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.

VisionQuest does pay taxes, mainly because the corporation didn't want to deal with the hassles of tax-exempt status, according to VisionQuest's executive vice president, Peter J. Ranalli.

VisionQuest's expenses were $8.4 million last year, including $3.1 million for personnel costs and more than a million for contractual services. For VisionQuest, those expenses also include what it chooses to pay itself. The company's nonprofit side pays its for-profit side an administrative fee (it was 15 percent of gross revenue in 1996) to run the company's programs.

At Boys Ranch, program services--food, shelter, clothing, etc.--took 70 cents of every dollar it took in. The rest was spent on education, support services for out-of-state parents and development.

VisionQuest had $954,129 left after expenses last year, while Boys Ranch had $1.4 million left.

The official reaction to the death of Nicholaus Contreraz was shock and outrage. Abuse at Arizona's boot camps is nothing new, however. It is, in fact, an occupational hazard.

Contreraz, a 16-year-old from Sacramento sentenced to Boys Ranch for joy-riding in a stolen car, died two months after he arrived at the Oracle campus. An infection had filled his chest with two and a half quarts of pus, collapsing his left lung and stopping his heart. According to Pinal County sheriff's reports, Boys Ranch staff ignored the boy's pleas for help, and instead mocked him, forced him to do pushups and made him carry a bucket filled with the clothes he'd soiled with his own vomit and excrement.

The state Department of Economic Security (DES) promises to have wrapped up "the most extensive, most intensive" investigation into Boys Ranch ever by the end of August.

Unfortunately, DES' track record in this area isn't that impressive.
This was far from the first death at a boot camp. Three other teens have died in boot camps in Arizona alone, and the number goes up to 19 nationwide.

Fifteen youths have died while in VisionQuest's care--two in Arizona--in the program's 26-year history. Most died in accidents, which are more common under VisionQuest's rigorous outdoor programs like the wagon train and Ocean Quest.

But one VisionQuest ward, Mario Cano, died in 1984 in New Mexico, under circumstances strikingly similar to those of Contreraz. Until he died of a blood clot that moved into his lungs, Cano was accused of faking his illness by camp staff.

Arizona Boys Ranch has had only one other death before this, a teen who drowned in 1994 while trying to escape.

Arizona Boys Ranch has had 21 complaints of abuse substantiated by DES in the past five years, though Boys Ranch is contesting those findings in court. Other charges are still under investigation.

CEO Bob Thomas maintains the death of Contreraz was an isolated incident. Although Boys Ranch initially said there was no wrongdoing, Thomas later admitted that Boys Ranch policies were violated. He disciplined some staffers and fired two others. He closed the Oracle campus and ordered an internal review of Boys Ranch's medical and disciplinary policies.

Thomas, who calls the California report a "travesty," says Boys Ranch has dealt with its problems. "Our reaction is, you make a mistake, you own up and go forward," he says.

VisionQuest has had 11 charges of abuse substantiated since 1995. While the allegations at the Boys Ranch have gotten prominent play in the media, little notice has been given to VisionQuest's problems.

For example, in 1995, a female VisionQuest employee helped two residents escape, then lived with one in Texas for several months before she was finally arrested by authorities there. In 1996, a twice-convicted child rapist was hired by VisionQuest. He was fired when a background check revealed his record, but by that time he had already molested a female ward. In 1997, a supervisor was charged with assault for knocking a girl to the ground and holding her down by the throat.

And as recently as January, the camp was investigated by both DES and the state Supreme Court for the sexual assault of a Pima County 12-year-old boy by three older boys at the camp. The boys were placed together despite their differences in ages and backgrounds--one of the assailants was at the camp because of an arrest for sexual assault. Although the assault took place on January 12, the police weren't contacted until four days later. DES and the court both found VisionQuest did nothing wrong in this case and resumed sending Pima County's kids to the program.

VisionQuest's Ranalli says such problems are part of the learning curve in his business.

"We're a human-relations program--we are dealing with human beings that are kids, and human beings that are adults. And human beings make mistakes," he says. "How you monitor and deal with those mistakes is key."

Ranalli thinks that if a camp takes corrective action when a "mistake" happens, then the camp should continue operating.

Arizona's regulators agree.
"Generally speaking, you can go through any of our files and find that there have been abuse issues," Wayne Wallace, head of DES' licensing unit says. "It depends on the action that the agency takes to overcome or eliminate the situation."

DES Deputy Director James A. Hart says that when it comes to abuse, they don't hold the employer accountable for the actions of its employees.

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