SALT LAKE CITY — A former student in a much-maligned Utah-based organization for troubled children filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday, contending it left him traumatized for life.
Carl Brown Austin, 24, alleges World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools subjected him to constant physical and emotional abuse for two years. The Washington state man was enrolled in programs called Casa by the Sea and High Impact, both based in Mexico, from age 13 to 15.
Since his mother, Glenna Pierson, pulled him from the school in September 2002, he has "lived a life of indolence, drugs and misery to drown out the torture" he experienced, according to the 36-page suit filed in U.S. District Court. Pierson and her husband also are plaintiffs in the case.
"Casa and High Impact have literally wrecked the life of a very young adolescent that needed nurturing, patience and love, not the foolish 'behavior modification' at which the defendants excel."
Named as defendants are WWASPS principals Robert B. Litchfield and Brent M. Facer. The suit seeks at least $500,000 in general damages and unspecified amount for punitive damages. In addition to abuse, it alleges fraud, conspiracy and breach of contract.
An attorney for WWASPS did not immediately return a phone call for comment.
The program uses behavior modification tactics to curb rebellious behavior in kids and often establishes schools in rural, out-of-the-way places to deter running away. Monthly tuition is several thousand dollars, on top of admission fees.
Pierson says she spent more than $50,000 for her son to be in the program.
Allegations of abuse and questions about the facilities' credentials have sparked investigations in numerous states, prompted closures of some facilities and led politicians to call for greater oversight the past few years.
A massive lawsuit initiated by a Texas man pending in federal court in Salt Lake City has hundreds of plaintiffs who claim they were abused in the program.
Austin's attorney, Thomas Burton, said behavior modification or "beating kids into submission" never gets to the root of what often are deep-seated psychological problems.
In the lawsuit, Austin alleges he was a "virtual prisoner" while in the school. He claims school employees meted out "primitive punishment" for hours on end. They included "R&R," which meant lying face down with one's chin and toes on the floor and hands behind the back, and "Big Green," which entailed having one's face rubbed into the turf until it was bloody.
"I have real problems with kids being locked up. This is worse than juvenile hall," he said. "You are in as long as World Wide decides you need to be in. It will come as no surprise that you will be in as long as the funding continues."
Austin also alleges he was hog-tied, allowed limited access to bathrooms and showers and not permitted to eat during punishments.
"He once attempted to hang himself in a bathroom, but was caught and put on R&R," according to the suit.