail.
Thomas J. Croke, a Pennsylvania educational consultant who publishes the “Bridge to Understanding” website, believes there’s value to overseas programs. He has referred many youths to them, and says they’ve been “lifesavers for many parents.”
Educational consultant Deborah Trounstine of Sacramento, Calif., won’t refer anyone to the offshore programs because of several concerns, mainly that “they don’t fall under the laws of the United States. If your child is in Western Samoa or Jamaica, how are you really going to know what’s happening there? You can’t just pop in. How are you going to know what kind of treatment they’re going to get?” Trounstine says the main reason parents send their children to overseas progams is the lower cost. “They’re cheap,” she says.
“Cheap” means $2,000 to $2,500 a month, compared with more than twice that for many domestic programs. “Knowing what it costs to run a program in the South Seas islands, it’s a cash cow, a complete cash cow,” said one executive with a behavior modification program who asked not to be identified.
Youth advocates are trying to figure how to impose some oversight on overseas programs. “Overseas placements are the very hardest to regulate,” says Shannan Wilber, a staff attorney for the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “Obviously, we have no control either on the state or federal level of what other countries regulate or don’t regulate.
“At the moment, the best we can do is remind parents that there’s no oversight in these foreign programs. You are forcing your child to give up a lot of rights by sending him there. For California kids, that includes the right not to be held in a locked facility unless you are accused of committing an offense or are in a mental health placement with due process protections.” Karr Farnsworth, spokesman for the Teen Help network of programs (which includes three in other countries), says their foreign locations shouldn’t provoke concern. “It’s easy to say that because they’re unregulated, there must be atrocities going on,” he says. “But most parents visit the programs while the kids are there, and if we had anything to hide, we wouldn’t want them there.”
Problems and Promises
Here’s a brief description of some of the programs operating in other countries, as well as a few that have closed in recent years:
-Tranquility Bay School in Jamaica. The highly publicized controversy over the placement here of David Van Blarigan of Oakland, Calif., is credited with bringing the existence of offshore programs to light. Subsequently, Ohio child protection officials sought child-abuse charges against another set of parents, Barbara and Scott Goen of Columbia, Ohio, for sending their son, Justin, 17, here in handcuffs. The parents refused to bring him back for questioning, so Ohio child abuse investigators traveled to Jamaica to check on his well-being. No problems were found, and the charges against his parents were ultimately withdrawn. Tranquility Bay, which includes an accredited school, is part of the Teen Help network.
-Paradise Cove, in Western Samoa. Another Teen Help program, this one erupted into the public spotlight when the father of Stanley Goold III, 16, launched a custody fight to force his return. Stanley had been sent to Paradise Cove by his mother. The father obtained a court order forcing his return 11 months later. Stanley is suing Teen Help and the Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs, alleging mistreatment. WWASP officials dispute his claims. “This program didn’t become the largest, most successful program of its kind for no reason,” they said in a statement.
Paradise Cove also has an accredited school. Croke, the educational consultant, visited in April 1996 and says he saw nothing alarming. “The boys I spoke with indicated that the program was serving them well, and they had high morale,” he wrote on his website. “I believe that Paradise Cove is well ... within the range of functioning which would be required for a facility to be licensed in the U.S., for example, in Utah. I would not be surprised if it failed stateside licensing requirements only by reason of the fact that the buildings, appropriate to the tropical climate, would not be appropriate to the more severe climates in the U.S.”
-Morava Academy, Czech Republic. Late last fall, Czech state police closed down Morava Academy, another Teen Help program. It had housed 57 American youths in a former hotel in Brno, 125 miles southeast of Prague. Associated Press (AP) reported that four staff members, including Americans Steve and Glenda Roach, faced cruelty charges for isolating or tying up kids in their care.
“Some of the children said they were isolated in a room where they had to lie on their bellies, sometimes with their hands tied behind their backs, and were given only a limited amount of water,” a Czech investigator told AP. He said the school also failed to provide medical care and employed inadequately trained staff.
The program’s public relations firm, the Malvern Group, based in the British Virgin Islands, blamed two former employees for making false accusations. “The loss of this program from the Czech Republic is a tragedy not only for the investors of the program that now have no way to recover their losses, but even more so for the loss of opportunity that this unique European program was offerings its students,” its statement said.
-Sunrise Beach, Mexico. Also affiliated with Teen Help, Sunrise Beach began operating in Punta Sam, a suburb of Cancun, in 1995. In May 1996, a local newspaper ran a story about the program, which was how immigration and education officials learned of the program’s existence.
According to IntrepidNet, an investigative reporting website, immigration officials dropped in and found that it was licensed as a resort and that the residents lacked visas. Within days, two American school officials attempted to leave the country with their 41 American students. But they were stopped at the airport and arrested on charges that included depriving juveniles of their liberty. Their names? Glenda and Steve Roach, the same couple later charged with mistreating teens at Morava Academy.
-Casa by the Sea, Mexico. This Teen Help program opened sometime in 1998, near Ensenada, in Baja California. “A foreign experience is more than just cost-effective,” says a brochure promoting it. “It has a greater impact, provides your child with a broader perspective and creates a greater appreciation for home and family.”
-A Better Way Youth Academy, Western Samoa. Known sometimes as Robert Louis Stevenson Youth Academy or Mole Ole Ava, this program was founded a few years ago by Sterling Deveraux, a former therapist at Heritage Center and at the Western Youth Network (now part of Youth Services International). Although this program has been praised by many parents, last February it was rocked by a sex scandal when a male staff member admitted being sexually involved with a female student. Other students later complained of sexual advances by staff members as well. The owners now plan to turn it into an all-male program.
Dan Hedstrom of Turlock, California, visited his son four times while he was at A Better Way and says the program is exemplary. Now home, his son is “absolutely a changed kid,” Hedstrom wrote recently in a posting on Woodbury Reports Online. “He is once again the son that I lost years ago to poor decisions on his part, and his experimentation into the darker sides of life.”
-New Hope Academy, Western Samoa. This program closed under mysterious circumstances this past winter. On February 2, a U.S. consular agent found five students wandering on a beach on the island of Apia, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. A few were placed in Paradise Cove and A Better Way, and the others returned to the United States. Samoan authorities are reported to be investigating allegations of mistreatment and fraud. The Utah attorney general is also investigating New Hope’s business practices.
The owners of New Hope were Utah businessmen Norm Cluff and Dan Wakefield and a former Brigham Young University football star named Mekeli Ieremia, who served as the CEO. Cluff has dismissed complaints by former students that they were physically or sexually abused and never received therapy. “Some of these kids are prone to lie, and some of their parents are prone to believe them,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune.