Parents, Shopping for Discipline, Turn to Harsh Programs Abroad

Date: 2003-05-13

ENSENADA, Mexico =97 Ryan Fraidenburgh was 14 when he was brought here=20 shackled, kicking and screaming.=20

Two men carrying handcuffs and leg irons came for him at his mother's=20 home in Sacramento, Calif., shoved him into a van and bound him hand=20 and foot. They drove him 12 hours south, over the Mexican border,=20 into a high-walled compound near here called Casa by the Sea.=20

"It was nighttime," Ryan recalled. "I look around and I see kids=20 sleeping on cement. I was really, really scared. The big honcho,=20 Mauricio, said, `You don't speak English here.' I didn't know how to=20 speak Spanish."=20

Ryan quickly learned the rules: stay silent, be compliant, don't look=20 up, don't look out the window, don't speak unless spoken to. The=20 punishments for breaking the rules included solitary confinement,=20 lying on the floor in a small room, nose to the ground, often for=20 days on end.=20

Ryan was not a criminal. He was only skipping school, his parents=20 said in telephone interviews. But in August 2000, they said, in the=20 middle of a bitter divorce and custody battle, they decided to send=20 him away to Casa by the Sea, which calls itself a "specialty boarding=20 school" for behavior modification.=20

Like hundreds of other parents, the Fraidenburghs made their choice=20 largely on the basis of a glossy brochure and a call to a toll-free=20 number in Utah. They came to regret their choice.=20

The idea of sending a child to such a program in Mexico was unheard=20 of a decade ago. But in the United States, behavior-modification=20 programs and boarding schools for troubled youths have faced=20 increasing legal and licensing challenges over the past few years.=20

More and more are moving abroad =97 some to Mexico, Central America or=20 the Caribbean =97 where they operate largely under the regulation radar=20 and where some employ minimum-wage custodians more than teachers or=20 therapists, say government officials, education consultants and=20 c linical psychologists.=20

The behavior-modification business is booming at Casa by the Sea, on=20 Mexico's Pacific Coast, the largest of 11 affiliated programs with=20 roughly 2,200 youths, about half of them in Mexico, Costa Rica and=20 Jamaica. The programs are run by a small group of businessmen based=20 in St. George, Utah, under the banner of the World Wide Association=20 of Specialty Programs and Schools, or Wwasps, and Teen Help, the=20 programs' main marketing arm.=20

Over the past seven years, local governments and State Department=20 officials have investigated Wwasps-affiliated programs in Mexico, the=20 Czech Republic and Samoa on charges of physical abuse and immigration=20 violations. The Mexican program, in Canc=FAn, and the Czech program=20 closed, and their owners left those countries saying they feared=20 unjust charges. The Samoan program cut its affiliation with Wwasps.=20

Ken Kay, the president of Wwasps, would not allow a reporter to visit=20 Casa by the Sea; Dace Goulding, the program's director, declined to=20 answer any questions. But Mr. Kay, responding to inquiries in writing=20 from his office in Utah, said no charge of abuse had ever been proven=20 against any of the programs in any court.=20

"We are about getting families back together," he said in a written=20 statement. "We are not for everyone, and there are very few but=20 vociferous critics of not just us but any youth intervention." He=20 described many of the program's critics as parents who feel they have=20 been "manipulated, brainwashed or duped" or who are battling through=20 divorce and taking their anger out "by making us look terrible."=20

In telephone interviews, eight teenagers who were formerly in Casa by=20 the Sea described a system in which the youths try to ascend=20 six "levels" through a system of rewards and punishments, including=20 being sent to "R and R," a small, bare isolation room, often for days=20 on end. Discipline, not education, was the rule, they said .=20

For Laura Hamel, 17, of Vienna, Va., who counts herself as a success=20 story, it was a slow two-year ascent to graduation in March. She said=20 she was demoted from Level 3 back to Level 1 after giving a weeping,=20 lonely friend a hug and a kiss on the cheek at Thanksgiving.=20 Affection of that kind is forbidden.=20

A youth who rises to Levels 4, 5 and 6 can become a "junior staff=20 member" and "participate in the discipline process" against lower- level youths, Casa's contract with parents says.=20

Parents, Shopping for Discipline, Turn to Tough Schools Abroad=20 (Page 2 of 3)=20

