Lost Boys shelter undergoing shake-up

Clinical director is fired as St. George home turns into a drop-in center

The Salt Lake Tribune/October 28, 2008

For more than a year, New Frontiers for Families operated the House Just Off Bluff in St. George without a business license or proper zoning as it housed teenagers who have left a polygamous community at the Utah-Arizona state line.

Now, a shake-up - including the termination of the home's director -- is underway to bring it in line with its original mandate and city rules.

New Frontiers opened the home last summer after receiving a state grant to create a drop-in center for youth from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. As approved by the state Department of Community and Culture, the non-profit was to help youth connect with services, such as counseling, schooling and medical care.

But instead, youth were allowed to live at the home, which had no licensed clinical staff, nor the proper permits.

Tracy Johnson, executive director of New Frontiers, said nine boys now living at the home will be relocated to host families or other settings and the house will be converted to a drop-in center. Last week, it obtained a business license for that use.

A licensed clinical social worker will be hired to run the center, with oversight from New Frontier's board of directors. The program will focus on helping youth get services and offering life skills training, she said.

"They've made a lot of the changes that were brought up as problematic," said Jonathan

Hardy, director of state community services in the Department of Community and Culture.

The department provided an initial $95,000 grant to get the program launched in a home donated by a local benefactor concerned about the so-called "Lost Boys." This year it received a second state grant of $106,000, and the department asked the Five County Association of Governments to oversee the program, just as problems with its operation came to light.

Earlier this month, the association gave New Frontiers 10 days to correct the problems or lose state funding. In addition to the city licensing issues, concerns were raised about the backgrounds of those working with the youth.

Among them: Michelle Benward, who oversaw the program for New Frontiers under the title "clinical director." Its grant application said Benward had a Level II school counselor certificate from the Utah State Office of Education.

But The Salt Lake Tribune has learned Benward had a Level I certification that expired in 2006 and has not been renewed. She is not listed as having any other professional license in Utah, according to the Utah Department of Professional Licensing.

Johnson said Benward was terminated last Wednesday but declined any additional comment.

The Family Support Center, a Salt Lake City non-profit, has offered to provide temporary assistance to New Frontiers, said Bonnie Peters, executive director.

Peters said if New Frontiers is unable to meet the state's requirements, her agency would consider submitting a proposal to take over the program. The center now oversees the Safety Net Committee, which provides services to polygamous communities and facilitates communication with government agencies.

"If they can get [the house] together, with the appropriate support and back-up for the children, then we are happy to support them," Peters said. "If they can't, our intent is to make sure the boys have an appropriate place to go, a legitimate drop-in center with the support they need to become self-sufficient."

The program must include oversight for the youth and respect for their parents' rights, she said. "Family relationships are not going to be thrown out the window just because they are polygamists," she said.

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, said Monday he was encouraged by the partnership formed to get the program back on track. The office has backed numerous initiatives to help the Lost Boys.

"The bottom line is to figure out a way to help these young men get schooling and have a good life," said Murphy. "They are impressive young men, hard workers, they're smart. I hope things will only get better for them and the people of St. George will recognize there is a need and will pitch in to fill in the gaps."

New Frontiers' annual report said it provided services to 114 teenagers and young adults.

The youth say they left or were asked to leave their families because of delinquent behavior or disagreement with the sect's stringent religious standards. Johnson said the majority of the boys living in the home are working to complete a GED or their high school degrees.

"We've given them a lot of options and they want to stay together if possible," Johnson said. "That is going to be the hardest part right there."

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