News Review (Ridgecrest, California), March 14, 2001

Felony charges sought against Poliches-- New Horizons closure draws response from students, parents, employee and community
By Rebecca Neipp, News Review Staff Writer

After closing New Horizons school, a private boarding facility for "troubled teens" owned and operated by Cathy and Keith Polich, Ridgecrest police are seeking felony charges of abuse against the couple.

Release of information of the investigation has prompted many other witnesses to respond, said Lead Investigator Det. Mike Sword.

"We’ve had a tremendous amount of victims come forward," said Sword. "Once we put a cease-and-desist order on the school, all this stuff has come out."

Investigators in the case have spoken with more than 100 witnesses from California, Arizona, Seattle and Washington.

"This investigation has taken us so deep that we think we’ve just barely seen the tip of the iceberg," said Sword.

A task force of six agencies searched the school Feb. 28 after numerous reports of abuse. The evidence and student testimonies prompted officials to close the school and take the 14 students, aged 14 months to 17 years, into protective custody.

"The kids were happier to be in a police station than they were being in that school," said Police Chief Bruce Hagerty.

He said that the vast majority of witnesses so far have been in favor of the closing of the school. "Of the 15 calls I’ve taken since the last article (in the News Review), only one was in support of Cathy and Keith Polich.

"There are three identifiable instances of abuse, and we are asking for charges of physical and psychological abuse," said RPD Sgt. John Skaggs.

Local officers have been key in the investigation, but charges can only be pressed at the county level. The county district attorney’s office will review the findings and determine whether charges should be filed.

"This case is very difficult, because presenting a case of psychological abuse is very complicated to explain, and you have to go into such detail to substantiate it," said Skaggs. Officials again declined to elaborate on specific instances. "We have numerous corroborating reports," said Skaggs, but said that officials wanted to continue taking statements from witnesses who had no knowledge of other witness’ stories.

Community members have also begun to voice opinions to the charges of abuse against the Poliches (see related letters to the editor, Page 4).

Tom Phillips, grandparent of a student at New Horizons, supported the school in a recent letter to the Daily Independent.

"I have the utmost confidence in their integrity," he wrote. "It is my opinion some former students are behind these false allegations (it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out.)"

But according to one woman, the outpouring of complaints is long overdue.

"I have seen young kids reaching out to be heard for years," said Toni Sparks, former student and employee. "The reason they’re screaming now is because it took so long for them to be heard."

She said that in her nearly four years as a student and employee, she saw countless cases of psychological abuse, and once saw Cathy Polich shake a 3-year-old baby.

"Cathy is incredibly manipulative, and she makes you afraid to tell people what happens. After so many years of being called a liar, of hearing ‘she’s just a teenager, she’s just disgruntled,’ I was so happy to hear that the school was finally closed.

"It’s unbelievable the things that go on there," said Sparks. "When I was a student we were constantly trying to find a tape recorder, because you know nobody would ever believe it."

Alan Smith, whose child attended the school for three months, said that when he pulled his student out Cathy Polich refused to return his personal items. "It took making three appointments and finally coming to her home with a peace officer to get back my son’s stuff and even then she still didn’t return the most expensive things."

He said that in one encounter with Cathy Polich he saw her scream in a baby’s face."The baby just shook with fear, she was just devastated. The kids are afraid of her. She has a power over these kids like a drill sergeant. They are intimidated and afraid. I understand that she’s got to be forceful, but her methods are wrong."

Smith wrote a five-page affidavit in favor of closing the school. "But they knew how to fight everything we threw at them--they know all the loopholes."

Polich did have her child-care and foster-care license revoked in 1995 but continued to run her business as a private school.

Sparks also questioned the "bi-weekly counseling," a service promised in the New Horizons contract.

"Cathy is not qualified to counsel, I never felt that she tried to help rehabilitate me," she said.

"Those kids in that school are more like slaves than in rehab." She added that Cathy never did anything herself, but gave orders to students to serve her.

Sparks was employed by the school for a short time after she graduated. Her duties included administrative tasks and staying with the kids while Cathy and Keith went out of town.

She said that although she left because she was upset about abuse at the school, she was hesitant to come forward. "I’m scared to death knowing that she’s going to read what I’m saying in the paper. She still has that kind of power over me."

Skaggs said he did not know when formal charges would be pressed against the couple. "We have numerous corroborated statements, we’re basically waiting to talk to the DA and find out when enough is enough."

Anyone with information relating to the current investigation of New Horizons should contact Sgt. Skaggs or Det. Sword at 371-3711.

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