"The authority is in your hands," said Ryan Pink, 19, of El Paso, who=20 reached Level 5 at Casa. "You can discipline kids. The younger kids =97=20 they were constantly being restrained, being punished, put in R and R=20 for four or five days. Nose to the wall. Or nose to the ground. And=20 at night you sleep in the hallways."=20

Many parents and youths say the behavior-management system of=20 discipline and punishment scares youths into sobriety and obedience.=20 Others =97 parents and youths formerly enrolled, education experts,=20 government authorities and a former Wwasps program director =97 say the=20 programs profit from struggling parents unable to handle their=20 depressed, delinquent, defiant or drug-abusing children.=20

"Their goal is not to help teens in crisis or their families,"=20 according to a former director of one Wwasps-affiliated program,=20 Amberly Knight. "It is to make millions of dollars."=20

The financial success of Casa by the Sea is evident. Its enrollment=20 has nearly tripled, from about 200 youths when it opened in 1998 to=20 more than 570 today, almost all American teenagers. Already among the=20 biggest programs of its kind outside the United States, Casa by the=20 Sea has just spun off another program for those 18 and over.=20

Tuition and fees at Casa by the Sea run about $30,000 a year, half of=20 what some United States-based programs cost. Its staff members "do=20 not need and may not necessarily have" teaching credentials, Casa's=20 contract with parents plainly states.=20

Lon Woodbury, publisher of Woodbury Reports, which rates schools and=20 programs for troubled teenagers inside and outside the United States,=20 said one reason that American programs have moved abroad is "to avoid=20 the laws and regulations of the States." He added, "They can hire=20 minimum-wage staff and still charge stateside prices."=20

Profit margins and growth within the programs run by Wwasps appear=20 solid. Teen Help, the affiliation's main marketing arm, was the=20 single biggest corporate campaign contributor in the state of Utah in=20 the 2002 election cycle, donating $215,290 to Republican campaigns,=20 according to online federal election records posted in March.=20

Mr. Kay, the Wwasps president, said that the proof of the programs'=20 success is the way in which "behavior of students generally changes=20 drastically." The organization's internal surveys, he said, proved=20 that "more than 98 percent of the schools' parents are completely=20 satisfied." He wrote, "No wonder these are the fastest growing=20 Schools of their kind in the world!!!"=20

The overseas "specialty boarding school" industry is growing so fast=20 that United States consular officials in overseas embassies say they=20 have no idea how many such programs exist.=20

"No authorities in Mexico control these institutions," said Elisa=20 Ledesma, a lawyer at the American Consulate in Tijuana. Consular=20 officers demanded and received access to several such programs in=20 Mexico, one official said, after they "heard horror stories from=20 parents."=20

The consular officers have the power, under the Vienna Convention, to=20 visit overseas programs to check on the well-being of American=20 citizens under 18.=20

In January, after several such visits, the State Department issued a=20 notice on "behavior modification facilities" in Mexico, Costa Rica=20 and Jamaica. The programs may "isolate the children in relatively=20 remote sites" and restrict their contact with the outside world, it=20 said.=20

At least seven programs in Utah, Montana, South Carolina and New York=20 are Wwasps affiliates, according to the organization's Web site; at=20 least three have faced legal challenges. Utah state officials say=20 they are reviewing the license of the flagship Wwasps program, Cross=20 Creek Manor, and that a second program, Majestic Ranch, is operating=20 without a proper license.=20

Six weeks ago, according to the state attorney general's office in=20 Utah, a director of Majestic Ranch entered into a court agreement to=20 have no unsupervised contact with children after he was charged with=20 misdemeanor child abuse.=20

Attorneys for both programs contest the licensing challenges. South=20 Carolina officials have fined a third Wwasps program, Carolina=20 Springs Academy, $5,000 for operating without a license.=20

Parents, Shopping for Discipline, Turn to Tough Schools Abroad=20 (Page 3 of 3)=20

While some dissatisfied parents have sued Wwasps and its programs,=20 the contract that parents sign with Casa by the Sea sets high hurdles=20 for them. It states plainly that the program "does not accept=20 responsibility for services written in sales materials or brochures"=20 or promises made by "staff or public relations personnel" and that=20 any dispute between a parent and the program must be settled in a=20 Mexican court, not in the United States.=20

The Wwasps programs market themselves under a multitude of=20 interlinked Web sites. Their sales personnel offer thousands of=20 dollars in incentives to adults who recruit new youths or host Web=20 sites advertising the programs.=20

