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.
She said allegations of abuse and wrongdoing are taken very seriously by the department, which screens potential staff and works to prevent mistreatment. Problems do occasionally arise, but on the whole, she said, the programs have been successful at rehabilitating and supporting troubled youths.
"Ultimately our goal is to try to get these kids back into their home or back into the community and a normal life but again, always at the forefront is their safety, their accountability and the community’s safety," she said. "We have a great belief in the work that we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it."
Brady Peterson, a counselor at Millcreek Youth Center in Ogden, participated in behavioral treatment programs in his teenage years, which he said helped him value freedom, his family and himself.
He was placed in Division of Child and Family Services custody for a time at age 12 and rebelled during his teenage years, getting into fights and becoming mixed in with the wrong crowd.
"One thing led to another, and I ended up coming to programs just like this," he said.
He was finally able to appreciate life through the support of a youth program, which he said made him want to come back as an adult and help other children in situations like his.
"I just want to give back to them," he said. "I believe in them and I haven’t been through the same things that they have, but I’ve walked in their shoes before."
After about 100 searchers, mostly volunteers, looked for Andre this weekend, the boy was found in his tattered socks a makeshift lean-to by two search and rescue workers. Shoes were taken away from campers in the program in order to prevent them from running away. The teen was turned over to Uintah County authorities and has been placed in a juvenile justice service facility, pending investigation of the incident.
Harris said she had not yet had a chance to speak with her son. She plans to petition the court to release him back into the custody of his father.
"He was never a criminal, it was just a kid having a really, really hard time that just needed some extra help," she said.
Representatives at Journey Impact Ranch declined to comment, instead deferring to the Utah Department of Human Services.
Contributing: Carole Mikita, Mike Anderson
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