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Success Story : A Year After Abduction of Cara Vanni, Teen and Her Family Say All Is Well


SAN CLEMENTE — Thursday marked a special anniversary for Cara Vanni. She wishes it were as routine as a birthday, but what happened a year ago was a shock that Cara, 16, plans to never relive.

Three people, at the invitation of Cara's parents, abducted her from her San Clemente home for a 10-hour drive to a residential treatment facility in Utah. The plan was to get her to change her behavior, which had included running away from home, fighting with family members and spending a lot of time with older students and dropouts. Previous meetings with a local therapist had failed, said her parents, Mike and Nancy Vanni.

She stayed six months at Cross Creek Manor, the minimum stay recommended by officials there, and returned home a few days before Thanksgiving.

Although the long-term results of the $17,000 treatment are unknown, the family is happy to say that since Cara's return in November, they've been at peace. Cara says "mutual respect" between her and her parents has helped maintain harmony in the household.

"A year ago I wasn't making decisions within the right guidelines. I didn't think of consequences," Cara said. "Now I control my own actions. I look at things as a whole and ask myself, 'Is it going to be worth it in the end?' I've been very open with (my parents). I now have nothing to hide."

Her parents said the difference in Cara contrasted with a year ago is profound. "We made the right decision" in sending her away, her mother said. "She's following guidelines, doesn't break curfews and is getting A's and B's at school."

Cara's best friend and neighbor, Andrea Trotter, 16, also agrees that Cara's attitude has improved. "She's not afraid now to live up to her values and standards," Andrea said. "She doesn't let people walk all over her. She doesn't fall for guys' lines."

A story in The Times last year chronicled Cara's abduction and her first few months in Utah, including her emotional reunion with her family after 90 days at the facility. The program of behavior modification included rewards and punishments, locked doors, therapy sessions and, at the beginning, basement quarters and minimal contact with the outside world.

The Vanni family's situation and their agonized decision to send Cara to Cross Creek generated an unusually strong reaction among readers. In letters to The Times and to the Vannis, many suggested that sending Cara away was cruel and served as an indication that parental neglect was at the root of Cara's problems.

Other readers shared their experiences with similar programs that had helped turn around teen-agers' lives. One adolescent therapist warned, however, that use of such facilities can make parents rely on outside agencies to discipline their children.

The drama of Cara's predicament was not lost on producers of made-for-TV movies, either. More than half a dozen contacted the Vannis to discuss turning their story into a melodrama, while still others visited Cross Creek to wine and dine the staff. No agreement for any type of production was reached.

Although Cara was the focus of this storm of attention, she says the letters, phone calls, newspaper article and movie proposals did not faze her. A TV movie, she said, won't work because hers was "just another everyday problem. I wasn't a drug dealer, and it wasn't like a big scandal. Everyday problems don't sell."

At Cross Creek, Cara shed her initial anger after two days and began to sail through the program.

Although Brent Facer, Cross Creek director, said in a phone interview that "Cara did well on all fronts," he and his staff had recommended to the Vannis that their daughter remain for a couple of months rather than go home in November. Mike and Nancy, however, were convinced that they had given the program enough time.

Cara has narrowed her circle of friends to exclude the bad influences works as a restaurant hostess a couple of nights a week. She is also researching colleges.

Only once since her return, the Vannis say, has Cara challenged their authority. During a rainy, trouble-plagued trip to the East Coast in April--"the vacation from hell," Nancy says--Cara demanded to be allowed to fly home by herself and became frustrated when her parents refused.

Cross Creek officials offer no guarantees once the girls leave.

"You never know how much of what we do is going to hold up under the circumstances, after (a girl) goes home to her home turf," Facer said. "But with Cara, it sounds like she's been able to grasp what she's learned and apply it to her life. We're tickled pink for her and her family."

For Cara, the memory of her nighttime abduction will stay with her. She remembers the song that was playing on the radio when the strangers entered her bedroom, and she is reminded of that night each time she hears the song.

Her six months in Utah were a detour, but a critical one, she says, in her young life.

"It was definitely a learning experience," she said. "I know that if (my behavior) got to a point, they'd send me back, but it's not going to get to that point. I'm glad I ended up in Utah. I could have thrown away my whole life."

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