Business Az Usual

A gruesome death has cost Arizona's multimillion-dollar teen rehabilitation industry a bundle. But it's not because the state is determined to stop the abuse.

The video opens with shots of a choir: well-groomed young men singing "Silent Night" to a group of senior citizens. Then the image cuts to cops arresting kids. Cut back to the chorus, voices raised in song. Cut back to a cop confiscating an ugly-looking gun. Baseball celebrity Joe Garagiola breaks into the scenes of good boys and gangbangers.

"These youngsters haven't always been choirboys," his rasping voice declares. "They are some of the toughest, most troubled youth, perpetrators of the most violent crimes."

This is the promotional videotape the Arizona Boys Ranch sends to juvenile courts across the country, with the aim of convincing probation officers to send troubled teens to Boys Ranch facilities. By the tape's end, the kids--who start out as thugs, drug dealers, would-be murderers--are singing the praises of the rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders.

But times have gotten tough for the get-tough facility.
In March, there were more than 500 troubled kids--about 400 of them from California--serving time for juvenile offenses at Boys Ranch. Today, only about 200 teens remain at the main campus outside Mesa.

The declining numbers at Boys Ranch have already cost the agency $17 million.

The exodus of California kids is because of one Boys Ranch resident who didn't complete the program: Nicholaus Contreraz, a Sacramento teen who died March 2 at the Boys Ranch facility in Oracle.

Arizona is home to two of the juvenile-justice industry's leaders: Arizona Boys Ranch and VisionQuest. The Arizona camps have been favorites of California juvenile authorities because they present a cheap and easy alternative to California's overcrowded jails.

Arizona law allows camp staffers to physically restrain their wards, while California laws forbid physical restraint.

Furthermore, Arizona regulators have done little to oversee the camps, and state policies don't provide the authority to take serious

action when rules are broken. Even after the Contreraz death, one key Arizona legislator still considers the state's regulations too hard on the camps.

The kids at these facilities, whom many consider to be society's throwaways, are actually worth big bucks. California spends $45 million a year to send young offenders to out-of-state facilities. About a third of them come to Boys Ranch and VisionQuest.

Now, California authorities are stepping in where Arizona politicians and bureaucrats have done little.

The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) delivered a scathing report on Contreraz's death. Ripping the program for "abuse and neglect," California stopped payment for kids sent to the facility and barred future placements.

A California congressman has also asked two federal agencies to investigate Boys Ranch, while the FBI looks into Contreraz's death. And legislators in California are calling for more regulation of all out-of-state camps, not just Boys Ranch.

The difference this time is the money. For the first time ever, California is cutting off the programs' lifeblood: tax dollars.

And that could mean real trouble for Arizona's controversial boot camps.

B.C.--Before Contreraz--Arizona Boys Ranch and VisionQuest were part of a booming industry with a seemingly unlimited future.

There are at least 57 boot-camp-style programs for lawbreaking teens operating in the U.S., and more get started every year. As two of the oldest programs in the country--Boys Ranch was founded in 1949, VisionQuest in 1973--Arizona's programs have been at the vanguard.

Both organizations have cashed in on the desire of the public and politicians to get tough on crime, especially juvenile crime. The same impulse to try kids as adults and impose curfew laws has also led politicians and bureaucrats to seek new remedies for the growing numbers of teen scofflaws.

Ironically, Arizona authorities don't use the camps much. Only about 50 kids a year from Arizona are sent to Boys Ranch, and VisionQuest only has about a dozen Arizona youth at its facility now. Most Arizona kids are sent to the Department of Youth Corrections, or are kept in home placements.

For California, though, the camps presented the perfect solution. Arizona's camps offer what California can't: hands-on intervention.

California staffers at juvenile facilities are generally not allowed to physically restrain kids, unless they are at a lock-down facility operated by the California Youth Authority. In Arizona facilities, staffers can use physical restraints--as long as they don't cross the line into physical abuse.

Staffers at Boys Ranch and VisionQuest engage in direct confrontation, military-style discipline and rigorous physical activity to try to get young lawbreakers to change.

Physical contact is considered essential to get the teens to follow commands. It's easy to see why. Any recalcitrant teen who sits down and refuses to obey instructions can expect to be manhandled.

Boys Ranch CEO Bob Thomas defends the hands-on approach. He ridicules California's rules, which prohibit most of the physical contact Boys Ranch staff uses to enforce discipline.

"California's regulations are ludicrous. If a kid gets a baseball bat and comes out swinging, you're not allowed to touch him," he says. Teen criminals today are harder and more violent, Thomas says, and Boys Ranch can't operate under "rules which were made for kids like Mickey Rooney."

Youth at the Arizona Boys Ranch can go through three different programs that all share the same basic elements: discipline enforced by physical training, very similar to the military. Long hair is shorn. Kids wake at 5:30 a.m. They either go to school or work for the U.S. Forest Service on conservation projects.

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