'Pattern of abuse'
Institution won't close, chief vows

By Dennis Wagner, The Arizona Republic , Aug. 27, 1998
The death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz last spring was part of "a pattern of abuse and neglect" at Arizona Boys Ranch that led to at least 29 other reported incidents, state officials say.

Linda Blessing, director of the state Department of Economic Security, said some of the mistreatment occurred even as authorities swarmed over the Ranch to investigate Contreraz's death.

Blessing announced Wednesday that she has denied Boys Ranch a new license based on an exhaustive investigation that uncovered multiple violations of state law and rules.

In Sacramento, Julie Vega, hugged by her daughter, Yvonne Correa, 13, reacts to news of the release Wednesday of the state report on the death of her son, Nicholaus Contreraz.

Photo: Rich Petroncelli/Associated Press

Bob Thomas, president of Boys Ranch, said he has not had a chance to review the reports, but he has no intention of closing down an institution that operates campuses statewide and has worked with delinquent youths for 49 years.

"We will appeal," Thomas vowed. "We are not going to let these kids down. ... We plan on going forward. Boys Ranch has been in business for almost a half-century. We've served thousands of kids."

Blessing's announcement came five months after Contreraz succumbed while being punished at a Boys Ranch boot camp in Oracle.

DES specialists concluded that 17 Boys Ranch employees, including some supervisors, were culpable for 32 instances of abuse or neglect involving Contreraz.

"The egregious nature of these violations make our decision clear," Blessing said. "The death of any child is tragic, and Nicholaus' death was especially so.

"The circumstances surrounding his death, and the repeated treatment of other residents, demonstrate a pattern of abuse and neglect by Arizona Boys Ranch, and a lack of concern by senior management and line staff for the rights of youth placed in their care and custody," she said.

Details of the allegations are contained in about 4,000 pages of documentation released Wednesday by the Licensing and Child Protective Services branches of DES.

Department of Economic Security autopsy photos of Nicholaus Contreraz show some of the abrasions and bruises on his body. The curved marks on his chest and a small puncture wound near the breastbone were caused by resuscitation efforts. Bruising and abrasions along the right side and on the abdomen could have come from a number of causes, including being dragged, pushed down to the ground, or being repeatedly grabbed around the midsection, DES officials contend. The dark red mark at the bottom right of the torso, near the top of the leg, is a deep abrasion, similar to a a severe rug burn.

Blessing emphasized that Boys Ranch has a right to appeal, and it can remain open while the case is pending. However, she made it clear that the organization's future hinges on revised policy and leadership.

"We want to see a change in the organization's culture," she said.

'They're surrounded'

Meanwhile, Boys Ranch seems so mired in legal, financial and publicity problems that, as one state official put it, "They're surrounded."

The FBI and Pinal County Attorney's Office are conducting criminal evaluations in connection with Contreraz's death and other abuse complaints. Charges could be lodged not only against staffers, but against management and the non-profit corporation.

Boys Ranch's license expires Sept. 15, and operations could be shut down as early as October if appeals fail.

Contreraz's family has retained an attorney and is expected to file a lawsuit.

California, which provided about three-quarters of the placements at Boys Ranch, has cut off funding and individual counties have withdrawn nearly all of those juveniles. Other states also have pulled back placements.

The majority of Boys Ranch residents are placed by juvenile courts and probation departments. But now enrollment has dwindled from nearly 600 youths at seven locations to 150 boys staying at the main campus in Queen Creek and a summer camp on Mount Lemmon near Tucson.

Each lost youth represents about $3,600 per month, and Thomas said 60 of the remaining boys are on scholarship because government agencies won't fund them.

He acknowledged that Boys Ranch, with an annual budget of $26.5 million, depends on that income -- and faces a financial crunch. Already, Boys Ranch has reduced staffing from about 350 employees to 70.

Still, Thomas said, the private, non-profit organization will scrimp, cut salaries and seek donations to survive.

"We're not rich, but we're going to beg, borrow and steal to keep this program going," he added. "No, we can't do it forever."

Thomas said he still hopes to work in cooperation with DES to "make this a win/win situation for everyone."

But he disputed Blessing's contention that there is a pattern of abuse at Boys Ranch, and said he has no intention of leaving, or of making any other leadership changes.

"We all plan to be here," said Thomas, who has directed Boys Ranch since 1976. "My management team has been here for a lot of years."

Ranch's checkered history

Boys Ranch's history is checkered with allegations that juveniles have been mistreated. The complaints, and feuds with state regulators, stem in part from of the organization's hands-on method of dealing with belligerent teenagers.

At least three previous state investigations resulted in allegations of serious abuse. Two years ago, DES employees wrote a rebellious letter to their boss after Boys Ranch's license was renewed, complaining that the program was "a severe risk to children."

In the face of such criticism, Thomas and Boys Ranch typically fight back.

After a 1994 DES report ripped Boys Ranch for punching, choking and otherwise assaulting kids, an investigative team led by former U.S. Attorney A. Melvin McDonald was paid $400,000 to investigate the investigators. McDonald concluded that abuse claims were bogus -- the product of biased investigators and manipulative boys.

Boys Ranch sued DES. It sued The Arizona Republic for a news report on a juvenile who drowned during an escape attempt. And it sued a University of Illinois professor who wrote that ranch managers "condoned or ignored a pattern of violence." The suit against The Republic is pending.

Blessing and other DES employees emphasized Wednesday that every allegation in the Contreraz case was substantiated by Boys Ranch workers and documents.

Based on more than 50 interviews of Boys Ranch employees, she concluded that Ranch workers contributed to Contreraz's death. She blamed not only medical neglect, but a practice of physically "addressing" juveniles and "assisting" them with work or exercises.

DES licensing inspectors found that Boys Ranch employees repeatedly abused, threatened and taunted juveniles, and failed to provide health care or to document injuries.

In addition, the DES report indicates Boys Ranch refused to cooperate with state licensing inspectors who sought records.

Boys Ranch's license was denied based on those incidents, a history of violations and the organization's inability or unwillingness to meet the needs of children, according to DES administrators.

Thomas complained that DES did not allow Boys Ranch to see the findings or correct errors. When told about DES allegations that a staffer had rubbed a boy's face in sheep manure, he said that exemplifies flaws in DES reporting.

"This boy was totally out of control. He had three staffers down," Thomas said. "We did not rub his head in sheep manure. . . . It comes to this: Who do you believe, the kids or the staff?"

Thomas said he intends to have professional investigators review the findings, and McDonald already is working with him.

Thomas said Boys Ranch is one of the best juvenile-treatment programs in America. He noted that about 40 California juveniles, who were withdrawn from the program after Contreraz's death, voluntarily returned.

"They didn't do that at Auschwitz," Thomas said.

Meanwhile, Boys Ranch still has a core of staunch supporters -- especially among graduates and their families.

At the Queen Creek headquarters, staff members went about their business Wednesday while groups of boys strolled from class to class.

In the morning, a vanload of residents and a staffer drove to a nearby convenience store to buy snacks. Reporters and photographers were not allowed on campus.

Queen Creek Mayor Mark Schnepf said Contreraz's death was not reason enough to close a program that has taught delinquents respect for themselves and others for more than 40 years.

"Many organizations that deal with troubled people have tragedies, but when a tragedy occurs with the Sheriff's Office or Child Protective Services, we don't talk about shutting those agencies down. We talk about fixing the problems and making sure the problem doesn't happen again," Schnepf said.

Thomas' message to supporters: "Keep the faith. This, too, shall pass."


Dennis Wagner can be reached at dennis.wagner@pni.com via e-mail or at 1-602-444-8874.

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