Teen Boot Camp Conditions Criticized
Ex-BYU student's program sued over alleged horrors; Boot Camp For Teens Seen As Too Harsh
The Salt Lake Tribune
The television screen in the conference room of an attorney's office flickers with images from the homemade videotape that the U.S. Embassy helped Bob DeLancy smuggle out of the island nation of Samoa last summer.
A girl on the screen weeps uncontrollably as she recounts how staff members in a tropical teen reform camp held her down and "felt my breasts and butt and kissed me." A shirtless and shoeless teen boy appears on camera, standing in the jungle, his torso, back, arms and hands covered with hundreds of mosquito bites and red boils, a result of sleeping on a grass mat in the jungle with no mosquito netting or repellent.
Another boy asks the camera why he is still confined to the camp, even though he is now 18 years old. "I thought you were free when you turned 18, at least in America you are," he says. A girl says she's afraid the staff will see her being filmed, then explains she was hogtied and left in the jungle for two days without food or shelter. "They made me go to the bathroom on myself," she says with shame.
"This is ugly, prisoner of war stuff," DeLancy said as the parade of hollow-eyed, shaved-head teens continue their videotaped testimonials of beatings, sexual assaults, eating food with bugs in it, untreated injuries, sleep deprivation and the constant berating by staff members.
But this is where the former Sandy resident and his wife Debbie sent their 15-year-old son Jeff after he was caught shoplifting a necklace in Phoenix, the city where the DeLancys now live with their five children. The program was called Pacific Coast Academy and it was the latest manifestation of the so-called "wilderness therapy" treatment philosophy for defiant teens developed in the late-1980s by Brigham Young University dropout Steve Cartisano.
Hailed as a savior by some and a scoundrel by others, the former Mapleton man created Utah's multimillion-dollar boot-camp teen treatment industry. But most program operators today would rather not be associated with Cartisano's legacy. Since his "Challenger" outdoor teen treatment program in southern Utah closed in 1990 following the death of a 16-year-old girl in his care, Cartisano has launched several unregulated "tough love" programs for rebellious teens in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and Samoa.
All collapsed amid claims of child abuse and financial improprieties.
Pacific Coast Academy (PCA) was no different. The Samoan camp was raided by U.S. Embassy officials last July and most of the students were returned to their parents after Embassy officials saw the videotape shot by Bob and Jeff DeLancy and concluded the allegations made by the children were "very serious, coherent, credible and consistent."
Ironically, the only people ever charged with a crime in the case are the DeLancys, who flew to Samoa to retrieve their son after another student who had been released from the camp told them that Jeff had been sexually assaulted. As they tried to leave Samoa with their son, local police stopped them at the airport, searched and questioned them for hours, demanding the videotape. A 23-count criminal indictment sworn out by a camp official and ordered by the Samoan Supreme Court charged the DeLancys with illegally making the tape that "might bring about the close of the program by showing it in a bad light."
Police presented the family with prepared confessions and wanted $20,000 in fines paid with the tape's return. As a U.S. Embassy employee sat nearby with the tape hidden in a briefcase, Bob DeLancy told police he had already mailed the video to an attorney in the states. Finally, the family was allowed to board their plane home.
"We've been told by the State Department never to go back to Samoa and we don't plan to," said Bob DeLancy. Added his wife Debbie: "When our older son was called for his [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] mission, we had to tell them he can go anywhere but Samoa."
The camp documented by the DeLancys was nothing like what they were told it would be in discussions with directors, the family says.
"They told us when Jeff got to a certain level in the program he would be doing baptisms for the dead at the local LDS temple in Apia," said Bob DeLancy, a mortgage broker who trusted camp officials when they said they, too, were members of the LDS Church. "That was part of our rationalization for sending him there: How bad can this place be if there's a [Mormon] temple there and the kids are doing temple work?"
Although Cartisano was acquitted of negligent homicide in the 1990 death of Kristen Chase, Utah officials consider him a potential child abuser and have put his name on a registry of people who are forbidden to work with children in the state.
