A critic says the programTroubled teens are a cash crop
'took advantage of this community';
an official blames 'misunderstanding'
By Susan Kreifels
It was called New Hope Academy, a program in Samoa where American parents sent their troubled teens to be reformed. But others coined another name for the operation: No Hope.
The academy was part of a growing and lucrative market of youth-reform programs -- to some parents a last resort to regain control of their children. The U.S. government, though, says New Hope left five hungry teens stranded on the faraway Pacific island last February. New Hope denies youths were abandoned and says disgruntled staff and parents orchestrated its demise.
Weeks after New Hope shut down, its chief executive officer opened a similar business in Laie called Aloha Youth Academy, and it's also stirring controversy.
Aloha Youth, headed by chief executive officer Mekeli Ieremia, a former Brigham Young University and pro football player, says it provides treatment based on a caring environment, outdoor activities and community involvement in "a very magical sacred place" away from negative influences.
While supporters say the program holds much promise in helping teens with substance-abuse and behavioral problems, others charge academy officials have left a trail of lies, debts and broken promises stretching from Hawaii to the mainland.
Aloha Youth "just really took advantage of this community," said Craig Chapman, president of Friends of Malaekahana, a nonprofit group that leased Malaekahana Park land to the program. "Everybody wanted to help. Unfortunately they've mistaken kindness as weakness."
Program lacks state licenseAloha Youth lacks state licensing. Still, seven youths have been treated there -- two from Hawaii, including one state-funded special-needs student. But the Health Department yesterday told the academy to send its single remaining youth back to the mainland and take no more until it gets the required licenses.
Meanwhile, the state Family Court is investigating Aloha Youth for allegedly using confidential court records in its marketing. And at least one mainland parent is planning to sue the academy.
Company officials say they're the ones who are the victims of misunderstanding and misinformation. Ieremia, who has family in Laie, was not available. But Aloha Youth director Jeff Pluemacher said he believes criticism is unfairly influenced, and good operations like his hurt, by national news reports on alleged abuses at other such businesses in Samoa and elsewhere.
"We feel like we've done lots for the community but people twist stuff," said Pluemacher, emphasizing that the Hawaii program is not connected to New Hope. "The bottom line is to help kids."
'Big misunderstanding'To Chapman and others, the immediate bottom line is making good on outstanding debts. Chapman said his organization allowed Aloha Youth to locate temporarily at Malaekahana Park from April through August. Aloha Youth pulled in with two modular trailers, where its clients were housed. Now it works out of an office/house in Laie.
However, Chapman said Friends of Malaekahana is still owed $9,000 for camping fees and for park improvements that were supposed to be reimbursed. Aloha Youth also never made good on scholarships for local youths, he added, and never showed documentation to back up its claim of having nonprofit status.
Pluemacher said there was never a bill or lease agreement and blamed problems on "a real big misunderstanding."
Former Aloha Youth staffers level a more serious charge: Parents who shelled out $2,490 a month for each child were duped. Former counselor Justin Kaahanui said the teen clients were served doughnuts for breakfast, had to use cold park showers and a leaking toilet, and didn't get the therapy they needed and were promised. Kaahanui was so disturbed that he called parents in August to inform them of the situation.
"Parents were led up the wrong road," he said.
Paul Newell agrees. Newell, a youth counselor with a bachelor's degree in psychology from BYU-Hawaii, said he and other staff members believed Aloha Youth was based on a sound philosophy. Days were filled with outdoor activities, counseling and "study time," which mostly entailed reading. But staffers became frustrated when improvements to living conditions kept being put off, according to Newell, who said Aloha Youth owes him $4,000 in back wages.
'Getting ripped off'"I think parents were getting ripped off," Newell said. "I think the kids got fairly decent treatment as far as the counselors go. They were doing their best. But there was not a whole lot of structure."
Alerted by Kaahanui's phone call, parents for two of Aloha Youth's clients came to retrieve their children. One parent, Gladys Erwin of Aliso Viejo, Calif., said she put her 15-year-old son in the program in July because the family court in her state required some type of placement.
"There were beautiful brochures," she said. "Everything seemed to be in order." Erwin left her son with Aloha Youth for six weeks, and now plans to sue.
"I'm glad that he's home," she said. "It was a very bad experience."
Erwin may have been attracted by more than the brochure. Family Court is investigating whether Aloha Youth sent her confidential court records to make her mistakenly believe the program was endorsed by the court.
In fact, said Family Court director Kenneth K.M. Ling, the court decided it would not send youths to the program since it lacked state licensing, and because its services and facilities were "seriously lacking."
"As a state we need to be aware of programs before we embrace them," Ling said.
The brochure is misleading. It incorrectly states that Aloha Youth is a fully accredited private school, and that it has nonprofit status.
Pluemacher said he can't explain how the court order was sent with the letter, but it "wasn't done in any kind of malice."
He said the information about the academy's accreditation was an oversight, left over from New Hope brochures. He added, though, that classes -- BYU correspondence courses -- are accredited. As far as the nonprofit claim, Pluemacher said Aloha Youth formerly was under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization, but he didn't know the name.
Aloha Youth is a for-profit business now working to change its status, and the brochure is no longer being sent, he said.
Program has supportersAloha Youth has its supporters. Marialaina Vanderwerf of Kaneohe placed her 12-year-old son there for 26 days after hearing about it through a Department of Education counselor. When insurance didn't pay and no government funds were available, Aloha Youth absorbed the cost of keeping her son.
"I knew it was just getting off the ground and the environment was rustic," said Vanderwerf, who didn't want to send her son to the mainland for anger-management problems. She thought the program "was very wholesome."
