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.
Thomas says there is no irregularity in how Boys Ranch uses federal funds.
Now the dispute over Boys Ranch threatens to spill over into the operations of other camps, including VisionQuest.
California State Senator Mike Thompson has sponsored a bill to force out-of-state facilities to follow California regulations--which are much more demanding than Arizona's--if they house California's kids.
VisionQuest has its own political ties. Founder and CEO Bob Burton and his wife have given $400 to current House Speaker Jeff Groscost. VisionQuest, however, has a cordial, even pleasant relationship with regulators--both the company and the state praise the easy communication with the other.
VisionQuest and Boys Ranch both say they play by the rules. They generally fire any staffer who hurts a kid. And accordingly, the regulators let them stay open.
But when a kid dies, there are new rules, and the blame game begins.
California and Arizona authorities are quick to pass the buck back and forth about who's responsible for the teens sent to the camps.
While California has been content for years to send its problem youth away, when Contreraz died, CDSS blasted Arizona for not doing enough to protect them.
However, Hart says, there is a simple solution if California doesn't think Arizona can keep its kids safe.
"If California really has a problem with Boys Ranch, then they don't have to send anyone to them. We're not the ones sending kids here," the DES deputy says.
California won't solve its problems by pulling its kids from Boys Ranch.
That's because there's no room back in California. Juvenile facilities are full, and California's group homes usually can't handle the violent offenders who come to Arizona.
Boys Ranch is also taking the fight to California. Two weeks ago, parents and supporters of Boys Ranch gathered in Sacramento and held a march on the state Capitol to protest the CDSS action. They also met with state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, a Boys Ranch supporter who is questioning the authority of CDSS to make decisions about where California kids can be placed.
Counties that rely on out-of-state placements are also questioning CDSS' right to decide where their probationees should go.
Ray Wingerd, the chief probation officer for Boys Ranch's biggest client, San Bernardino County, says his office is doing legal research on the question. And, as head of the Chief Probation Officers of California, he says his colleagues are also worried about Thompson's legislation to force out-of-state facilities to comply with California's regulations.