Arizona denies license to 'boot camp' after death Calif. teen died of 'abuse, neglect' at juvenile facility

August 27, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

PHOENIX -- A five-month Department of Economic Security investigation concluded yesterday that "abuse and neglect" led to the death of a 16-year-old California youth at the Arizona Boys Ranch and prompted officials to deny an operating license to the paramilitary-style boot camp for juvenile offenders.

The state report also revealed that 17 former staff members will be placed on the Arizona Child Abuser Directory as a result of their treatment of Nicholaus Contreraz of Sacramento.

The directory is a confidential computerized list meant to help the department screen people for foster care and other children's services.

"The circumstances surrounding his death, and the repeated mistreatment of other residents, demonstrate a pattern of abuse and neglect by Arizona Boys Ranch and a lack of concern by senior management and line staff for the rights of youth placed in their care and custody," said Department of Economic Security Director Linda Blessing.

Officials said it was the first time they could recall the state denying a license to such a facility. Boys Ranch has 20 days to appeal the decision and may continue operating during that time.

Officials said they doubted another application for a license would be accepted unless the ranch made significant changes.

The announcement at a packed news conference came after months of speculation about the future of the 49-year-old institution, which has a national reputation for sometimes rehabilitating troubled youths and has enjoyed wide political support in Arizona.

But that support has been tested since Contreraz died March 2 while being punished at the ranch's Oracle campus.

"I'm very glad that they are losing their license," said Julie Vega, the boy's mother, in a telephone interview. "That's a big step. I'm very gratified. What they've been doing should have been stopped a long time ago."

James Hart, assistant director at the Department of Economic Security, said that in addition to finding specific cases of abuse by staff members, the report concluded that the program's approach of physical restraint and aggressive punishment of the youths was troubling.

"They must make significant changes in the core philosophy of the program," he said. "It crosses the line."

Two other investigations regarding Contreraz's death continue. The FBI is investigating to determine whether the civil rights of anyone were violated, and Pinal County is weighing whether to press criminal charges.

Boys Ranch had received a crippling blow in July when the California Department of Social Services advised all California counties that it was ending funding to out-of-state placements at the facility. Nearly three-fourths of the 400 juveniles at the ranch's seven campuses were from California.

The California report concluded that Contreraz died as a result of "medical neglect and physical abuse" and charged that there was a pattern of "widespread excessive use of physical restraint and hands-on confrontation" by staffers.

Calls to Boys Ranch yesterday were not returned.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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