Tom Smith, a case manager with Alakai Na Keiki, which has a state contract to find services for special-needs youths, tried to get funding for Vanderwerf. Smith said Aloha Youth "looked appropriate." While similar programs often involve confinement, "this was not a locked facility. I was impressed with that."
One Hawaii child's stay at Aloha Youth was paid for with state funds. The child fell under the so-called Felix consent decree that requires improvements to educational services for special-needs children. Health Department spokesman Patrick Johnson said a team of teachers, parents and department officials recommended the child temporarily be placed with Aloha Youth because there was no other facility available, although some objected.
"From what I was told, the child had a very good experience there," Johnson said. He added, though, the state later denied funding for another youth because the program lacked state licensing.
Similar programs have raised controversyThis is not the first time a teen-reform program has raised controversy in Hawaii.
Steve Cartisano, who was a New Hope consultant in Samoa, transformed survival-style camping programs for troubled youths into a multimillion-dollar industry.
The former Utah resident was banned from working with kids there after a girl in his care died, according to the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune. Cartisano was acquitted of homicide, but is listed as a suspected abuser on a Utah state licensing registry.
In December 1990, Cartisano started the Challenger Foundation wilderness-therapy program in Hawaii without the knowledge of state licensing officials. Police found nine teens in remote Wailua Valley on Molokai, and an officer described it like a "prison camp," according to local news reports. The youths were unhurt but hungry, foraging on fruit and eating oats, lentils and rice. The state filed a lawsuit to shut down the program, and a judge indefinitely suspended operations.
New Hope, which has no connection to New Hope Christian Fellowship, shut down in Samoa in early February. Eight parents -- upon hearing reports of food shortages and leaky sewage -- took their children out in December before their 12-month contracts expired, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
State Department spokeswoman Nyda Budig said the government received reports that the directors had disappeared.
"They (youths) were pretty much left on their own, they were hungry," Budig said. "Local families took them in. They were certainly in need of supervision." The U.S. Consulate then contacted parents.
New Hope was 'blindsided'New Hope business partner Dan Wakefield of Provo, Utah, said New Hope youths always had food and a full staff to supervise them. He said the academy was "completely blindsided" by an "unscrupulous con man" -- Cartisano, who he accused of writing $23,000 in bad checks.
"They were setting the stage to either bankrupt or discredit us," Wakefield said. "The plan was to put us out of business and start their own."
The sole person now in Aloha Youth's care must be returned to Washington state by Oct. 9. Pluemacher said the program had been "basically baby-sitting" him, with the permission of the youth's parents and probation officer.
Aloha Youth already had decided it would take no more youths until it gets the appropriate state licenses and certification -- something he says has been a frustrating task, especially when Hawaii needs such facilities.
"It's a real gray area," Pluemacher said, adding that the state itself is confused about what's needed. "Nobody's ever done what we're doing."
Recommendations for parents to follow
Parents aren't just using the school around the block anymore.
Lon Woodbury, an Idaho-based education consultant, quoted figures from Education Week magazine that show nearly a quarter of American kids are attending "alternative education" programs -- that includes anything besides public education within a family's school district.
But Woodbury said parents, especially those looking at programs for "at-risk" youths with behavior problems, must be especially careful about what they choose. "There are many people who don't know what they're doing, and others are in it for the bucks."
Call the Independent Educational Consultants Association to begin your search at 703-591-4850.
Talk to parents who have used a particular program. Check with state licensing agencies and police.
Stay away from new programs until they've had at least a year to prove themselves.
Don't use a questionable program just because it's close.
Susan Kreifels, Star-Bulletin
programs are a
But because of a lack of oversight,By Susan Kreifels
it's a buyer-beware situation, some say
The programs started 25 years ago in Utah as wilderness survival training, a way to get closer to nature and God. But times changed. America's youth started shooting up schools. Parents became afraid for their kids, and of their kids.
Entrepreneurs saw cash in crisis, in parents desperate to control their children.
The survival training turned to pricey "behavior modification." Today there are an estimated 1,500 teen-reform programs for youths with behavior or substance abuse problems, according to activists monitoring such operations. Some help kids, they say, while others are more like boot camps employing tough love that can turn to alleged physical, mental and sexual abuse.
"Parents turn to these programs because they are desperate for results," said Barbe Stamps, a teen-rights activist in Hawaii Kai who became concerned when her daughter's friend was sent to such a program. "They view these programs as a last resort."
The operations have spread to Mexico, Jamaica, Samoa and the Czech Republic. Czech officials closed a facility there after reports that teens were mistreated, according to the Salt Lake (Utah) Tribune.
On Samoa, about 300 young Americans attend three programs, Stamps said. The Samoan government is investigating allegations of abuse.
Stamps helped the State Department develop guidance for parents, advising them to visit the sites and know the rules of host countries. Overseas programs are especially worrisome to her because she fears that lax regulations may be manipulated by unscrupulous business people. Stamps also said medical care and education can be substandard, and teens are often forbidden to communicate with the outside world.
Programs generally go for 14 months and charge $30,000 and up. Slick brochures and sophisticated marketing convince parents they're paying for good programs. Youths can be abducted at night with parents' blessings, and put on planes for remote spots.
"What it comes down to is that the youth-reform industry is a buyer-beware market," Stamps said. "The real issue is whether parents are paying for "attitude rehab" or abuse.
"Clearly it is a fair question given the lack of oversight to protect children from a multimillion-dollar industry that specializes in controlling their basic civil rights and human rights. They (youths) have a right to be heard."
Tom Burton, an attorney based in Pleasanton, Calif., has been going after such programs for the last decade. He's filed three lawsuits, one against a program in Samoa, on behalf of parents and children. Five more suits are coming.
Programs came under scrutiny after three teens died in wilderness programs in 1990, Burton said.
"There's little therapy and practically no education," Burton said. "They can come back more damaged than when they went in."