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A Puzzling Death at Boys Ranch

COLUMN ONE

California youth died amid questions about his care at Arizona program for juvenile offenders. Policy of sending kids out of state also scrutinized.

June 14, 1998|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORACLE, Ariz. — On the day he died, Nicholaus Contreraz was awakened at 6:30 a.m. He had been sleeping on a mattress positioned halfway in the bathroom of Barracks 31. Staff at the Arizona Boys Ranch had placed the 16-year-old Sacramento youth on Yellow Shirt status for, among other reasons, persistently defecating and urinating on himself. They wanted him to be near the toilet.

Employees at the paramilitary-style camp, where hundreds of California youth offenders are sent, had already tried to deal with Nick's incontinence by making him sleep in soiled underwear, ordering him to drop his pants so that other boys could inspect them, requiring he finish whatever physical activity he was engaged in before using the restroom, making him eat dinner while sitting on the toilet and, near the end of his life, making him carry a yellow trash basket filled with his soiled clothes and his own vomit.

At times he was instructed to do push-ups that lowered his face into the foul-smelling basket.

On the day before he died, Nick collapsed several times during physical training. After he fell while running up a hill, staff bundled him into a wheelbarrow and made another boy push him around the camp. Nick was told to make the sound of an ambulance siren.

On the day he died, a staff member told Nick he deserved an Academy Award for faking.

Nick collapsed for the last time about 5:30 p.m. on March 2. Staff members, who had spent the day ordering more and more physical punishment, issued their last command. Get up, Nick was told. "No" was the last word he spoke.

Nick was pronounced dead two hours later, succumbing to a massive, undiagnosed infection that had conspired with other illnesses raging in his body.

The youth's death, which is being investigated by a host of Arizona and California agencies, raises several disquieting questions. How could a child die under such circumstances while under adult supervision? How has Arizona Boys Ranch--with nearly 100 child abuse claims lodged against it in the last five years--continued to operate? What was the Sacramento boy doing in the Arizona desert in the first place, at a camp that would not be legal to operate in California? And should California continue policies that make it economically advantageous to ship young criminals out of state?

Among the complaints against staffers at the ranch that licensing authorities have substantiated: A boy was hit on the head with a shovel, a boy's head was repeatedly dunked in water, a boy's feet were burned so severely in hot water that he required skin grafts, a boy's nose was broken after his head was slammed into a table.

Nick was one of more than 1,000 California juvenile offenders who have been shipped out of state and live, under court order, at facilities that would not meet standards to operate in the state. Such facilities violate, among other things, state prohibitions against physically restraining children.

The flow of California children is encouraged by the economics of juvenile placement and the skyrocketing cost of housing delinquents at the California Youth Authority. Their exodus means that both the state's children and millions of its tax dollars are ending up in private hands out of state.

The details of Nick's treatment in Arizona, as well as the testimony from staff and residents, are culled from a 1,000-page report of the Pinal County Sheriff's Department. That report is being reviewed by the county attorney, who is considering a criminal prosecution.

Even with the probe's conflicting statements, the medical facts of Case. No. 980300044, as Nick's death is known, are not in dispute.

Still to be determined is who was responsible. Four Arizona agencies have launched civil probes into Nick's death, including the Department of Economic Security, which licenses the Boys Ranch. In California, the Sacramento County Probation Department and the state Department of Social Services are investigating and an Assembly task force is looking into the whole issue of out-of-state placement of California children.

The number of children who have died while in the custody of tough-love programs nationwide is difficult to calculate. Such programs combine harsh discipline and physical punishment with confidence-building tasks in hopes of rehabilitating the most-hopeless teenagers. Cathy Sutton of Ripon, Calif., whose 15-year-old daughter, Michelle, died while in the Summit Quest wilderness program in Utah in 1990, has been on a crusade to document abuse in the programs.

She meticulously compiles a "death chart," tracking fatalities in wilderness therapy camps and paramilitary ranches. The deaths, which one program director calls "the window of loss," now number 25.

Nick Contreraz's is the latest headstone.

*

Nick began to show signs of illness two weeks before his death, the same time he was placed on Yellow Shirt status, a designation given to youths who are deemed defiant, or an escape or suicide risk.

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