The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 13, 2003
BY MICHAEL VIGH
Convinced his twins were out of control, Mike Bock placed the 16-year-olds in a controversial Costa Rican behavior-modification school owned by a Utah company.
But after learning her boys were in Central America, the twins’ horrified mother, Carey Bock, of Mandeville, La., and a pair of muscular bodyguards sneaked into the Costa Rican jungle and snatched them from the school.
Now, three months later, Mike Bock and his former wife have agreed not to return the boys to the Academy of Dundee Ranch, one of nine residential treatment facilities operated by St. George-based Worldwide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS).
Following a custody hearing in Louisiana last week, which included testimony about the boys’ sometimes harsh treatment at the school, the Bocks agreed to ask experts where the children should attend a U.S. school instead.
The WWASPS schools — four based in Utah — use “tough-love” techniques to rehabilitate teens caught up in alcohol and drug abuse and other misconduct. But some students claim they have been the victims of physical and sexual abuse at the network of schools.
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Since the late 1990s, the association has been sued seven times in Utah’s U.S. District Court by parents, all alleging negligence and abuse at Paradise Cove in Western Samoa, Tranquility Bay in Jamaica and Montana’s Spring Creek Lodge, according to court records.
“That is seven lawsuits out of 15,000 families we have dealt with,” said Ken Kay, president of the St. George association. “We hate it when a lawsuit happens, but anytime you deal with people’s children there is that potential.”
Kay also pointed out that the company has never paid any plaintiff a cent in damages, and many of the cases have been dismissed. Lawsuits “are an unfortunate part of doing business,” Kay said.
But that business hurts children, contends Carey Bock, who flew to the Costa Rican jungle from Louisiana with the men last October, barged into the facility and freed her sons.
Bock says her former husband put the children into the school without her knowledge because they were staying out past curfew, drinking and smoking cigarettes and marijuana.
The boys did not want to go back, complaining they were placed in solitary confinement for days at a time and forced to kneel on concrete floors for hours, Bock says. They also claim staff members routinely placed students’ arms behind their backs and forced them to touch their ears, leading to dislocated shoulders, Bock said.
Kay said the boys were not rescued, as Bock describes. He says the boys were allowed to go home with their mother. “There wasn’t any resistance” by anyone at the school, Kay said.
Though she could have risked losing custody of her boys, Bock told The Salt Lake Tribune she does not regret taking her children from the “barbaric” school.
”They were not allowed to scratch an itch, make eye contact, or cross their legs without there being consequences,” she alleged.
But Kay defends the school, which forces students into solitary confinement for misbehavior and cuts off all outside contact for some students for months at a time.
“Just because something’s controversial doesn’t mean it’s negative,” Kay said. “We have a 97 percent satisfaction rate. I don’t think you could do an exit poll at Disneyland and see that.”
California attorney Thomas Burton, who filed all seven lawsuits, calls the network of schools a “cult.”
Burton, of Pleasanton, Calif., also alleges in one of his suits that the Cross Creek Manor, a Washington County, Utah, home owned by WWASPS “is one of many closed, secret cult centers . . . where adolescents are impounded, tortured, berated, brainwashed, and otherwise abused.”
Cross Creek Manor has had relatively few complaints for a residential treatment facility, and has been licensed by the state for more than a decade, said Ken Stettler, director of licensing for the state Department of Health.
Four of Burton’s suits involve teenage boys taken to Paradise Cove — which has since been closed — and generally allege the boys were held in a jungle compound where water, food and bathroom privileges were restricted.
In one pending case, Silvio Alva claims he was kidnapped from his bedroom in Riverside, Calif., in 1997 and eventually taken to the compound, where he alleges he was beaten and once hog-tied with handcuffs and chains for three days.
Two cases target Tranquility Bay, where teens were allegedly forced to sleep without coverings and were attacked by insects. One girl alleged psychological abuse; two boys alleged they had nightmares and were afraid to go to beaches after they returned home. A final suit alleges a girl was verbally abused at Spring Creek Lodge.
However, both of the Tranquility Bay lawsuits and two of the Paradise Cove suits have been dismissed due to procedural errors, such as missed filing deadlines by the plaintiffs and their attorney, Burton.
Burton has appealed three of the dismissals to the 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Denver.
An eighth suit, which did not name the association, alleges a Washington state teenager was sexually abused by a staff member at Majestic Ranch in Randolph, Utah, in 1992. Narvin Lichfield, who also runs the Academy of Dundee Ranch, is the only remaining defendant in that case.
Also, a 17-year-old student died at Tranquility Bay from a 20-foot fall last year, Kay said. And a treatment facility in the Czech Republic was closed down four years ago after a Utah couple was accused of abusing and illegally imprisoning dozens of teens.
The couple is no longer affiliated with the Utah association and their whereabouts is unknown, Kay said.
Only 17 out of 2,200 students are from Utah, Kay said. To get into one of the schools, parents must pay approximately $4,500 up front and an additional $1,990 a month.