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VisionQuest License Bid Rejected by California

March 02, 1985|SCOTT HARRIS and DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writers

VisionQuest, the controversial Arizona-based juvenile reform program known for its wagon train treks and confrontational rehabilitation methods, has been denied a license to operate in California by the state Department of Social Services, it was learned Friday.

John Hagerty, the department's deputy director for community care facilities, said concerns for the safety of juveniles in the non-traditional reform program contributed to the decision to turn down a license application. A letter to VisionQuest officials informing them of the decision was mailed Thursday, he said.

The much-praised and much-criticized program, which has been custodian for hundreds of San Diego County juveniles over the last four years under a contract with the county, had hoped to operate four separate camps in California, including a group home to be located in the San Diego area.

Hagerty said that the department questioned VisionQuest's ability to provide proper health services, its attitude toward the personal rights of juveniles and its ability to report on problems and incidents occurring in the program. Efforts to reach VisionQuest officials for comment were unsuccessful Friday night.

The state's verdict was learned on the same day it became known that a New Mexico district attorney had made a decision favorable to VisionQuest. David Lane, Grant County district attorney, said an investigation into allegations of child abuse at a VisionQuest reform camp where San Diego County juveniles offenders were once housed has found no evidence that the juveniles were mistreated there.

However, the rejection of the state license represents a significant blow to VisionQuest, which is currently under investigation by the FBI and by both federal and county grand juries in San Diego. The state's decision could influence the actions of San Diego County officials who are engaged in a continuing debate over whether to continue to send wayward youths to VisionQuest at a cost of nearly $30,000 per juvenile per year--25% more than local rehabilitation programs charge.

The state's decision does not prohibit the county from sending more juveniles to VisionQuest facilities out of state, but "it will probably raise more questions" about the practice, Hagerty said.

Moreover, the official said he believes it would be "inappropriate," but not necessarily illegal, for VisionQuest to continue to roll its highly publicized wagon trains through California in the wake of the state's decision.

The grand juries' probes were prompted by the reports of child abuse at the New Mexico facility, where a 16-year-old San Diegan, Mario Cano, collapsed and died last April after his pleas for medical attention were dismissed by camp counselors.

Hagerty said his office reviewed VisionQuest more thoroughly than most license applicants because of the program's unusual approaches to rehabilitation. "We did not want to deny it just because we didn't understand it," he explained.

VisionQuest emphasizes rigorous outdoor activity and offers what some regard as harsh discipline to motivate wayward youths, many of whom are hard-core felons. Among the program's defenders are judges who say it is the best way to reduce criminal recidivism and parents who say it reversed their children's delinquent life styles.

In addition to the group home for the San Diego area, the license application included plans for a wilderness camp, a wagon train camp and an "OceanQuest" camp, in which juveniles are given training on sailing vessels.

"We felt it would be inappropriate, given the nature of the programs, for them to be licensed as a community care facility in California," Hagerty said. "They are kind of betwixt and between."

Hagerty said the Cano case was reviewed thoroughly. "But I wouldn't say that particular incident precipitated our decision," he said. "It was one of many things we looked at."

The state official acknowledged that "some parents think it's a fantastic program. People on both sides feel very emotional." Asked if he felt strongly about the merits of the program, Hagerty said, "I don't know if I feel strongly. I think it's inappropriate to license it as a community care facility in California."

Meanwhile, Lane, the Grant County, N.M., district attorney, said Friday that he found no evidence to substantiate the contention among San Diego County probation officers of widespread abuses at the VisionQuest camp near Silver City.

"My feeling is very, very clear and strong that the great probability was that there were no crimes committed," Lane said. "Even if by some stretch of imagination you could make an argument that a crime was committed, there's no jury on this planet that would vote to convict. As far as I'm concerned, the case is closed."

Lane turned over his findings this week to New Mexico's Human Services Department.

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