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Parents' Last Resort : San Clemente Couple Send Away Their 'Defiant' Teen for Months of Behavior Modification


LA VERKIN, Utah — It was 9:15 on the night of May 27, and Cara Vanni was chatting with a friend on the phone, just like any number of San Clemente teen-agers.

Suddenly the line went dead. A minute later, strangers appeared in her bedroom doorway.

"My parents brought these three people into my room," Cara, 16, recalled. "At first I thought they were old friends of the family who were about to say they knew me when I was 4. They weren't."

In fact, they were kidnapers--of sorts--and they had arrived at the invitation of her parents to forcibly escort her to a private school in Utah.

Holding Cara by her wrist, the two men and one woman removed her shoes, belt and jewelry. Then they led her down the plush, curved stairway into the Vanni living room.

The walls of the stairway were bare. The framed pictures--including a portrait of Cara and her 6-year-old sister--had been removed so she couldn't use them as weapons.

Cara snarled at her mother, Nancy, calling her a "bitch." But she did not struggle. She was led into the garage, where she was belted down in the back seat of the trio's car between the woman and one of the men. Already locked in the trunk were her toiletries and clothes, folded in trash bags to save room.

The garage door was raised, and Cara began her trip to this small town in southwestern Utah, population 261. It was seven hours and a world away from San Clemente.

Cara was on her way to Cross Creek Manor, a residential treatment facility for troubled teen-age girls. Her experiences there would bring issues of teen-age privilege, power, family structure and discipline into sharp focus for her and her family.

The drive to Utah was interminable. In between tears and sleep, Cara began to learn details of her upcoming six-month program of behavior modification.

As do all new girls at the school, she would begin in "Phase 3"--a windowless basement room shared by three other girls.

Here, the doors are equipped with alarms, and shoes are confiscated to inhibit escape. Cara would not be allowed to leave her room without permission, and only under supervision would she be able to go outside and upstairs to meals. The worst insult for many of the girls: only one phone call home every two months.

To move upstairs and gradually gain privileges, Cara would need to earn points by demonstrating progress in a regular program of therapy, activities and peer relations.

Cara's behavior was about to be modified.

Sending their daughter away was the culmination of five months of severe discipline problems and "total defiance," according to Mike and Nancy Vanni.

"It was probably the worst thing I've had to do in my life," said Mike, who had disconnected the phone as part of the procedure to send her away.

"She first had a look of betrayal, then fear, then anger. It bothered me sending her away for what comparatively were not-so-serious problems: poor grades, bad friends and discipline problems. But we could not live the way we were living. We would not let her destroy her life."

"We couldn't tell her that they were coming to get her," Nancy said. "I had to get all her stuff together without her knowing about it. It was very traumatic for all of us, just awful."

In her younger teen-age years, Cara had exhibited what Mike said was "normal teen-age mouthiness and assertiveness." She also had a roving interest in boys.

The Vannis do not believe Cara's serious discipline problems began until she transferred in September, 1991, from St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano to a much larger public school.

"She was seeking broader social horizons and thought she could find them at San Clemente High," Nancy said. "She literally begged us to let her go. She said she could bring home the grades and things would be great, have more friends and less homework."

Her first semester at San Clemente was uneventful. But beginning with the second term Cara was rapidly losing respect for family and academic life.

She began spending a lot of time with an unsavory group of older students and dropouts, the Vannis said. She cut class more than 30 times, ran away from home twice and was increasingly spiteful toward her sister.

"I didn't want to follow rules," Cara says. "I wanted to live on my own with my friends. A lot of them were older, and they didn't have to go home at night. So why did I have to?"

Another potential problem--and a potentially fatal one--was AIDS, Nancy said. It was a danger to which Cara was indifferent, as were many of her friends.

"There was always that risk," Nancy said. "I could talk to them till I was blue in the face, but their general attitude is that AIDS only happens to homosexuals."

The Vannis sought help with a therapist, who recommended a series of family contracts and other negotiations to help establish agreement about household authority.

But the discipline problems remained, twice erupting into physical fights at home during which Cara bit her father.

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