The New York State Attorney General's Office is probing Utah-based programs for troubled youths after a teenager was allegedly assaulted last month while being transported to an affiliated school near the Canadian border.
Two men associated with La Verkin-based Teen Escort are accused of beating the boy as he was being taken to the Academy at Ivy Ridge in New York.
The academy is a member program of the World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools/Teen Help (WWASP), which was founded by Robert Lichfield of Utah.
Another WWASP school director in a Utah program was charged with multiple counts of abuse in 2002, charges that were later reduced because the victim recanted. The case, however, prompted some Utah officials to call for more oversight of private youth programs, but that effort failed this past legislation session.
A New York investigator said the business operations of WWASP and Teen Escort have him concerned because of what he says is a lack of regulatory oversight and the "impropriety" of the transport services.
Officials with those programs, however, say the alleged assault was blown out of proportion, the business practices are standard and they welcome an investigation because they have nothing to hide.
New York State Police investigator James Hunt said the parents of a 17-year-old boy hired contract transporters with Teen Escort to take their son from their home in southern New York on March 22 to the school near the Canadian border.
The parents paid several thousand dollars for the service, which included having their son removed from home while he was asleep in bed, having him cuffed and then escorted to a car in his bare feet, Hunt said.
At one point, the 17-year-old boy, while on a rural stretch of road headed to the academy, grabbed the steering wheel and caused the car to crash into a guard rail, police say.
Afterward, the boy was beaten about the face while cuffed, Hunt said.
New Yorkers Leonard Faulstick and Timothy Hurd have been charged with unlawful imprisonment and assault in the incident, Hunt said.
He said the local district attorney's office is also looking at charging the father because he allegedly helped facilitate the removal from the bedroom.
Hunt said he has since learned in his probe that while Hurd was a contract employee of Teen Escort at the time of the alleged assault, Faulstick was subcontracted to help with the transport.
Neither man, he said, received any formal training to work in the youth transport service other than "informational brochures" on how to deal with problem kids.
Hunt said the state Attorney General's Office in New York requested documents from his investigation to determine what kind of "improprieties" may exist regarding the Utah business operations and if New York can impose any sort of regulatory oversight.
What officials there have discovered, Hunt said, is that private youth programs for troubled kids fall under little control. Officials discovered, for example, that Teen Escort's business registration in Utah has lapsed.
A check of the Utah Department of Commerce's Web site shows the business registration for Teen Escort Services in La Verkin has been expired since 1998. It is also described as a "scenic and sightseeing" transportation service.
"This case bothers me in that with what I was able to see with the operation of Teen Escort, their policies and procedures, we need to make other agencies aware of this so we can see about getting some regulations started," Hunt said.
But James Wall, a spokesman on behalf of WWASP and Teen Escort, said there are written policies and procedures in place and that Hurd has a reputation as one of the best transporters.
"They are very much on his side in this little battle," Wall said.
Wall said the crash into the guard rail happened at 65 mph, and "nothing happened as far as an assault."
When transporters pick up a troubled youths, they often don't allow them much clothing as a deterrent to running away, Wall said. The arrangement was made with the consent of the parents, he added, because the kinds of kids who go into these programs are often not cooperative. Handcuffs are standard for safety reasons until the youth demonstrates compliance.
Training, he said, isn't a requirement because it is not an advanced form of criminal handling.
"It's not like being on a SWAT team."
While Hunt said New York officials believe WWASP and Teen Escort are one and the same, Wall said it isn't so. Teen Escort is separately owned and one of three transport services approved for use by the admissions branch of WWASP. If the service is required, it is something the parents can arrange with more than a half dozen member affiliates in the United States through an independent admissions office. WWASP also has member programs in Mexico and Jamaica.
Utah licensing officials and watch-dog organizations say there is a need for more oversight for private programs to ensure that "discipline" doesn't amount to abuse.In a letter to lawmakers this last session, Utah assistant attorney general Craig Barlow wrote, " . . . my experience with unlicensed residential treatment programs calling themselves boarding schools is (that) no one knows what occurs in these programs. Children are completely isolated from the outside world and from their parents, and the potential for child abuse and child sex abuse is high."