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Lisa Riley Roche

The Deseret News

Operators of two of the three wilderness programs for troubled youths that are licensed in Utah say they helped the Challenger Foundation get started.

But both Doug Nelson of the Wilderness Academy and Larry J. Wells of Wilderness Conquest have since disassociated themselves from the Challenger program because they said they didn't like the way it was being run.

In recent interviews with the Deseret News, Nelson and Wells were hesitant to criticize the Challenger program or its founder, Steve Cartisano, but each made it clear his program is different.

All of the programs are based on the theory that taking defiant teenagers away from their comfortable surroundings and forcing them to fend for themselves in the wilderness makes them more receptive to therapy.

The difference in the programs is not so much in the degree of physical discomfort involved in adapting to the primitive living conditions but in how much and what kind of therapy is provided, according to operators.

``I did not agree with the direction they were going,'' Wells said of his decision not to remain in charge of Challenger's staff. ``You cannot go that big that fast and maintain quality.''

Some 500 young people have gone through Challenger since the Delaware-based, for-profit corporation began operating in Utah in January 1988, according to Cartisano.

In contrast, Wells said his Idaho-based Wilderness Conquest has taken about 30 young people into the Utah back country since the program was started in September 1988.

Nelson's chief concern with the Challenger program is that it did not offer enough therapy. ``It was more like, `Just take the child out in the wilderness and then kick him back,' '' Nelson said.

``I was very adamant about the program being real therapy-based and looking at problems as family problems, not just the child's problems,'' Nelson said of why he left after about a year with Challenger to start his own program.

Cartisano dismissed the questions raised about Challenger by his former employees by comparing his program with IBM and theirs to ``a Mom and Pop store.''

``A lot of people have seen Steve make a lot of money and said, `I can do that.' There are a lot of copycats,'' Cartisano said. ``I think they're finding that it's not that easy.''

Ken Stettler, a program specialist with the Youth Corrections Division of the state Department of Social Services, estimated that Challenger probably spends about $2,500 per participant. The program charges the parents $12,500.

``That's $5 million profit,'' Stettler said. He has questioned the wisdom of an agreement made between the state attorney general's office and Challenger to work out a licensing arrangement for the program while it continues to operate.

Nelson, like other operators, did not want to specify how much money his program makes. But he said the therapy alone provided during the 56-day program costs as much as $8,000 for six youths whose parents have paid $11,900 each.

The current scrutiny stems from complaints about the living conditions provided by the Challenger program from a 17-year-old New York girl whose boyfriend successfully sued for her release.

Elizabeth Zasso has herself filed a $10 million lawsuit against Challenger for the physical hardships she says she suffered after being abducted from her workplace and brought to the program's remote desert site at her parents' request.

Operators of other programs agree that physical hardships are necessary to spark the change sought in the often-defiant youths. For example, Wells keeps blankets from Wilderness Conquest participants during their first 24 hours.

``It teaches them appreciation of the blanket, their bed at home and who provides it,'' Wells said. ``Growth comes in direct proportion to the hardship.''

One of the demands of Challenger made by the state in response to Zasso's complaints is that each participant in the program be provided ``a lightweight, sufficiently warm, sleeping bag rather than wool blankets . . . ''

That is likely to be one of the issues discussed when representatives of the state and Challenger meet to determine licensing requirements for the program. Stettler has no complaints about Wilderness Conquest or Wilderness Academy.

However, both of those programs as well as the state's third licensee, Vision Quest, a national program that enrolls only adjudicated youths, have been asked to review their practices.

Wayne Holland, Youth Corrections Division quality-assurance manager, sent letters to the four programs last week along with copies of the demands of Challenger drafted by the attorney general's office.

Besides asking each program to conform to those demands, Holland also said the use of escorts to bring reluctant participants to the wilderness locales must be reviewed.

All of the programs either have or would, under certain circumstances, use escorts. ``When you have a child who's totally out of control, you have to do something,'' Wells said.

He said he employs an escort who will use physical force if necessary. ``He doesn't use handcuffs, he doesn't use straitjackets, he doesn't use pain,'' Wells said.

The operators licensed by the state said they are bracing themselves for repercussions from the bad publicity generated by Challenger's problems.



Wilderness survival programs for troubled youth

Cost: Challenger Foundation: $12,500

Wilderness Conquest: 7,245

Wilderness Academy: 11,900

Seneca: 9,000 plus airfare

Program and location Participants When licensed Length of stay

to date* by state

Challenger Foundation 500 Pending 63 days

Escalante Desert

Wilderness Conquest 30 June 30, 1989 42 days

San Juan County

Wilderness Academy 27 April 30, 1989 56 days

Henry Mountains and

Escalante Desert

Seneca 20 No License** 63 days

Island of Hawaii

* Estimated number

** No license required

1989 Aug 16