Program to Help Youths Has Troubles of Its Own

New York Times/September 6, 2003
By Tim Weiner

Thompson Falls, Mont. -- Spring Creek Lodge Academy, home to thousands of wayward children since 1996, calls itself "a safe haven for change." Many parents swear with near-religious devotion that the program, one of the nation's largest, has saved their sons and daughters. Others have come to curse it.

The program is affiliated with the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or Wwasps, a multimillion-dollar business in the industry of "tough love" programs and "specialty boarding schools" that have flourished, often unregulated, for two decades.

Wwasps affiliates in Mexico, Costa Rica, Western Samoa and the Czech Republic have closed under accusations of cruelty since 1996. The affiliate in Costa Rica, in fact, collapsed in May when students revolted.

A review of seven of the company's largest affiliates in the United States, where it remains the fastest-growing program of its kind, found accusations of misconduct or wrongdoing at four of them.

In Utah and South Carolina, state officials have cited the programs and their staff members for violations including child abuse and overcrowding, and have challenged their right to operate.

Here at the company's largest affiliate, Spring Creek Lodge, the program and its staff have been accused of sexual abuse, physical violence and psychological duress.

Wwasps, whose programs house about 2,400 youths in all, some as young as 10, has fought and denied all charges.

The founder, Robert B. Lichfield, 49, called the accusations part of a difficult business. "When you have troubled kids and troubled parents - any school or program that works with troubled kids has complaints," Mr. Lichfield said in a telephone interview. "We're no different."

He attributed the growth of Wwasps to "the breakdown of the family," saying, "When the family is not functioning, society suffers."

Wwasps has flourished and profited by tapping a deep well of woe in American families, interviews and correspondence with more than 200 parents, children, staff members and program officials made clear.

Parents say they turned to the programs in exasperation, or exhaustion, seeking salvation, or in some cases exile, for their sons and daughters. Many say Wwasps was their only alternative after schools, public health systems, counseling and the courts failed them.

Spring Creek Lodge's associate director, Chaffin Pullan, 32, said, "We're crazy enough to say, 'Hey, we'll take your child, and we'll work on their values.' "

But at Spring Creek Lodge, as at several other affiliates, some of that work takes place under conditions and circumstances that some children and parents call physically and psychologically brutal.

Where state regulators have challenged affiliates, government officials often spend years trying to control or sanction the programs' defiance of licensing rules.

South Carolina officials, for example, after four years of fighting, have barred Narvin Lichfield, the brother of the Wwasps' founder, from Carolina Springs Academy, the program that Narvin Lichfield owns in the tiny town of Due West.

In Utah, officials are wrestling with Majestic Ranch, which takes children as young as 10, and where a program director was recently charged with child abuse, as well as with a new program at the flagship affiliate, Cross Creek, for clients over age 18. Neither program has obtained the required operating license, state officials said.

Robert Lichfield, who once said he believed only Satan stood in the way of the programs' goals, said state authorities were merely reacting to pressure from parents or reporters, adding, "If I was in their position, I would be doing the same thing."

Federal authorities are also taking a look at Wwasps. On July 10, Representative George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, asked the Treasury Department to see whether Wwasps received unusual "tax deductions, tax credits or any special tax treatment."

Affiliates gross perhaps $70 million a year, an estimate based on their enrollment, tuition and fees. A company spokesman, James Wall, said it had always filed its federal income taxes properly. But Mr. Wall said Wwasps, which calls itself a nonprofit corporation in Utah, had never applied for nonprofit, tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.

The company says it does not directly own or control any of its affiliates, and claims no responsibility for their programs. But Spring Creek Lodge employees, for instance, say the program sends about 40 percent of its revenues to Wwasps.

Amberly Knight, a former director of Dundee Ranch, the affiliate in Costa Rica that collapsed last spring, said in a sworn statement that the company took 75 percent of Dundee Ranch's income, leaving little money to care for its 200 children. The statement also said company officials maintained "offshore bank accounts," in part to "evade U.S. income taxes."

Here in Montana, where 50 other programs for troubled teenagers have opened in addition to Spring Creek Lodge, the state does not regulate private schools, state officials say.

"We have a tremendous number - an inordinate amount - of these programs in western Montana," said Paul Clark, a Montana state legislator who represents the Thompson Falls area and also runs a program for about a dozen wayward teenagers. But the state lacks the capacity or the expertise to regulate them, Mr. Clark said, adding, "We'll get action after there's a crisis."

Many children from the affiliate that collapsed in Costa Rica wound up at Spring Creek Lodge, where the enrollment has doubled to about 500 in two years, and whose parents pay roughly $40,000 a year and up.

That growth has created an unfilled demand for trained teachers and counselors, staff members say. The program is the largest employer in this corner of Montana, where jobs are scarce and wages low.

