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Teens Complain Of Torture at Treatment Camps

Samoa facility's closure is latest among centers with ties to Utah; Treatment Centers With Ties to Utah Are Under Fire


The Salt Lake Tribune

This winter, Miranda and Eric, a girl from Eugene, Ore., and a boy from Detroit, strolled sandy beaches for fruit and coral.

It was a Pacific adventure their supervisors liked to compare with Treasure Island, a fantasy novel that was supposed to be part of an integrated treatment program that could turn a troubled teen-ager into a terrific son or daughter.

But Miranda, a young recovering addict and Eric, a 14-year-old with an attention deficit disorder, never saw paradise. It was more like purgatory, say a growing number of disillusioned parents.

They say New Hope Academy, where the teen-agers were staying, was a flimflam orchestrated by the owners of a residential treatment home on the tiny island of Apia, Samoa.

Eric and Miranda were among a small group of American teen-agers whose parents paid up to $3,000 a month for their wayward children to be treated for drugs, depression or other disaffecting social disorders by staff at New Hope, a Utah business catering to troubled teen-agers.

With high expectations, New Hope opened in mid-1998. By October, 20 American kids were contracted for treatment in a program that attracted some parents for its inferred connections to the Mormon Church and other parents for the advertised hard-work, hard-knocks therapy that included cattle ranching and behavior modification.

By Feb. 2, when an agent for the U.S. Consulate found Eric, Miranda and three other young American boys on the beach or living with villagers kind enough to provide them shelter, it was clear that New Hope was sinking.

Parents say their kids never saw a cow or a ranch. Some teen-agers say they were physically or sexually abused. Treatment was either sporadic or non-existent.

`They Would Get Mad': Eric Luz, who met with one therapist who quit amid allegations he stole files and counter-allegations of widespread abuse, returned home covered in boils caused by a virus his father's physician in Detroit treated with antibiotics.

"I was touched [inappropriately] by staff," says Eric, who flew to Salt Lake City with his father Art on Friday to enroll in another program catering to troubled teen-agers. "My parents sent Christmas presents I never got. I was hit with a broom for I don't know why. They would get mad."

New Hope is the latest in a series of treatment centers with connections to Utah that has closed its doors under threat of criminal or civil action.

In March, Brightway, a southern Utah adolescent hospital accused of operating as a front for a network of teen homes, was forced to close its doors under pressure from the Utah Department of Health's bureau of licensing.

Licensing director Debra Wynkoop-Green was critical of business ties between managers at Brightway, a nonprofit venture, and owners of for-profit treatment centers in Samoa, Jamaica, Utah, Montana and the Czech Republic.

Helping Teens: Despite the closure, Teen Help, which once operated referrals directly out of Brightway, appears to be flourishing and hundreds of kids from around the country are receiving "behavior modification" treatment at expensive residential centers with fluffy names -- Tranquility Bay, (Jamaica) Paradise Cove (Samoa) and Spring Creek (Montana).

"The programs are very effective, but you're not going to please everybody, you're not going to please every parent," says Robert B. Lichfield, who started his multimillion-dollar Teen Help empire in 1987 with $8,000.

Since then, Lichfield, who has no college degree, has divested his many companies, creating limited liability partnerships for the treatment programs. His name is not on the partnerships, although he gets paid for "consulting."

The people who do run the partnerships are Lichfield's friends or business associates from other ventures, including J. Ralph Atkin, a southern Utah mogul whose family operates SkyWest Airlines.

Criticism of residential treatment centers is unwarranted, Lichfield says, but apt to happen now and then because of the hundreds of troubled teens who pass through the program every year.

Some Kids Lie: Norm Cluff of Orem, a former partner in New Hope, is more blunt.

"Some of these kids are prone to lie, and some of their parents are prone to believe them," he says. "There was one girl who claimed she was fondled by a staff person and that created a lot of emotions. But the girl later recanted."

(New Hope, which operated under the same principles as the Teen Help group, is not financially affiliated with Lichfield.)

Cluff's former partners, Utah businessman Dan Wakefield and former Brigham Young University football great Mekeli Ieremia, New Hope's CEO, have not returned phone calls. While Eric Luz was in Samoa for treatment, Ieremia never once set foot inside the treatment center, says the boy's father.

And Wakefield, says Cluff, left the island in late January with pneumonia. The departure, say parents, left the program virtually dormant.

No Sign of Program: U.S. Consulate officials say they saw no sign of therapy programming on Feb. 2, when they called parents in America about purportedly abandoned kids, including Eric and Miranda.

"When I saw [my daughter in Hawaii], she was smiling ear to ear, and I was grateful she seemed better, but I'm not sure the issues that led to her doing drugs had been addressed. I'm not sure I got my $20,000 worth of treatment," says Miranda's mother Gwyne Erekson of Eugene, Ore.

Miranda flew to Hawaii and then to the Marshall Islands to meet her father after Consulate officials in Samoa picked her up off a beach. No parent who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune has yet been notified by phone or mail that New Hope was closing, or that programming had stopped. More than two weeks after all the teen-agers left New Hope, neither Wakefield, Cluff nor Ieremia have written or called the Luz family or the Erekson family, the parents say.

Outrage: "I'm outraged," says Erekson, who is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was courted by New Hope owners and staff who were also LDS. "When they find out you're LDS it is even more taken advantage of. They would use the church to inspire my confidence."

