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Watertown Daily Times

The owner of an American behavior modification program in Costa Rica housing nearly 200 American youths was jailed Friday on a charge of depriving the children of their civil liberties.

The owner, Narvin Lichfield, was detained temporarily pending a judge's review of allegations brought by a local prosecutor. Those allegations include charges that children were held against their will and physically abused at the Academy at Dundee Ranch, in rural Costa Rica, according to Adilia Caravaca, a Costa Rican lawyer representing the mother of a child at Dundee.

A 14-year-old California girl who fled the academy on Thursday and returned home with the help of U.S. Embassy officials said by telephone on Friday that Dundee Ranch staff members had beaten and physically restrained children who tried to leave the academy.

The girl, whose mother insisted that her name be withheld, said staff members "tried to make us sign a contract saying we didn't want anything to change and told us we had to sign the contract or we would be sent to Jamaica."

Dundee Ranch and a similar behavior modification program in Jamaica, Tranquility Bay, are affiliated with a Utah organization, the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools, known as WWASPS.

About 30 children were sent from Costa Rica to Jamaica this week after child welfare officials visited Dundee Ranch on Tuesday and told youths there that they did not have to stay, officials said.

The Costa Rican authorities said punishments at the academy included emotional abuse, isolation and physical restraints.

Narvin Lichfield is a brother of WWASPS' founder, Robert Lichfield. The association operates 11 behavior modification centers that house 2,200 youths, about half of them in Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica, and half in the United States - in Utah, Montana, South Carolina and upstate New York.

The Academy at Ivy Ridge, Ogdensburg, opened in January 2002 and uses the same program as all other WWASPS-associated schools. So far, no complaints of student abuse or neglect have been lodged against the school. Investigations have led to closings of WWASPS-affiliated programs in Mexico and the Czech Republic.

The arrest may spell the end of the academy, several parents of children at Dundee Ranch said.

Some said in e-mail messages that they had faith in the program despite the charges. Others were desperately trying to contact their children to bring them home, but without success.

One, Yumiko Huffer, of Nashville, said her 17-year-old son had complained of mistreatment and had begged her to be sent home. "I sold my home to pay the tuition," more than $30,000 a year, she said in a telephone interview. She said she had enrolled her son last September "as a last resort."

2003 May 24