But that hasn't stopped Cartisano from parlaying his Utah connections into failed ventures that seem borrowed from the same Challenger script. Now, Cartisano and his Utah and Arizona partners in PCA have been sued by the DeLancys and parents of 18 other campers in Los Angeles Superior Court seeking millions of dollars in damages on behalf of their children for misrepresentation, fraud, false imprisonment, breach of contract, assault, battery, sexual battery, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent child abuse and violations of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
On Thursday, Judge Gregory O'Brien sanctioned Cartisano, who now lives in Oklahoma, and father-and-son co-defendants Lonnie and Brandon Fuller of Gilbert, Ariz., $1,500 each for continued failures to appear for hearings on the parents' lawsuit. Another defendant and PCA official, David Weston of Logan, participated in a telephone conference with the judge, who asked why Weston had failed to appear or respond to the lawsuit.
"I didn't think I had to," said Weston, who, like Cartisano and the Fullers, has no attorney representing him.
The parents are represented by Palm Desert attorney Pamela Elliott, who sent her 16-year-old son Chase to PCA after he began skipping school and smoking marijuana. For a $4,000 to $5,000 entrance fee and $2,000 to $3,000 monthly charges, Elliott and other parents were told in PCA brochures their children would be immersed "into cultures dedicated to love of family and respect for parental and adult authority."
Instead, the children allegedly were subjected to sadistic abuse and humilities ranging from broomsticks placed threateningly against their anuses to urine dumped over their heads.
"They took away my son's childhood," says Elliott. "But they kept telling us not to believe any reports of abuse, that it was just the kids lying and manipulating. When Chase finally was allowed to call me he said in a whisper, 'Mom, this is like something on "60 Minutes," you've got to get us out of here,' I didn't believe him. That's how stupid I was."
Ken Stettler, a Utah Division of Youth Corrections regulator who helped expose abuse problems in the Challenger program, says parents desperate for help with their teens are a lucrative target for unscrupulous program marketers.
"Now that these parents look back on sending their kids out of the country, it probably does seem pretty stupid," he said. "But at the time, they were in a state of crisis and what's sad is that Steve Cartisano knows there's a business in preying on parents and families in crisis."
Cartisano declined to be interviewed. However, he told The New York Times last year that the claims were concocted by children who are habitual liars and venal parents who merely want refunds, adding that he is the victim in the series of failed programs because he has been forced to use aliases "just to stay in business and feed my family."
Lonnie Fuller, when asked by The Salt Lake Tribune via telephone last week if there was any truth to the PCA abuse allegations, replied, "Of course not. I am not involved with this in any way and want it out of my life."
Weston maintained in an interview that PCA was a worthwhile program in an idyllic setting that succeeded in helping troubled teens cope with drug problems, improve their academics and gain self-esteem.
"For every story that went bad, there are four or five other kids who say it was the greatest experience that ever happened to them," said the former Logan motel owner who claims he invested $160,000 in PCA without any repayment. "On the back side of this thing, however, there were huge problems with Steve Cartisano absconding with the money."
Although Weston said he was basically a scuba instructor and handyman for the camp, he wrote letters to parents last summer asking them to contact him or Fuller "to quiet all your fears" if their children told them "horror stories of abuse, torture and abandonment."
But children were not the only ones telling such stories.
"The general health and nutritional standards at PCA are totally unacceptable and perhaps even appalling," Alexandra Robinson, former PCA nurse, said in a statement last summer. "The week before I left, all the boys were denied access to the toilet as a form of punishment."
Added Craig Templeman, a licensed Utah social worker hired by Cartisano to be PCA's therapist who also quit: "Steve told me he had to lie to sell the program. Much of the therapy I did with the students was dealing with these lies."
Weston maintains the U.S. Embassy overreacted to false accusations of abuse and wrongly removed the children in the program, which continues to operate today with a new management that claims Cartisano is no longer involved.
"We put our heart and soul into this to help kids," Weston said. "Maybe some of it backfired, but I'm still a strong believer in the program."