Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The Arizona Boys Ranch is back in business despite concerns over the death of a 16-year-old in March at the campus near Oracle.

The state Department of Economic Security pulled the license of the controversial juvenile boot camp in August. But state officials and ranch operators reached a settlement last week that will allow the ranch to remain in operation.

The settlement requires the ranch to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy on abuse, hire an ombudsman to act as an advocate for the teens at the facility and overhaul its programs.

DES and the ranch have clashed for several years over allegations of abuse and neglect at the facility. Despite numerous cases of substantiated abuse at the ranch, DES repeatedly renewed the facility's license ("Business AZ Usual," August 6).

Boys Ranch and DES have reached agreements before that sought to put an end to overly harsh treatment of youths at the boot camp. But this time, DES says it will get tough if the settlement is not followed.

DES will take steps to shut the ranch down if the ranch fails to meet any conditions of the settlement, according to DES Assistant Director James A. Hart.

"We think it's a pretty tight agreement," Hart says.
Hart and DES Deputy Director John Clayton negotiated the settlement with members of Boys Ranch's board of directors. Longtime Boys Ranch CEO Bob Thomas resigned last month in the face of administrative and criminal investigations into the March death of Nicholaus Contreraz. The settlement also requires the ranch to conduct a nationwide search for a new director.

Boys Ranch has nearly collapsed since the death of Contreraz, a Sacramento teen sent to the facility at the end of January for joy-riding in a stolen car. California juvenile authorities, once the ranch's best customer, have stopped sending boys to the facility. The ranch has laid off much of its staff and closed all but its main campus.

When Contreraz got sick, his pleas for help were ignored by staff, who accused him of faking his illness. He died of cardiac arrest while ranch staff were forcing him to exercise. An autopsy revealed Contreraz had more than two quarts of pus between his chest and lungs and 71 different injuries on his body. Five Boys Ranch staffers, including the nurse who examined Contreraz before he died, were recently indicted on felony manslaughter and child abuse charges.

California officials issued a scathing report on the ranch and on DES' oversight. Contreraz's death led to new legislation in California regarding placement of youth in out-of-state facilities.

--Chris Farnsworth

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Chris Farnsworth