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5 Stranded When Utah Firm Closes

Facility treated troubled youths on island of Samoa; Samoa: Teens Were Stranded, Parents Claim


The Salt Lake Tribune

A Utah-affiliated business that caters to troubled teen-agers -- shipping them to Samoa for treatment -- closed its doors two weeks ago, leaving five American teen-agers stranded on the Pacific island.

An agent for the U.S. Consulate in Samoa helped find shelter for the abandoned boys and one girl and then contacted their parents in the United States who, in turn, notified the U.S. State Department and the Utah attorney general.

When the agent visited the facility, "he found no guards and one U.S. citizen-counselor," said Maria Rudensky, a State Department spokeswoman in Washington. "The counselor was in charge, but some of the children were in a village eating fruit and it appeared they were unsupervised. The director had left the facility and apparently the country."

All the teen-agers were undergoing treatment at New Hope Academy, a limited partnership formed last year by Norm Cluff of Orem; Mekeli Ieremia, an ex-BYU football player who was CEO at New Hope; and Dan Wakefield, a Provo businessman and former cattleman who ran Jim Dandy and Treasure Island tours before opening New Hope.

Wakefield did not immediately return calls, and a phone call to the Orem offices of New Hope went unanswered. Cluff, who left the partnership last year, denies teen-agers were abandoned when New Hope closed.

"When the program shut down, the kids were taken home and others were transferred to another company," he said. "One thing about this business that I learned -- a lot of rumors get started . . . When little Johnny would write home and say they were being starved, `They are not feeding us,' or `Somebody got beat up,' the parents quickly forget the kids do a bit of lying and manipulating."

Cluff said financial troubles led to closure of the home on Feb. 2.

Parents say the closure came without warning and before refunds were arranged for thousands of dollars paid by families desperate to find treatment for unruly, drug-addled or suicidal teen-agers.

The experience, says one Mormon mother from California, has soured her on the faith of the men involved, including Wayne Shute, a former professor in the educational leadership department at Brigham Young University, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

One of New Hope's selling points, parents say, was the close ties of company leaders to the Mormon Church. Shute, who has no apparent business tie to New Hope, is president of the Mormon Temple in Samoa and, Cluff says, was involved in early planning for New Hope. It was also widely discussed that Cluff's brother-in-law is Sen. Orrin Hatch.

"My son was found with four other kids eating sugar cane," says Maryann Groeger of Temecula, Calif., whose 16-year-old son, Armando, entered the program in October. "These are brethren. These are people I thought I could trust. They presented themselves as LDS."

Groeger's son had failed to respond to conventional therapy when she turned to New Hope, eventually paying $34,000 for a year's treatment. She also paid $4,000 for an escort service to fly her son to Samoa.

When New Hope closed, she had to pay another $3,000 to shuttle Armando to Paradise Cove, another Utah-based business that runs a home for disturbed teen-agers on Samoa. Last year, associates of Paradise Cove opened a similar treatment center, Moravia Academy, in the Czech Republic. Less than a year after it opened, Czech officials ordered the facility closed after reports that teen-agers there were mistreated.

Paradise Cove officials are also affiliated with the defunct Brightway Adolescent Hospital in St. George, a facility that closed after Utah authorities intervened, citing a series of administrative mishaps.

New Hope was lavishly described in brochures and on a World Wide Web advertisement posted by the short-lived partnership. Like many facilities in the growing troubled-teen treatment industry, New Hope relied on slick slogans: "Every Day, A Good Kid Makes The Wrong Decision," and "Traditional Values Treatment."

They cater to Christian and Mormon families with difficult children.

That's how New Hope attracted Groeger, whose son drifted into depression after his father was nearly killed during an assault. The Groegers are divorced.

"He has a learning disability and he was doing really poorly in school . . . and he had abandonment issues with his father," Groeger says. "When his father was close to death, it was the coup de grace. He started running away."

After spending thousands of dollars on conventional treatment, Groeger sent her son to New Hope.

So did Gregg Thompson of Palm Springs, Calif., and Dan Hedstrom, of Turlock, Calif., who were convinced New Hope was the faith-based alternative for their troubled teen-agers.

"I can't believe I ever got involved with this operation," said Hedstrom, CEO of a medical group. "I was the only parent that had ever been there. In late September, there were some rather questionable staff changes; supposedly someone embezzled money."

Parents also heard stories of food shortages and leaky sewage. In December, the parents of eight Americans notified New Hope they were taking their children en mass out of the program before their 12-month contracts expired.

Other parents worried, but took no action. Less than two months later, New Hope closed.

"I got a call from Washington, D.C., that said my son has been abandoned, he has no food," says Groeger. "I had 24 hours to find a new place. I was terrified."

Cluff admits to difficulties in running New Hope, but says all the teen-agers received quality treatment.

"This program, just like other companies, [had] some problems, learning as it goes," he says. "But most of the hysteria . . . was just misinformation . . . We had the best interest of the children in mind."

1999 Feb 18