San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1998
Ruling on Boys Ranch Money
Court says state does not have to pay 14 youths' fees ,
By Marshall Wilson, Chronicle Staff Writer
To the dismay of parents, a judge rejected a request yesterday by San Mateo County to force the state to pay for 14 boys at an Arizona detention camp where a boy died in March from neglect and abuse. Superior Court Judge James Ellis refused to grant an injunction requiring the state to subsidize the $3,800 monthly cost of a boy at the paramilitary-style Arizona Boys Ranch. He disagreed that the state interfered with local sentencing decisions by halting the flow of money. The ruling left county justice officials scrambling. Gene Roh, San Mateo County's chief probation officer, said the county late yesterday asked the Boys Ranch to discount the rate for a week or two. If approved by the ranch's board of directors, the time would allow county justice officials to consider whether to bring the boys home, seek a long-term discount, or pay the full price for a few boys, Roh said. State and federal grants pay 50 to 60 percent of the cost. Roh said it was unlikely the county could afford to pay for all the boys to complete the program. The state pulled funding August 1 after state investigators issued a 600-page report on the March 2 death of Nicholaus Contreraz. Investigators said the 16- year-old Sacramento County boy died while being forced to exercise with an undiagnosed chest infection. The report said his complaints were ignored or ridiculed. As punishment for breaking rules, staff members forced him to carry a pail containing his clothes covered with his vomit and excrement. State officials said emotional and psychological abuse were ``endemic'' at the Oracle compound where the death occurred. Three staff members have since been fired, and many California counties -- including San Francisco and Santa Clara -- have brought their boys home. The state's account differs sharply from the praise given by Roh and several parents who credit the get-tough program for teaching the boys discipline and respect. They said bringing them home would shatter their trust and confidence. Roh said he disagreed with the state's findings and called Contreraz's death an isolated incident and a tragedy. He said county probation officers routinely visit the various ranch camps to assure that wards of the court are safe and healthy. ``I happen to believe (the death) was the exception. There was no ongoing, systematic abuse of kids,'' he said. Despite the county's insistence that the ranch is safe, an internal Probation Department memorandum from 1994 raised concerns about the use of force. The memo said camp staff jabbed fingers or knuckles into boys' chests, pushed boys against walls, grabbed their arms or face, and ripped shirts. The memo said the ranch did not formally condone the use of force but said the ``administration has been incapable of eliminating their use or has put little serious effort to do so.'' Winifred Younge Smith, a deputy attorney general, said yesterday the state cannot guarantee the safety of wards at the Boys Ranch and questions the program's philosophy. But Roh said yesterday that the confrontational style is necessary to combat years of gang life and crime. The Boys Ranch, he said, has succeeded in turning kids' lives around and he considers it safe. ``The truth is that there have been a number of deaths at institutions public and private throughout the state for a number of years,'' he said.