The Arizona Daily Star, May 9, 1998
Boys Ranch tries to keep child abuse data closed
By Alisa Wabnik
The Arizona Boys Ranch is trying to block the court-ordered release of state child abuse investigations requested by The Arizona Daily Star.
The Star sued the state Department of Economic Security two months ago to obtain the records after the death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz at the paramilitary-style center for delinquent youth.
Contreraz died March 2 of a massive lung infection that a Boys Ranch nurse failed to diagnose, an autopsy and sheriff's investigation found.
John Foreman, Maricopa County's presiding juvenile court judge, on May 1 ordered the release of some Child Protective Services reports on the Boys Ranch. But Boys Ranch attorneys protested that decision yesterday to the Arizona Court of Appeals in Phoenix.
The appeals court agreed to decide the matter on June 3, granting the Boys Ranch's request to delay releasing any further records until that time.
A violation of rights
The Boys Ranch is arguing that opening the records would damage its reputation and violate its employees' privacy rights.
``This Court is well acquainted with the propensity of prisoners - and Arizona Boys Ranch residents are, to put it plainly, prisoners - to complain,'' the petition states.
``The pernicious effect of unproven allegations of abuse on the lives of Arizona Boys Ranch employees and their families is clear,'' it states.
On March 4, the Star requested CPS reports on alleged abuse and neglect at the Boys Ranch since Jan. 1, 1994, as well as state licensing records not kept in the public file.
Since 1994, CPS found abuse occurred in 24 cases but determined the Boys Ranch was not at fault in 21 other cases. It did not investigate or could not make a determination in 44 claims.
After Contreraz's death, CPS received 21 reports of abuse at the Boys Ranch.
The DES licensing division is reviewing whether to renew Boys Ranch's license when it expires June 30. The state placed Boys Ranch on probation twice in the past 11 years.
Site closed temporarily
The Boys Ranch temporarily closed the Oracle campus Tuesday after an internal investigation found that staff members violated disciplinary policies.
Several employees humiliated Contreraz, forcing him to carry a bucket filled with vomit-soiled clothing, while disregarding his pleas for help, according to Pinal County Sheriff's Department records.
The Star requested the ongoing CPS investigation into Contreraz's death, but Judge Foreman has not ordered it released.
State law requires a court order to obtain CPS investigations into reported child abuse or child deaths.
The law allows the court to release records when ``the rights of the parties seeking the information and any benefits from releasing the information sought outweigh the rights of the parties entitled to confidentiality and any harm that may result from releasing the information sought.''
Star attorneys have argued that the newspaper needs the files to better portray the welfare of children placed in the state's care, as well as the quality of state oversight.
Although the Boys Ranch is a private, non-profit treatment facility, it is DES-licensed and about 18 of its 525 current residents are placed there by Arizona courts, court records show. Most other youth come from juvenile corrections systems in other states.
Judge Foreman agreed that the CPS files should be released, even in cases where CPS workers were unable to prove abuse or did not investigate. But he allowed the agency and Boys Ranch attorneys to review the records first and withhold certain information, such as the names of juveniles and family members.
Foreman said the names of workers involved in substantiated abuse cases should be released - but withheld the names of those accused in unproved cases.
Boys Ranch attorney, John P. Frank of Lewis and Roca, contends that the judge should have withheld the names of employees in proved abuse cases.
Star attorneys said they will argue that employees unfairly accused are protected by Foreman's decision to withhold names in unproved cases.
Privacy rights for the Boys Ranch as a facility are a different issue, they said.
Public needs to know
``You lose certain privacy rights when you agree to accept state money and take on the responsibility of taking care of children,'' said Star attorney Philip R. Higdon. ``The public's interest in getting access to this information - about what is going on at a licensed agency and what a state agency is doing about it, if anything - outweighs any privacy interest Arizona Boys Ranch has.''
The three appeals court judges slated to decide the case are Jefferson L. Lankford, Cecil B. Patterson Jr., and Michael D. Ryan.
The Boys Ranch has an ongoing lawsuit against DES based on state abuse findings in 13 cases from 1994. The Boys Ranch also will go to trial this month in a libel lawsuit against The Arizona Republic.
That lawsuit resulted from newspaper articles about a Mississippi boy's August 1994 drowning death in the Central Arizona Project canal while fleeing Boys Ranch employees near its Queen Creek site.
Maricopa County Judge Steven Sheldon on Tuesday rejected the Republic's request for a dismissal.
Arizona Boys Ranch outlines its program on its Web site.