The Arizona Republic, Sept. 2, 1998

Boys Ranch exec on leave--Institution's administrators say relicensing is their goal
By Dennis Wagner

Arizona Boys Ranch President Bob Thomas was placed on administrative leave Tuesday amid a child abuse scandal that threatens to close the controversial reform program for juvenile delinquents.

Thomas, the non-profit agency's chief executive and philosophical leader for 22 years, could not be reached for comment.

Boys Ranch has been in upheaval since March 3, when 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz of Sacramento died while being forced to do exercises at a paramilitary camp in Oracle.

A week ago, the Arizona Department of Economic Security announced that it would not renew the operating license of the institution, which has a $26 million annual budget, after substantiating a pattern of abuse and neglect.

Child Protective Services investigators identified 17 former Boys Ranch employees whose conduct led to Contreraz's death. They are also investigating at least 29 subsequent allegations of mistreatment by staff members involving other youths.

Boys Ranch must file an appeal of the license rejection by Sept. 15 or close down.

A news release from Boys Ranch says only that Thomas will be on leave "pending the ongoing review of programs and services." Assistant Director Denice Fitchie -- an administrator with Thomas for 22 years -- will serve as acting president in his absence.

Cassandra McCray, director of development, said the decision on Thomas was made by the Boys Ranch board of directors. She declined to explain the action, and she said Chairman Robert H. Johnson would have no comment.

"Our focus is working toward relicensing," McCray said. "Our impetus is to go forward."

At DES, officials said they don't know how to interpret the latest Boys Ranch move.

"If it's a first step in the right direction, in terms of the board taking a more hands-on look, we applaud that," said Sally Ordini, an agency spokeswoman.

Based in Queen Creek, Boys Ranch provides housing, schooling and intense rehabilitation for up to 600 juvenile offenders at seven campuses statewide. Since Contreraz's death, most placements have been withdrawn, the majority of employees have been laid off, and only two campuses are open.

A medical examiner's report says Contreraz succumbed to severe infections within the lining of his lungs, exacerbated by forced labor and exercise. The coroner also identified 71 bruises, cuts and other wounds on the boy's body.

CPS investigators and Pinal County Sheriff's deputies have reported that Contreraz's symptoms -- including fever, diarrhea, vomiting and shortness of breath -- were misdiagnosed because Boys Ranch employees believed he was faking.

Instead of receiving medical treatment, witnesses said, Contreraz was taunted for days.

The FBI and Pinal County Attorney's Office are investigating possible criminal charges against Boys Ranch and its employees.

California's Department of Social Services conducted a separate investigation and cut off funding after finding that Boys Ranch supervisors knew or should have known about mistreatment but did nothing to prevent it.

Finally, DES Director Linda Blessing announced last month that Boys Ranch's license would not be renewed. Blessing was particularly critical of "a lack of concern by senior management" at the agency, which has been in operation for 49 years.

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

Although Thomas acknowledged wrongdoing by staff in the Contreraz case, he has denied there is a pattern of abuse at Boys Ranch. And he's zealously defended the tough approach to juvenile rehabilitation that sometimes involves hands-on confrontations.

Thomas contends that a hard-nosed, caring approach is the "last chance" means of transforming delinquent kids into responsible, productive and proud young men.

In an interview last week, Thomas said he had no intention of leaving his post.

Boys Ranch has been the subject of at least three other major investigations during the past 20 years. In each case, after state employees substantiated misconduct, Thomas disputed the allegations. He contends that biased and inept investigators were manipulated by lying boys who cried abuse to escape the rigid discipline.


Dennis Wagner can be reached at 444-8874 or at via e-mail.

Copyright 1998, The Arizona Republic

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