Teen Help sued

Mother Sues Utah-Based Business Treating Teens in Jamaica

Salt Lake Tribune/May 12, 1999
By Greg Burton

A Houston woman has filed a lawsuit against a Utah-based treatment business for troubled teen-agers, claiming her two sons were abducted against her will and subjected to cultish behavior modification at a poorly managed facility in Jamaica.

Donna Burke was divorced from her husband when, without her consent, the husband allegedly paid Utah's Teen Help to arrange the "kidnapping" of sons David, then 16, and Scott Burke, then 14. The boys briefly stayed in Utah, then were sent to affiliated residential program Tranquility Bay in Jamaica.

At the time, the boys were living with their mother.

"Donna was frantic that her son Scott [and later David] had suddenly disappeared from school and was nowhere to be found," according to the lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court. "When she finally discovered that he had been taken out of the country to Jamaica, she tried by telephone to contact him, but was told by defendants, both in Utah and Jamaica, that she would not be allowed any contact."

Subsequent letters to her sons, she claims, were never delivered.

Burke seeks damages for negligence, negligent child abuse, false imprisonment, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress and breach of fiduciary duty.

Teen Help, the program Burke has sued, is named in at least two other other cases filed in U.S. District Court for Utah. Thomas M. Burton, a Pleasanton, Calif., attorney who filed the cases, likens the southern Utah network of programs that includes Teen Help to a "cult."

Cross Creek Manor, a Washington County, Utah, home to which Teen Help refers troubled teen-age girls, "is one of many closed, secret cult centers . . . where adolescents are impounded, tortured, berated, brainwashed, and otherwise abused," he alleges in a Utah federal suit filed on behalf of daughter Celece and mother Ceta Dochterman of California.

In that lawsuit, Celece claims she was forced to urinate, defecate and bathe while being watched; she was called a "slut" and "family destroyer"; and paraded naked in front of male staff.

Burke's lawsuit, also handled by Burton, alleges similar outrageous treatment.

Unbeknown to Burke, her husband had received a court order allowing the forced enrollment of Scott in the teen program. Scott Burke, the suit claims, was experimenting with marijuana, but David, who Burke claims was totally without need of treatment, also was forced into the program by her husband.

"As if these two fine young men had not suffered enough, defendants began to heap upon them the most sadistic and unwarranted physical and psychological abuse," Burke claims.

"Defendants subjected them to a steaming squalid jungle camp infested with flies, mosquitoes, scorpions and vermin," the lawsuit claims. "The food was primitive, filthy and meager. The so-called case workers were untrained, unlettered, and uncredentialed natives. Hygiene consisted of bathing by garden hose without soap."

Burke, who raised her own money to fly to Jamaica in a futile attempt to take her boys out of the program, was rebuffed by directors at Tranquility Bay, she claims. "The boys slept on mattresses with no sheets with no protection from the swarms of insects. They were covered by bites."

When Burke's children were released from Tranquility Bay in late 1998, they were "afraid, haunted by nightmares, subject to panic attacks," and refused "to go anywhere near a beach," the lawsuit alleges. "They never voice an opinion on their own, fearful that it might not find approval."

Along with Teen Help, Burke seeks damages from a network of businesses and people the lawsuit claims are business associates, including Tranquility Bay, The Caribbean Center for Change, Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs, Brightway Hospital, Resource Realizations, R&B Billing, Dixie Contract Services, Teen Escort Services, Key Kay, Robert B. Lichfield, Karr Farnsworth, Brent M. Facer, Jay Kay, Jean Davis, Lorraine Black, Delbert Goates and David Gilcrease.

Lichfield started his multimillion-dollar Teen Help empire in 1987. "The programs are very effective, but you're not going to please everybody, you're not going to please every parent," he said during an interview last year. He was not immediately available on Tuesday for comment.

Some of the defendants were involved with Brightway, a southern Utah adolescent hospital Utah officials accused of operating as a front for the network of teen homes. Last year, Brightway was forced to close its doors under pressure from the Utah Department of Health's bureau of licensing.

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