MEXICO CITY -- Three Mexico-based schools for troubled U.S. teenagers were closed during the weekend by Mexican authorities for alleged abuse, fueling a controversy about foreign-based "tough-love" facilities for young Americans that operate outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Acting on multiple complaints of emotional and physical mistreatment, Mexican authorities on Friday raided two drug-rehabilitation schools and a behavioral modification center in Baja California, about 60 miles south of the U.S. border.
See related: "Psychologist On Casa By The Sea" at http://nospank.net/r_hall.htm
By yesterday, the schools were shut and all 584 U.S. teenagers returned to the United States, though some teens were awaiting their parents in San Diego.
At Casa by the Sea, a behavioral modification program that 536 of the U.S. youths had attended, authorities found "various irregularities" and four residents who "showed problems of physical and emotional mistreatment," according to a statement from the Mexican Migration Institute.
Youths at Genesis, a Christian program for substance abusers in Rosarito Beach, also complained of mistreatment, the statement said. Several residents and the director of the second drug-treatment center, Casa La Esperanza in Ensenada, lacked papers to work or live in Mexico, it said.
Many parents and students praise tough-love programs such as Casa by the Sea. But some former students and their parents told Newsday that Casa by the Sea routinely denied residents basic hygiene, psychological counseling, medical treatment and adequate sleep, fed them food contaminated by insects and subjected them to "brain-washing."
For infractions such as scratching one's head, teens were forced to sit in uncomfortable positions for hours, they said. Others were dropped to the floor from a distance of 2 feet - or forced to walk on a court without looking right or left while guards they had to call "fathers" struck them with basketballs, they said.
"I was scared out of my mind the whole time," said Tom Castellano, 16, of Seattle, who spent six weeks at the school in May and June. "I came out ... traumatized beyond belief." He said he believed supervisors caused the bruises or broken bones that he saw on some residents.
Casa by the Sea, which charged $2,390 per resident each month, was run by the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, or Wwasps.
It is the ninth program either run by or reportedly affiliated with Wwasps that has closed or broken with the group in recent years after being investigated for abuse or irregularities. Wwasps still operates seven schools in the United States and abroad, including Ivy Ridge Academy in Ogdensburg, N.Y.
The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana had received complaints about the schools in Mexico but found no evidence of mistreatment during periodic inspections, a spokeswoman said.
While not ruling out isolated instances of mistreatment, Wwasps president Ken Kay defended his schools' tough programs, though he conceded, "It's not for everybody." He labeled complaints "manipulations" by "kids who have a history of misrepresenting the truth."
Tough-love schools are mushrooming abroad, in what some child advocates call an effort to lower operating costs and evade strict regulation. U.S. officials have no oversight, and host country regulations "may not ... meet the standards of similar facilities in the United States," warns a U.S. State Department advisory.
Several parents said they were lured by slick brochures and interlinked Web sites into giving Wwasps sweeping authority over their children. "They prey on parents who are vulnerable and desperate to get help for their children," said Geri Robles of Mission Valley, Calif., who yanked her son from Casa by the Sea after two weeks last spring.
Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.
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