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.

"When we investigate abuse, that investigation is against the individual, not the facility," Hart says.

In other words, if a staffer at a camp hits a kid, and the camp fires him, then the problem is considered solved.

DES didn't even investigate seven of the 31 complaints of abuse at VisionQuest over the past three years. While all abuse complaints are required by law to be reported to the agency, there's no requirement that DES actually determine whether the complaint is valid.

Short of revoking a license, DES also lacks the authority to make substantive changes in how a facility operates. Revocation is an action the department hasn't taken in years; in fact, regulators are hard-pressed to remember the last time it happened. The closest recent example Hart can give is a facility that voluntarily surrendered its license a couple of years back.

DES licensers can put a facility on notice with a "corrective action plan." Or they can issue a provisional license, which also means the facility has to make corrections. Or DES can recommend a staffer who is found to have abused a child have no further contact with kids at the facility.

Aside from shutting the program down, there's nothing DES can do to make sure its rules are followed. The agency doesn't have the power to impose fines or remove kids or keep more kids from coming to the facility. So, between a slap on the wrist and the A-bomb, there's not much it can do in response to problems.

This is part of the reason Arizona is such an agreeable business climate for the camps. Another is that Arizona's standards for the camps are significantly weaker than those of California, and state regulators aren't always vigilant about enforcing them.

In its report, CDSS noted that Arizona officials usually don't do unannounced inspections of programs and facilities, don't have the power to impose fines, don't have to put deadlines on fixing problems, and don't always inform placement agencies of allegations of abuse involving teens from out of state.

Arizona officials dropped the ball, CDSS Deputy Director Sidonie Squires says. "We relied on Arizona to have oversight over the camps in their state," she says. "They are the responsibility for those children when they get there."

Not our job, Hart says, pointing a finger right back at California.
"Our responsibility is to license. They cannot abdicate their responsibility for case management of the children they send here," Hart says. "If I send someone to a nursing home, do I expect the state to check up on them and visit them just because the nursing home is licensed? Of course not."

Hart, who contends the California report is "filled with inaccuracies," says that DES is doing its job when it comes to licensing the facilities.

To be fair, DES hasn't made any friends at Boys Ranch while investigating allegations of abuse there. Disputes between the two have led to an ongoing lawsuit by Boys Ranch against the state.

But when Boys Ranch has had problems with DES, Arizona's lawmakers have come to its aid. DES workers have complained about political pressure interfering with their investigations of Boys Ranch. The organization's political ties are well-known: Former Governor Rose Mofford sits on the ranch's advisory board, as does Kent Komadina, the state attorney general's top criminal prosecutor. In the past, Arizona legislators, including Representative Bob Burns and former House Speaker Mark Killian, have criticized DES efforts to cite Boys Ranch for abuse and neglect.

Burns remains a supporter of Boys Ranch. In his view, Boys Ranch still gets too much flack from state bureaucrats.

"I would disagree that Arizona is camp-friendly, and I think that's part of the problem," Burns says. "There is this institutional attitude coming out of DES that did not favor this reality-based model that Boys Ranch uses to basically rehabilitate these boys."

Even after the Contreraz death, Burns still cautions against overreacting against Boys Ranch. "It was a very unfortunate situation that occurred, but do we take the whole system down because of possibly one or other people's misdeeds?"

Carol Kamin, however, head of the Children's Action Alliance, believes the system is overdue for an overhaul.

"The problems with Boys Ranch didn't just come up overnight," she says. "The licensing and monitoring of Boys Ranch wasn't done the way they needed it to be done, because of all kinds of political pressure."

Kamin says that licensing standards have to change to ensure the safety of the kids at the camps. So far, she says, she hasn't heard of anyone in the legislature who's willing to take on the task.

While Arizona officials see no need to act, California does.
U.S. Representative George Miller of California is calling for a federal probe into how camps like Boys Ranch spend federal dollars. Boys Ranch and other facilities receive federal foster-care dollars, and Miller has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to see if Boys Ranch is legally entitled to that money. Last week, Miller also requested the General Accounting Office to audit how those federal funds are spent at all boot-camp facilities. The FBI has announced its own inquiry into the death for possible civil-rights violations.

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