As the school has grown, so have accusations of abuse.

A log cabin with tiny isolation rooms, called the Hobbit, sits on the edge of Spring Creek Lodge's compound in the woods. Some teenagers, like Alex Ziperovich, 16, say they have spent months in the Hobbit, eating meals of beans and bananas.

"He came out 35 pounds lighter, acting like a zombie," said his mother, Michele Ziperovich, a Seattle lawyer. "When he came back, he was worse, far worse."

In March, the county prosecutor charged a 20-year-old staff member with sexually assaulting two boys in the Hobbit, one 14 and the other 17. He denies the charges.

In June, a girl was beaten by students with a shower-curtain rod; in September 2002 a student bent on escape beat a guard with a vacuum-cleaner pipe and shattered his cheekbone, said Mr. Pullan, Spring Creek Lodge's the associate director, and several staff members.

The September assault followed a similar attack three weeks earlier; Thompson Falls residents say escape attempts are rising.

Mr. Pullan said the academy was curtailing use of the isolation rooms. He called the recent violence against staff members unusual and "horrific." But he is said he was convinced that the academy was helping the vast majority of its children.

He acknowledged that it had been hard to hire and retain skilled local staff members.

One former staff member, Mark Runkle, who worked for two and a half years at the academy, said he became skeptical of some practices, like taking children into the woods at night for psychological tests of will.

"They take kids down to the Vermillion Bridge at night, blindfold them, and push them off into the river; they take them off into the woods, and they come back hurt," Mr. Runkle said. "They claim it's a mind-increaser. I think it breaks the kids down - breaks their will down. Mentally, they do damage. Emotionally, too."

Despite such accounts, parents continue to turn to such programs. The reasons that the parents, children, staff members and program officials cite are the crises common to American family life: fractured marriages, failing schools, frantic two-job couples with no time to devote to children.

The accelerating pace of adolescence and a "zero-tolerance" culture leave teenagers no margin for mistakes, experts say.

Managed care has cut insurance coverage for residential treatment. Reduced federal and state support have hobbled community-based counseling. A new White House study calls state and federal mental health programs a shambles.

Some parents of children damaged by drugs, drinking, depression or divorce say Wwasps programs were their sole alternative.

"We refer to it, my husband and I, as the program of last resort," Debbie Wood said. She and her husband moved from Seattle to Thompson Falls in March to be near their son, Sam, now 17, at Spring Creek Lodge. "I don't know of another program that would fill our needs the way Wwasps has," Mrs. Wood said.

Other parents, too, are satisfied. Deb Granneman, of Saline, Mich., said: "With my son it worked; it's not going to work for every kid. When you send your kid there, you're giving them the last chance to turn their lives around."

Mr. Pullan, along with 37 parents, children and staff members interviewed personally, by phone, or through e-mail, say few Spring Creek Lodge children are delinquents.

Perhaps one-quarter are drug users or drinkers, Mr. Pullan said, while "about 70 percent are not hard core - they cannot communicate at home." Many children say they were sent here after a parent died or departed, or a new stepmother or stepfather rejected them.

A crucial part of the company's effort to shape its success is a requisite series of emotional-growth seminars for parents. "The seminars are the most important thing we have experienced as a family," said Rosemary Hinch, a teacher in Phoenix.

"It was painful; it was hard," Ms. Hinch said. "They teach you to take a really good look at yourself."

But the seminars persuaded Michele Ziperovich to pull her son Alex out. "It was 300 adults screaming and beating on chairs, three days of no sleep, and after that, you'll buy into whatever they say," Ms. Ziperovich said. "They berate you, they scream at you, exhaust you. It's basically mind control."

The question of control also arises among staff members and children who say many teenagers at Spring Creek Lodge are sedated, night and day. "There are girls on so many antidepressants given out by the program that they can't move," said Lauren Meksraitis, 18, of Tampa, Fla., a former Spring Creek client. "They can't get out of bed. They are like dead animals."

A company spokesman said a visiting psychiatrist prescribed the drugs, which are dispensed by a nurse or "other staff members."

But Ms. Meksraitis said: "The Spring Creek staff members responsible for family contacts don't tell your parents the truth. They lie to parents and tell them their kids are going to get fixed."

Her father, Michael Meksraitis, a lawyer, agreed, saying: "They misrepresent the program. They take advantage of parents in a very vulnerable position, who don't know what to do with their kids, who are at the end of their rope."

Robert Lichfield, who dropped out of college and became director of residential programs at a Utah institution for teenagers that was subsequently closed by the state for cruelty to children, says he has learned some lessons from a quarter-century of experience in the business.

"Kids think they ought to be able to do whatever they want," he said. "And if they can't, that's abuse."

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