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Bay "kidnap' case pits parents vs. teen


San Francisco Examiner

He was asleep in his bunk bed when the two men knocked on the door in the middle of the night and took him away against his will.

The men were hired by his parents to take him - by force, if necessary - from his Oakland home to a Utah hospital for troubled teenagers. From there, 16-year-old David Van Blarigan was taken to a behavior-modification "boarding school" in Jamaica, where he's not allowed to leave the grounds or even call his parents.

To his parents, the men were professional "escorts," not abductors, and their decision to have David taken away against his will was within their rights as parents to do what they felt best for their child.

But to the Alameda County district attorney it was kidnapping.

And David's unwilling enrollment in the Jamaican facility, Tranquility Bay, is unlawful imprisonment that violates his individual right to freedom.

On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge in Oakland will hold a hearing on the prosecutor's petition to have David returned to Oakland and placed under the court's protective custody.

At issue in the case are the rights of parents vs. the rights of minors.

The case has drawn national attention. Not only is the tale of David's post-midnight removal from his home dramatic, but the judge's decision in this unprecedented case can impact the burgeoning industry of "teen help" centers like Tranquility Bay.

Overwhelmed by their children's problems, from unruliness to depression, frightened by the statistics of teen suicides and drug abuse, frustrated by conventional counseling and therapy sessions, more and more parents are turning to more radical programs, from "boarding schools" like Tranquility Bay to boot camps and military academies.

They are places of last resort.

"We're usually the last phone call parents make. They've tried everything else," said Jeri Fontaine, the admissions coordinator for Teen Help, which administers Tranquility Bay and Brightway Adolescent Hospital in Utah, where David was first taken.

Her office gets 100 calls a day from parents, she added. "We can't keep up with the desperation," she said.

At their core, programs like Tranquility Bay strive for behavior modification through a strategy of rewards and consequences, or punishment. They usually require the youth to live at the facility for months and even years, and to have minimum contact with relatives and friends.

Personal freedom is restricted. Individual choices are earned through good behavior, and withheld with bad behavior.

The programs are advertised in mainstream magazines, like Sunset and Redbook, said Fontaine. But most calls come from word-of-mouth. Scores of such centers have Web sites on the Internet.

The programs' costs vary, from $2,000 a month for a center like Tranquility Bay to more than $100,000 a year, said Daniel Koller, the attorney for David's parents, Jim and Sue Van Blarigan.

Jim Van Blarigan is self-employed, but Koller declined to be more specific. Sue Van Blarigan used to be a school teacher. Koller would not state how the family was paying for the program other than to say it was a significant financial sacrifice. Insurance will not pay for the program.

Koller, whose own son has been away for more than 18 months in programs in Samoa and in Montana, knows of parents who have refinanced or even sold their homes and assumed lifelong loans to pay for a program.

For them, said Koller, any amount of money is worth saving their child's life.

Many, like the Van Blarigans, hire professional escorts to take their children to the centers because they know that the children would not go with their parents voluntarily, said Koller. Koller hired escorts to take his son. So did Fontaine, for her daughter.

The Van Blarigans don't deny that David was taken against his will, said Koller.

"Heck, nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night . . . and leave everything," he said.

But the Van Blarigans felt they had no other choice, he said. Koller declined to state what David's behavioral problems were, but said they were not drug- or alcohol-related.

David, who was a student at Skyline High School in Oakland and has a younger brother, Timmy, 13, came to the attention of the courts when he placed a collect phone call from the Jamaica airport to his next-door neighbor, Neil Aschemeyer, an administrative law judge. Aschemeyer then contacted Oakland police.

According to court documents filed by the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Robert Hutchins, David called Aschemeyer on Nov. 23. David said he was able to make the call because the personnel from Tranquility Bay were late in meeting him at the airport.

David told Aschemeyer that he was asleep in his bedroom on Nov. 10 when he was awakened at 12:30 a.m. by his parents. In the room were "two burly men," David told Aschemeyer.

His parents told David that the men were going to take him away "because he was unhappy at home." David's protests were to no avail.

The men, from Youth Transport Service of Ogden, Utah, then escorted David to a four-door sedan they picked up at the Oakland Airport after arriving the night before from Salt Lake City, said Koller.

Once inside the car, David told Aschemeyer, he was placed in a locked seat similar to a child's seat. When he asked the escorts "why they didn't get a real job instead of kidnapping children," the escorts threatened to handcuff him, David said.

At the Brightway Adolescent Hospital in St. George, Utah, 700 miles away, David said that teenagers "were not permitted to talk back to hospital personnel."

"If they did, several members of the staff would jump on the minor and knock the minor to the floor. Then they would pile on the individual," according to the petition.

Unruly teenagers would also be given a hypodermic needle injection and locked in a room alone, the document added.

David ended his conversation with Aschemeyer by stating that "he felt as if he was in prison."

Neither Aschemeyer nor Hutchins returned calls that requested interviews.

David's parents have not spoken with him since the night he left their home, said Koller.

1998 Jan 6