Lichfield's group too courts LDS members and parents from Christian families, some parents say, stressing faith-based, Old Testament-style discipline.

Officials in Prague say punishments there far exceeded safe levels.

In November, St. George natives Glenda and Steven Roach and two other people who worked at the Morava Academy in the Czech Republic, another business in the Lichfield and Atkin fold, were charged with cruelty to teen-agers in their custody.

Czech investigators say 25 of the school's 57 students complained of harsh treatment.

Harsh treatment appears to be a linchpin of the Lichfield-affiliated businesses, say attorneys representing two families who filed civil-rights lawsuits against Teen Help, Lichfield, Lichfield's business empire and associates Brent M. Facer and Karr Farnsworth.

A Cult? Thomas M. Burton, a Pleasanton, Calif., attorney, likens the network of behavior modification programs to a "cult."

Cross Creek Manor, a home in Washington County, Utah, for troubled teen-age girls, "is one of many closed, secret cult centers . . . where adolescents are impounded, tortured, berated, brainwashed, and otherwise abused," alleges his suit, filed in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court on behalf of Celece and Ceta Dochterman of California.

In the lawsuit, Celece claims she was forced to urinate, defecate and bathe while being watched, she was called a "slut" and "family destroyer," and paraded naked in front of male staff.

When she refused to go to the bathroom in view of others, staff fashioned a diaper out of plastic and then taped it to her groin.

"Its promotional literature and seminars were deceptive in that Cross Creek did not inspire, uplift, educate and prepare young people for responsible citizenship, but, to the contrary, subjected them to humiliating and degrading treatment at the hands of sadistic lackeys," the lawsuit says. Cross Creek was staffed by "controlling, untrained persons of low intelligence posing as counselors who, without cause, berated, tormented, ridiculed, belittled, scolded, deprived and demeaned."

Many families who turn to Teen Help or other residential treatment centers say forced commitment of their teen-agers is the only way to save their lives. Some teens agree.

"I was on drugs, I hated my life," says Kaedra Moore of Albany, Ore., who at age 15 entered Cross Creek.

"I was on probation for tobacco possession, had blue hair, pierced ears and eyebrows and 12 tattoos," the now-16-year-old says. "But they gave me clarity, they gave me trust. I still have problems with depression, but I don't live it. That's the difference, I can deal with the downside much better."

Kaedra's mother Paula Moore praises Cross Creek for focusing on family healing. Staff encouraged parent participation and group therapy.

"They are not looking to blame, but for solutions to get everybody in the family to take responsibility," she says. "I can't emphasize enough how caring and extremely loving the staff are."

Attorneys for Teen Help and Lichfield did not return phone calls.

More Problems: Another Lichfield venture that has operated with difficulty is Browning Academy in La Verkin. Although accredited, Utah education officials have been critical of Browning (Lichfield's middle name), citing the lack of a qualified educational administrator.

Like Cross Creek, Tranquility Bay, Paradise Cove and the now-defunct New Hope, Browning charges tens of thousands of dollars for schooling, treating and housing troubled teen-agers.

While the owners' intentions may be good, their priorities are suspect, says Barbe Stamps, a teen-rights advocate from Del Mar, Calif.

"These organizations are formed entirely to make money," she says. "The seminars are like brainwashing. They feed on desperate parents."

Utah officials agree, and although there is some regulation, investigators say there are too many treatment centers for the few regulators to keep up with.

"They are much like any other business, always looking to expand," says Dick Baldwin, a licensing specialist with the Utah Department of Human Services. Baldwin, one of several licensing officers, overseas 42 multi-person programs and 250 foster-home style programs. Half of his caseload is in the St. George area. Of some 2,200 teen-agers a year who pass through programs he monitors, Baldwin talks to maybe 100.

"I'd say about 10 of the programs I see have mastered the match between business and therapy and the others are either too strong on the business side or too strong on the therapy side," Baldwin says. Cross Creek, one of the businesses he licenses, does a fairly good job at both, he says.

But some Utah officials say the development of overseas treatment centers is an avenue for businesses to escape stringent regulations. In Utah, a residential treatment center must have a licensed nurse on site at least 40 hours a week and a licensed clinical social worker must approve and administer a minimum amount of therapy per week.

Those requirements don't exist in Jamaica, Samoa or Prague.

"They could be out there doing anything they darn well please," says Ken Stettler, who works for the office of quality assistance at the Utah Department of Youth Corrections.

"We've tried to get the consumer protection division to look at it," he says. "These folks [who run the overseas operations] are not being fair to the public. It's not illegal, it's just unethical."

The experience at New Hope has drawn interest from officials in Samoa, who told the U.S. Consulate they would investigate the closure. The U.S. Department of Justice would not have jurisdiction, says Maria Rudensky, a Washington, D.C., spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.

No explanation: Luz, who is still waiting for some explanation from New Hope, says his son must start treatment elsewhere. He is hoping the Utah Boys Ranch in Salt Lake County, where he and his son arrived Friday afternoon, is the answer.

"Our therapist felt Eric would benefit by being responsible for taking care of animals on the ranch [in Samoa]," Luz says. "Needless to say, the ranch advertised was not in operation when he got to Samoa and never came to be.

"While it lasted, there was some therapy," Luz says. "But it was more like an expensive vacation. Sure, you go to an island, walk the beach, it's like camp. You feel better. But there was no treatment. No lasting effect."

1999 Feb 22