San Jose Mercury News, August 8, 1998

State won't pay for boys at ranch--Teen died at Arizona camp

By Alan Gathright
Mercury News Staff Writer

A judge rejected San Mateo County's plea Friday to order continued state funding for 14 juvenile delinquents to attend an Arizona detention camp where a teenage boy died.

County officials said the ruling by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge James Ellis will force the youths' return, unless the Arizona Boys Ranch agrees to waive the lost state funding, which covered 70 percent of each boy's $3,800-a-month tuition. The ranch has cut fees for several other counties already, but its governing board said it can no longer afford the practice.

County Chief Probation Officer Gene Roh said the young offenders will stay in the program at least until early next week as he and ranch officials explore options. If no solution is found, the wards will return to an overcrowded county juvenile hall until a judge decides whether individual boys should be placed in another facility or released.

State attorneys said the California Department of Social Services had a legal responsibility to cut off funding after an investigation found physical and psychological abuse was ``endemic'' at the Oracle compound where the 16-year-old Sacramento boy died March 2. Deputy Attorney General Elizabeth Edwards said the county could keep paying for the boys to attend the program, but the state had no ``duty to fund a facility where (authorities) have found that abuse is ongoing.''

Santa Clara County, like most counties statewide, pulled its wards from the program after the death of Nicholaus Contreraz, whose heart failed when he was forced to exercise while suffering from an acute lung infection, vomiting and diarrhea. But after the ranch gave some scholarships, at least four Santa Clara County youngsters voluntarily returned to the program last week, saying the tough, boot-camp-style program was their best hope of turning their lives around.

San Mateo County juvenile officials continued to depict the boy's death as a tragic but isolated incident, and argued that local youths were making strong progress and would be ``irreparably harmed'' if they didn't finish. However, county Supervisor Rich Gordon has ordered a full report from Roh, saying he's concerned about how officials can safeguard wards in out-of-state detention facilities.

At the Redwood City court hearing Friday, Ellis ruled that he found no evidence that removing the San Mateo County boys would harm them. ``If they're doing as well as reported, I hope they now have some insight and discipline to allow them to progress'' at another facility, he said.

A handful of mothers attending the program were visibly upset that their sons could be forced from the ranch where they've learned to speak respectfully and found hope of escaping a life of crime.

``I just feel let down by my own state,'' said Kim Cunha, a San Bruno mother. She said her 15-year-old son Anthony wanted to stay at the ranch.

Cunha said she fears the fate of her son if he doesn't continue until graduation next year.

``There's no similar programs in this state. They might as well just give those boys the guns and give them the drugs and let them go at it,'' she said.

But state officials noted that counties like Los Angeles, which pulled some 90 wards from the ranch, have had no trouble placing them in California programs. A bill has passed the state Senate that would bar placement of young offenders in out-of-state programs unless they meet California's tough requirements, designed to prevent abuse of youngsters.

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