Employees of a wilderness therapy program in Utah will stand trial this year, accused of depriving a 16-year-old of food, shelter and clothing.
Aaron Bacon died after suffering a perforated ulcer while on a desert outing in 1994. The death of the gangly teenager and three others in the last five years spotlights the limited - and in some places, nonexistent - oversight of programs for troubled teens.
“It’s a little bit of a madhouse. The rules are different in every state,” says Archie Buie, director of the 50-member National Association of Therapeutic Wilderness Camps.
“To make things worse, the organizations that do the regulations are different: child welfare, human welfare, corrections … each one has a different take on what they consider important.”
In Idaho, there are no rules for programs in which children stay nine weeks or less. Boarding programs with fewer than 13 children are considered foster homes, with minimal licensing requirements.
Washington has stricter licensing requirements, but also many exemptions. Those include boarding schools and seasonal programs less than three months long.
The lack of consistent licensing makes it impossible to tell how many programs exist.
The bad publicity makes some program managers fear they will lose business, and children won’t get help, because parents will paint all camps and schools with the same brush.
“They’ll say, ‘You’re that program that hikes kids until they die,”’ says Matt Fitzgerald, admissions director for the Ascent wilderness therapy program near Bonners Ferry.
Ascent and other Inland Northwest programs contacted emphasize that they do not run survival-type programs like those implicated in the four deaths in the Southwest.
At least one example of alleged abuse strikes closer to home. It involves a North Idaho man who has been in trouble over how he ran “behavioral growth” schools in three states.
In New Mexico, Tom Gregory Finucane operated Eagle Canyon Outpost. The state revoked its license in 1985. A New Mexico supervisor cautioned Idaho officials to do “a real thorough check” of Eagle Mountain Outpost boarding school, which Finucane opened that year near Sandpoint.
Finucane at first contended that the Eagle Mountain Outpost was simply a private school and didn’t need a residential treatment center license. Idaho officials disagreed, then accused him of insurance fraud. That charge was dropped in 1988, when the now-defunct outpost was licensed on the condition that Finucane no longer be affiliated with child-care organizations in Idaho.
After changing his name to Tom Gregory in 1993, he opened the Rocky Top Academy at Anaconda, Mont. Last September, police raided the school and shut it down.
Gregory was charged with assault, deviant sexual conduct, criminal endangerment, burglary, theft and deceptive practices.
Gregory, now living in Careywood, denies the charges. Students made up stories of abuse that they’ve since recanted, he says, and authorities harassed him.
“The police department there didn’t like our kids. Maybe it was their long hair. Maybe because we had some black kids, Vietnamese kids, East Indian kids. … We didn’t fit into the community and there was a war to get us out.”
Families and even celebrities such as Diane Ladd have offered testimonials to Gregory. But complaints from other parents, students and employees led to the raid, according to Anaconda-Deer County attorney Ed Beaudette.
“He’s very slick,” Beaudette says of Gregory, whom he expects will be tried in August. “His fees were half of what the next comparable program was … That should have been a tip-off (of problems) right there.”
Rocky Top did not need a license to operate in Montana.
Many people in the industry believe self-regulation is the best way to ensure safe programs.
Several organizations are offering, or proposing, accreditation. That stamp of approval would indicate that a program met some basic requirements - but it’s still up to parents to ask what those are.
Rocky Top Academy was accredited by the National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools, whose guidelines don’t cover curriculum or staff qualifications.
Few programs seek the stricter approval of the Council on Accreditation of Services for Families and Children.
There’s not likely to be a rush to accreditation until insurance companies refuse to pay programs without it, says Judith Hines, executive director of the council.
Says Hines: “It takes consumer demand or a state agency to get programs to wake up and decide that accreditation is in their self-interest.”