Longform

Business Az Usual

Page 3 of 6

The CDSS decision turned what looked like Arizona Boys Ranch's best year into one of its worst, according to Thomas.

Before Nicholaus Contreraz's death, Boys Ranch was on track to bring in $22 million in revenue this year, according to Thomas' estimate.

That's since dropped to just $5 million, he says. If Boys Ranch were a publicly traded company, investors would be screaming.

Boys Ranch's loss has been VisionQuest's gain. Eleven kids from Boys Ranch have been transferred to VisionQuest's care, and more could be sent in the future.

That is, if VisionQuest has the room. It's done even better than Boys Ranch in the juvenile-justice business. Though the company's Cochise County camp holds only 190 teens, VisionQuest has programs for both boys and girls and deals with about 1,500 kids nationwide. That's added up to $36.6 million in revenue in 1995, growing to $42.3 million for the most recent fiscal year, according to reports filed with the state. VisionQuest's Arizona operations alone brought in $9.8 million in revenue last year, those reports state.

VisionQuest's corporate structure is different from Boys Ranch's. Founded by Bob Burton and Steve Rogers in 1973, it's a nonprofit corporation that also has a for-profit side and several for-profit subsidiaries. In addition to Arizona, the company has operations in Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Florida.

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.

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Chris Farnsworth