LA MISION, Mexico – For five years, Future Expectations, a center for troubled U.S. teenagers, operated quietly in this small Baja California community hidden behind hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But in a span of hours Dec. 9, the fenced compound was shut down, the Mexican employees were sent home, and the U.S. staff and students were placed on buses for the border.
Tolerated for years, behavior-modification centers catering to U.S. teens with addiction and behavioral problems have faced unprecedented scrutiny in Baja California, where four centers have been closed in the past four months.
Drawn to the state's low costs and proximity to the United States, operators of the now-shuttered centers are asking why there has been a sudden crackdown when they have been operating openly for years. Baja California officials say they are sending a message that Mexican laws must be followed by anyone operating in their country.
"We totally approve their closing," Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther said in an interview last month. "We consider that we deserve the same respect that the United States demands of Mexicans when we conduct an activity in that country."
Mexican authorities listed a litany of violations at the centers, from lack of permits, to nonexistent clinical records, to reports of abuse of students.
At Future Expectations, the authorities said they found adulterated and expired medications and said there was no medical director, as the law requires. They said they found "punishment cells" with belts, handcuffs and blood on a wall. [Emphasis added]
Such programs have been criticized on both sides of the border for using unorthodox "tough love" approaches. Many parents look to them as a last resort for teenagers whose lives are out of control.
Three of the centers operated by Americans have been ordered permanently closed by the Baja California Health Department. A similar ruling is expected for Future Expectations. Authorities say they are not aware of any other similar centers in the state.
'A nurturing program'
All four of the centers that were closed catered to U.S. teenagers with behavioral and addiction problems. They take pains to distinguish themselves from one another, saying their philosophies and methods are different. Casa by the Sea is affiliated with the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools. "It was a nurturing program, not a punishing program. The kids were treated with firm kindness," said Julie Riley, a Denver attorney who sent two of her sons to Future Expectations.
In September, at the time Mexican officials shut down three other centers – Casa by the Sea and House of Hope in Ensenada, and Genesis by the Sea in Rosarito Beach – health inspectors paid their first visit to Future Expectations and allowed it to stay open, Staab said.
"They said we were in compliance, except for a few minor irregularities," Staab said. "We did everything they required us to do."
Staab's son, Eric, the school's operations director, fled from the center after the raid began and was being sought for his "responsibility for the irregularities," Mexican authorities said. He has declined repeated requests for an interview.
The most damning evidence – blood inside one of the "punishment cells" – has never been explained. Terry Staab said it turned out to be insect blood. Crosthwaite, the former security guard, said it came from a teenager's attempt to commit suicide a few months ago.
The Baja California State Attorney General's Office is not conducting an investigation of the center, said Rosa Isela Arce, the spokeswoman in Ensenada.
The closing of the four U.S.-operated centers comes as Baja California health authorities have increased their oversight of drug rehabilitation centers in Baja California. The number of centers has multiplied in recent years to meet a growing drug consumption problem in Baja California.
"For many years, there's been a lack of regulation," said Vera, the Baja California health secretary.
Whether there is a future for the U.S. facilities in Baja California remains an open question.
David Stewart, the U.S. consul general in Tijuana, said much will depend on the degree of trust and communication that develops between the centers and Mexican authorities.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding, and there's a cloak of secrecy over some of them," Stewart said. "One of the centers put up a wall, and that looked to some Mexican officials that maybe there's something illicit happening inside."
Stewart said the wall was raised to prevent runaways.
Casa by the Sea has spoken to health authorities about opening again. Once shut down, technically they are not allowed to reopen, but the operators can apply to open a new center, Vera said.
Hallows of Casa by the Sea said the center could reopen as early as February if it can get the necessary permits from federal, state and local agencies.
"We are ready to go, we've kept the power and the water, we've kept some staff on, and the computer classrooms are all set up," Hallows said. "But if we run into roadblock after roadblock, and the cost-benefit ratio is not there, we could end up moving our stuff out. That is a possibility."
Sandra Dibble: (619) 293-1716; firstname.lastname@example.org
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