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Costa Rica Takes Over U.S.-Run Camp for Teens

Officials had launched an investigation into allegations that children there were abused.

May 22, 2003|Auriana Koutnik and T. Christian Miller | Special to The Times

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Government officials began overseeing the operation of a private U.S.-run academy for troubled teens Wednesday after a mother and local child welfare authorities filed criminal complaints.

Two or three dozen of the nearly 200 mostly American teenagers at the Dundee Ranch Academy fled the institution Tuesday during a raid by a local judge, police investigators, child-welfare workers and public health officials.

Officials were looking for evidence to back up allegations that some teens had been made to sleep on floors or kneel for hours on concrete. Other allegations charged that some of the children were in Costa Rica illegally and that facilities at the ranch west of the capital were unsanitary.

"We are conducting a criminal investigation of Dundee Ranch for systematic violations of human rights, specifically the rights of the child," said local prosecutor Fernando Vargas.

Most of the teenagers had returned to the academy by Wednesday, but six of them had received permission from the Child Welfare Agency to stay in government-run youth shelters, agency officials said. Of the three teens still missing Wednesday afternoon, two had been in touch with their parents and one had contacted the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, embassy spokesman Peter Brennan said. He did not disclose the hometowns.

Dundee Ranch is reportedly part of a movement that uses tough love to rein in out-of-control teenagers, many of whom are suffering from drug or alcohol problems.

Although independently owned and operated, the ranch is run under the aegis of the World Wide Assn. of Specialty Programs and Schools. The group's network has come under fire in the past for alleged abuse. Schools in Mexico and the Czech Republic have been shut down after such allegations.

Ranch officials declined to comment. Officials with the Utah-based association did not respond to a phone call or e-mail.

Vargas said witnesses had testified that children were sometimes sent to the institution against their will, a violation of Costa Rican law. Also, teens told investigators they were sometimes placed in solitary confinement and that their communications were monitored.

"In Costa Rica, we don't even allow that kind of punishment for our prison inmates," Vargas said.

Child Welfare Agency spokeswoman Fanny Cordero said the agency planned to send a team of psychologists, social workers and lawyers today to the ranch, in the coastal town of Orotina, about an hour-and-a-half's drive west of the capital, San Jose.

She said government personnel would remain there until the academy came into compliance with Costa Rican laws or shut down. The ranch has 30 days to comply with all applicable laws, or else it faced being shut down.

Brennan said the U.S. Embassy had sent consular officials to the academy as monitors."Nobody's in danger, but we want to make sure they are being cared for," Brennan said. He said some of the parents have traveled to Costa Rica to check on the situation and may take their children home to the U.S.

Prosecutors began their investigation in February after Susan Flowers, a U.S. citizen and mother of a teenage girl at the ranch, filed a complaint because she was worried about how her daughter was being treated.

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Special correspondent Koutnik reported from Costa Rica and Times staff writer Miller from Bogota, Colombia.

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