Some parents said in interviews that they enrolled their children in=20 programs they had never visited after browsing Web sites, brochures=20 and videotapes depicting happy children in a wholesome se tting.=20

"I sent him there sight unseen," said Patti Reddoch, of Sweeny, Tex.,=20 who considered Dundee Ranch for her son, Edmund Brumaghin, now 17,=20 but chose Casa by the Sea instead. "The music he was listening to=20 started getting darker and he was getting more into the drugs, and=20 that's when I decided I needed to do something.=20

"So I went on the Internet and started searching around and found the=20 Wwasp program. I contacted them and made the arrangements, and that's=20 pretty much it. It didn't take me any time at all."=20

Mrs. Reddoch, speaking by telephone, said she then hired an "escort=20 service" familiar with Casa by the Sea to handcuff and transport her=20 son away at 5 a.m. one Sunday last September.=20

That morning, her son cursed her bitterly, but now his attitude is=20 changing, she said.=20

"I am very pleased with the school," said Ms. Reddoch, who said she=20 visited Casa by the Sea once, for a weekend, last January. "I've=20 started putting out brochures for referrals. I would recommend Casa=20 to anyone."=20

Reality may differ from the brochures, however. "Everyone has a=20 shaved head," Michael Zieghelboim, who was formerly enrolled at Casa=20 by the Sea, said in a telephone interview. "They walk around like=20 zombies. Most of the staff have no training."=20

"Casa by the Sea was the scariest thing that ever happened to me,"=20 said Mr. Zieghelboim, who now lives with his father in El Salvador.=20

He said that despite falling behind in his education at Casa by the=20 Sea =97 at 17, he is now in the 10th grade =97 he rates himself a=20 success. "If I had never gone there, I'd probably still be doing=20 cocaine," he said.=20

This kind of tough discipline is an attraction for many exasperated=20 parents.=20

The program runs "a very tight ship," said Virginia Day, of Redmond,=20 Wash., who sent her son, Gabriel, 15, to the program in July.=20

"The staff that works most closely with the kids are not necessarily=20 professionals, and I know that this is an issue," said Ms. Day, who=20 called herself a very satisfied customer. "This is not a school that=20 specializes in a therapeutic component."=20

Carol Maxym, an educational consultant in Maryland, said: "What they=20 are looking for at Casa is compliance. Compliance is easy, if you=20 break the kid down enough. And compliance is cheap." She added, "The=20 parents often don't realize what's going on."=20

Youths and staff at other overseas Wwasps programs have described=20 harsh conditions. One was Aaron Kravig, now 19. He said he contracted=20 scabies, untreated for six months, ate meals of watery porridge and=20 fish entrails, and was schooled almost solely with "emotional growth"=20 videos at Tranquility Bay, the Wwasps-affiliated program in Jamaica,=20 according to a transcript of sworn testimony he gave last year at a=20 Virginia state court hearing.=20

In Costa Rica, Ms. Knight, the former director of the Wwasps- affiliated Academy at Dundee Ranch, resigned in August after sending=20 a letter to the national minister of child welfare calling for the=20 program to be shut down.=20

The letter said the program was "hiring unqualified, untrained,=20 staff" and providing "the bare minimum of food and living=20 essentials." It said the program "takes financial advantage of=20 parents in crisis, and puts teens in physical and emotional risk."=20

The speed with which some parents choose an overseas behavioral- modification program for their children baffles some educational=20 consultants.=20

"I find it incredible that parents would send their kids off to some=20 place they've heard about on the Internet," Mr. Woodbury said.=20

Ms. Maxym, author of "Teens in Turmoil: A Path to Change for Parents,=20 Adolescents and their Families" (Viking Penguin, 2000) said, "I find=20 it interesting that parents will spend less time finding a school for=20 their child than buying a new car."=20

Ryan Fraidenburgh's father, B ob, an aerospace engineering executive,=20 said he had only glanced at Casa by the Sea's "brochures that looked=20 like Club Med." He said he removed Ryan from the program by himself=20 in January 2001 after deciding he had been too hasty.=20

"We made a huge mistake," he said. "Until the day I die I'll regret=20 that."=20

Ryan's mother, Carolyn, said: "We were expecting treatment, not a=20 minimum-wage person to watch over your kid like he was an animal in a=20 cage."=20

NEW YORK TIMES