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Lisa Riley Roche

The Deseret News

The embattled Challenger Foundation will be allowed to continue to operate under a tentative agreement reached with state attorney general's office, according to the founder of the program for troubled youth.

``They feel comfortable we're not killing kids out there, and we feel comfortable they're not shutting us down,'' said Steve Cartisano, Challenger founder.

The attorney general's office had threatened to shut down the 63-day survival course aimed at taming rebellious teenagers unless it complied with licensing regulations by Wednesday.

Challenger came under scrutiny following a court ruling that a 17-year-old participant's constitutional rights were violated because she was brought to the program's remote desert location against her will.

Elizabeth Zasso has a $20 million lawsuit pending against Challenger for what she said she suffered after her parents had her abducted from her job in New York and forcibly enrolled in the program.

Cartisano had been fighting back in the courts. A hearing for a temporary restraining order to prevent the state from taking action against the program was scheduled Tuesday.

The impasse apparently was broken by a visit last Friday from representatives of the attorney general's office and the state Department of Social Services, which handles licensing for youth treatment programs.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Luinstra said the visit helped convince the two state agencies that Challenger was attempting to comply with the licensing regulations.

``They showed good faith,'' Luinstra said of Challenger's efforts. ``Once they've reached that point, we're certainly not going to try and push anyone out of business.''

Cartisano said that under the terms of the agreement reached late Monday afternoon, the state will work with him to develop a new set of licensing regulations that will apply to Challenger.

Currently, two other wilderness youth treatment programs similar to Challenger are licensed by the state through the Youth Corrections Division of the Department of Social Services.

The licensing now will likely be handled by the Licensing Division of the Department of Social Services, according to Ken Stettler, a program specialist in the Youth Corrections Division.

Stettler said after conversations with the division manager who visited the program last Friday, he was not convinced that Challenger is running as smoothly as it might have appeared.

``Things may be worse than we thought,'' Stettler said, adding that he has received negative comments about Challenger from former employees and others associated with the program.

1989 Aug 15