Baja raids shut boarding schools for U.S. teens

San Diego Union-Tribune/September 11, 2004
By Sandra Dibble and Anna Cearley

Ensenada -- Hundreds of U.S. teens enrolled in private rehabilitation centers were being sent home yesterday after Mexican health and immigration authorities shut down three Baja California facilities.

The largest group of students, 536, had been enrolled in a boarding program at Casa by the Sea outside Ensenada. A group of 20 had been living at Casa La Esperanza in Ensenada, and a third group of 26 students was enrolled at Genesis south of Rosarito Beach.

Reports of foreigners and complaints that minors were being mistreated led to the raids, according to a statement late yesterday by Mexico's National Migration Institute.

The schools' behavior modification programs are aimed at youths with drug dependency and behavior problems. Parents commonly use them as a last resort. The schools have been accused of moving abroad to avoid scrutiny of U.S. government authorities for their controversial methods.

At Casa by the Sea, four residents showed signs of physical and emotional mistreatment, including one from El Salvador, the Mexican immigration statement said.

At Genesis, youths told immigration authorities that they were physically and emotionally mistreated, the statement said, without offering details.

The director of Casa La Esperanza was expelled for conducting activities not authorized by his tourist visa. But the statement otherwise avoided legal terms such as "expulsion" or "deportation."

The 20 minors at Casa La Esperanza had "irregular" migratory documentation, and along with one adult were turned over to U.S. immigration officials at the San Ysidro crossing, the statement said.

The minors from Genesis also were turned in at the border.

Some residents of Casa by the Sea were allowed to leave with their parents. But hundreds of others remained at the facility until family members could be contacted.

The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana sent staff members to the three centers "making sure everything is done in accordance with Mexican law," said spokeswoman Liza Davis. "If kids need to be repatriated to the U.S., we're getting in touch with their families and facilitating that process."

Luz Ramos, the coordinator of medical services at Casa by the Sea, said late yesterday that government officials had regularly inspected the center.

"We are regulated, we have the best in services. . . . This is a total surprise."

Staff members at the other two centers could not be reached.

At Casa by the Sea, confused and worried parents showed up throughout the day at the unmarked and walled compound just north of Ensenada, asking state police to allow them inside.

Several parents and a student interviewed outside the center said they had no complaints.

Carol Rivardi of Orange County had been waiting since the morning to see her 16-year-old daughter. "The staff is absolutely phenomenal. My daughter's behavior has totally changed," she said.

Larry Horn of Agoura Hills said his 15-year-old son had problems with drugs, alcohol, bad grades and disrespect to his parents. "We tried rehab for six weeks, but these kids need a lot more than that," he said.

Casa by the Sea bills itself as a "specialty program for teens . . . who are struggling in their home, school or community."

The cost is $70 per day, according to its Web site.

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