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.
"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.