Missing teen prompts investigation of youth program

Published: Monday, Aug. 5 2013 4:25 p.m. MDT

ASHLEY NATIONAL FOREST — Kelly Harris said the period of time waiting for news of her son, who was missing nearly four days from a camp for troubled youths, was like a "walking nightmare."

"It was terror, agony, all of us were just worried sick," she said. "It was just awful. It was truly the worst experience of my life."

Andre Duran, who was reported missing Thursday, was located Sunday night. He was found barefoot but unharmed roughly five miles away from his campsite.

The 14-year-old was taking part in the Journey Impact Ranch, a community-based treatment center for troubled youths in Mona. The ranch serves boys ages 13 to 18 and is described on its website as a "moderate risk behavioral program."

Harris said she partly blames the program staff for her son's disappearance. She said extra precautions should have been taken to ensure the safety and security of her son.

"I was really surprised that they took him out into the wilderness because he has run before," she said. "He had never run from a program or anything like that, it was mostly running from my house to his dad's."

Since being found, Andre has made statements to authorities suggesting that he had simply become lost while looking for the campsite's bathroom, rather than having attempted to run away. But Daggett County Sheriff Jerry Jorgensen suggested the boy may be backpedaling to avoid punishment.

"I have no way of knowing what was in his head," Jorgensen said. "My only job was to find him. He's not one of my juveniles and he wasn't in my detention center."

The incident marks the latest in a long history of events at Utah's camps and programs for troubled youth. In June, the former owner of a girls home in Cedar City was charged with raping and sexually abusing three program participants, and last week, a staff member at a La Verkin school for troubled teens was arrested after allegedly showing pictures and recordings of his sexual activity to students.

Last summer, a former student in a Utah-based organization for troubled children filed a federal lawsuit against the program, claiming that he was subjected to two years of physical and emotional abuse that left him traumatized for life.

Liz Sollis, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Human Services, said the department has internal investigators that look into every reported incident at youth programs, including this weekend's runaway.

"As soon as we became aware, an investigation began, both with Division of Juvenile Justice Services and the office of licensing," Sollis said.

The majority of Utah's 30 community-based treatment programs are privately operated and contracted by the state, she said. When an incident occurs, the department will give recommendations and, depending on the severity, may request that certain programs or activities be halted or terminated. If serious issues are found, Sollis said a program could lose its license with the state.

"There’s a thorough review and then based on that review and the findings, they would provide recommendations," she said. "If they feel the program needs to be shut down, that's obviously something they would look at."

Sollis said the department has a $14 million annual budget to contract with community programs, but the actual costs vary depending on the number of youths and the duration of their treatment. There are about 500 children currently participating in community treatment programs, she said, which cost the state between $35 and $230 per day, per youth.

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