Arizona Daily Star, Sunday, May 10 1998
`Severe risk' presented by Boys Ranch, state warned--Boy's death preventable, former regulator says
By Enric Volante and Rhonda Bodfield The Arizona Daily Star
A former state regulator says the state could have prevented the death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz if it had heeded warnings two years ago.
The warnings asserted that Arizona Boys Ranch presented ``severe risks to children.''
Martin Wesley was one of five state Department of Economic Security workers who complained in 1996 that a Boys Ranch lawsuit against the state and political pressure prevented them from cracking down on the ranch.
``I'm angry at what happened at Boys Ranch, but I'm angrier at the administration of DES for not taking our concerns seriously and allowing a death to happen there,'' Wesley said.
``It's terrible to say, but we knew that something like this was going to happen,'' he said.
Wesley, the state's former liaison to Boys Ranch, spoke one day after Boys Ranch President Bob Thomas apologized to the Contreraz family.
Thomas announced plans to close the Oracle-area program for troubled teens until it upgrades the medical staff and implements other reforms to prevent mistreatment.
The private, non-profit company, which operates six facilities around Arizona, also replaced the director of the Oracle camp and fired three workers.
An autopsy found Contreraz died March 2 from a lung infection exacerbated by physical activities at the Oracle camp. A Pinal County sheriff's report showed some employees humiliated Contreraz and thought he was faking illness.
Wesley said there is some validity to Boys Ranch claims that residents are manipulative and deceitful. But while he was liaison from May 1995 to September 1996, the consistency of their complaints struck him, he said.
``Probably anyone who talks to the kids there is going to hear the same thing.
``A majority of the kids will probably acknowledge kids get thrown against walls, that they hear crying and screaming,'' said Wesley, a defendant in the Boys Ranch lawsuit against the state.
Thomas last week said that there is no pattern of abuse at the ranch.
He said some delinquent youths sent to the paramilitary-style boot camp try to beat the system by making false claims.
``Today, kids are very violent, they're very difficult, they're very manipulative,'' Thomas said.
He acknowledged that some staff members mistreated Contreraz, but said it was an isolated case involving staff who broke disciplinary rules.
State records show Arizona officials were warned as early as 1978 that the highly confrontational approach used at Boys Ranch ``could become child abuse'' if not properly administered.
The warning came from Michigan's top licensing official, who otherwise praised Thomas' record in that state.
Thomas was assistant director of Highfields center for delinquent youth for three years before taking over as Boys Ranch director in 1977.
For the last 20 years, Boys Ranch and DES have clashed over the ranch's treatment philosophy of aggressively confronting youths who don't follow strict rules.
Accused of incompetence
The ranch has accused CPS abuse investigators of incompetence and bias. State officials have complained that the ranch is hostile and uncooperative.
The current investigation into Contreraz's death and 21 abuse or neglect complaints that followed is the fourth major inquiry into the ranch in two decades.
In 1977, shortly before Thomas became president, and again in 1987 and 1994, DES warned Boys Ranch to fix problems or lose its operating license. Each time DES renewed the license.
The ranch, started in 1949, has 525 residents. Its license is set to expire June 30.
DES is trying to determine whether the Contreraz case was isolated or part of a larger pattern tied to institutional philosophy, said DES Director Linda Blessing.
Although the 1994 investigation verified 12 cases of abuse, several DES workers said systemic problems that led to the mistreatment never were resolved.
They complained to higher-ups that the ranch consistently failed to report injuries, even as they heard of boys being struck and thrown into walls.
While DES workers continued to voice concerns, Boys Ranch in 1995 struck back.
Flatly denying boys were abused, it sued DES over what it called biased investigations.
The ranch drew support from such political heavyweights as then-Speaker of the House Mark Killian and House Appropriations Chairman Bob Burns.
In a letter to DES Director Blessing, Killian expressed concerns that ``certain individuals have engaged in unsubstantiated witch hunts'' against ranch employees.
Lawmakers held hearings to showcase complaints that DES' Child Protective Services was out to crucify the organization.
Blessing, who became DES director in 1993, denies that the ongoing lawsuit and legislative pressure affected state oversight of the ranch.
But key members of her staff thought otherwise.
In a June 1996 memo several employees stressed that: ``The filing of a lawsuit or political savvy does not exempt Arizona Boys Ranch from regulation.''
Boys Ranch ``continues to abuse children, thwart regulations and use their political influence to combat non-compliance of licensing rules,'' they wrote.
``No other agency has been able to get away with the hostility and uncooperative nature of Arizona Boys Ranch,'' they wrote.
``The question from the Licensing Unit is when are we going to begin to notify Arizona Boys Ranch of these infractions?''
The memo cited a June 1995 incident in which CPS determined a ranch employee abused a boy when he grabbed him by the collar, scratching his neck.
The staff member did not intend to hurt the child, just change his behavior, DES workers wrote.
However, in general ``most children that are severely injured or even killed are not done so intentionally but under the same motivation as Arizona Boys Ranch,'' they warned.
The memo was signed by Wesley and Wayne Wallace, head of the licensing unit. Three CPS workers, who are still state employees, also signed the memo.
Boys Ranch had accused all of bias or incompetence.
The June 1996 memo was the first of four over the next month as licensing workers stepped up efforts to force state action against the ranch, according to DES records released under the Arizona Public Records Law.
Two weeks later, Wesley wrote to the licensing manager that ``as always, we will continue to follow DES administrative decisions and directives given us in the Arizona Boys Ranch matter.
Concerned with risks
``But as professional, responsible social workers, we must express our concern, for moral and ethical reasons, about the severe risks to children and the violations of rules and statutes occurring at Arizona Boys Ranch.
``We believe there are sufficient grounds to sanction Arizona Boys Ranch.''
In early July, Wesley again wrote to the licensing manager, saying three youths had reported suspected abuse.
Their complaints ranged from boys being thrown against a wall to one who had an unexplained knot over his eye.
Wouldn't report abuse
Wesley wrote that when he asked one of the ranch nurses if she ever would report abuse to CPS or law enforcement, she answered she would not.
When asked a more specific question, a ranch attorney advised the nurse not to answer, he reported.
``The resistance by ABR is tremendous, making it very difficult to get information,'' Wesley wrote.
Later that month, the five workers again sent a memo to top DES administrators.
``We wish to express our concerns about health and safety issues at Arizona Boys Ranch. ABR has a documented history of non-compliance with (licensing) standards and state statute,'' the memo stated.
``These violations continue to occur and are not being addressed through the licensure process.''
Wesley, who became the liaison in May 1995, said he had wanted to improve relations with Boys Ranch.
Records show he wrote friendly notes, stayed overnight at various ranch camps and even told officials he wanted to earn a Boys Ranch Ranger Corps cap.
But within weeks, when he walked into an office to meet a member of the ranch board of directors, he said he overheard Thomas on the speaker phone in the adjacent room. Thomas was warning the man to ``keep his eye'' on him.
In an interoffice memo documenting the conversation, Wesley wrote: ``He stated that he had checked on my past. He told him I had worked as a house parent at another group home in Mesa and they were glad to be rid of me.
``He stated I was a typical CPS-type worker and the only one that would want me as an employee was DES.''
Four days later, Thomas wrote to personally thank Wesley for his efforts to get to know the program, saying he appreciated ``open, honest communication.''
Thomas, within weeks, complained in a letter that Wesley was documenting ``frivolous activity.''
Thomas said Wesley was following the lead of a CPS worker who reportedly had called Boys Ranch staff ``vermin.''
Even though DES and Boys Ranch relations were strained, the department had provided the ranch special considerations by:
- Agreeing to give 48 hours notice before inspecting the ranch or viewing records.
- Notifying the ranch and providing copies whenever anyone asked to review or receive documents from the state's public file on the ranch.
In 1995, for example, when The Arizona Republic newspaper sought specific copies of documents, the state sent copies of what was released to ranch President Thomas.
- Agreeing toward the end of 1995 to give the ranch taped recordings of CPS interviews with youths at the facility.
After consulting with a state attorney, DES reversed itself and told the ranch it had no right to interfere with or be present during interviews.
- Entering into a six-month ``memo of understanding'' negotiated with the ranch to limit state access to reports that detailed restraint injuries.
The agreement also required a licensing specialist and the ranch staff to agree on whether incidents should be reported as abuse - a power reserved strictly for CPS investigators, some staff argued.
During his time as liaison, Wesley said he repeatedly drafted letters demanding corrective action by the ranch, but his administrators either never sent them or watered them down until they were meaningless.
Weekly DES staff meetings about the ranch just rehashed the same issues without making progress, he said.
`Just an icon'
``I was just an icon so the state could say they had someone assigned to Boys Ranch,'' he said. ``Was I doing my job? Absolutely not.''
Wesley left DES to open his own children's shelter and group home in Glendale shortly after he and the other four staffers wrote the memos.
``Everyone in the unit knew something like (the Contreraz death) was going to happen and we all wanted to cover our behinds,'' said Wesley.
DES Director Blessing insisted in a recent interview that the department acted appropriately.
Each time the state placed the Boys Ranch on probationary status over the years, the department forced improvements before granting a regular license, she said.
Complaints of abuse tapered off in the past years, indicating that improvements were working, she said.
Reports of abuse totaled 79 in 1994 and 1995, then fell to a total of 12 in 1996 and 1997.
The memorandum of understanding, governing how cases would be reported to CPS, was in effect for six months in 1997.
Thomas also said that the ranch's relationship with DES improved after the 1995 lawsuit was filed.
``Frankly, if I did anything different . . . we should have brought a court case much earlier,'' he said.
Read a Department of Economic Security monthly report on Arizona Boys Ranch and a June 1996 memo written by five DES workers. A Boys Ranch lawyer expressed concern about state regulation in a letter she sent to other agencies. The Boys Ranch Web site explains the organization's practices and programs.