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VisionQuest: The Best Alternative for Some

This week the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a proposal to end the county’s four-year relationship with VisionQuest, the controversial Arizona-based rehabilitation program that specializes in dealing with the toughest juvenile criminals.

Those who favor ending the VisionQuest contract--the county probation officers, the American Civil Liberties Union and the county grand jury--offer substantial arguments that must be listened to carefully. Any time the safety and proper treatment of young people is at issue, those who must make the final decisions are obligated to use extreme caution.

But we believe the contract should be renewed so that Juvenile Court judges are not denied an option that has proved effective for at least some kids. The bottom line is that no one has all the answers in the frustrating field of juvenile rehabilitation, and if VisionQuest has the answers for some youths, then it would be a mistake not to take advantage of it.

In coming to grips with VisionQuest, the first issue that must be dealt with is the care and treatment of the young people sent to the program. If allegations of systematic or recurrent abuse of inmates had been--or ever are--sustained, then no amount of other positive factors would justify continued use of VisionQuest. So far, however, there is no firm evidence that VisionQuest violates the fundamental rights of those in its charge.

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The death of Mario Cano, a 16-year-old Chula Vista youth, at a VisionQuest camp in New Mexico also must be dealt with. Cano died four days after being placed in the camp when a blood clot traveled to his lungs. Although he had complained of being ill, Cano had been forced to work and do calisthenics by VisionQuest staff members who said they believed he was malingering. During the four-day ordeal, Cano was never examined by a doctor, although he was checked three times by nurses.

Cano’s death was a tragedy, one that might have been prevented had he been taken to a doctor before collapsing. A lawsuit filed by his parents will determine what, if any, civil liability VisionQuest has in his death. A New Mexico grand jury found that VisionQuest staff members had not violated any criminal laws in their handling of the incident.

The relevant question for the supervisors to consider is whether VisionQuest’s handling of Cano indicates practices or attitudes that may endanger other youths. While this is the most troubling issue to us, we do not believe the unfortunate death of Mario Cano renders VisionQuest unfit to be entrusted with other San Diego County offenders.

VisionQuest’s opponents raise other issues: It is hard for the county Probation Department to supervise its wards when they are in Arizona, New Mexico or out on a wagon train; the sports-based mentality of pushing oneself to endure pain and hardship may be overdone or may not be successful with some people; the for-profit program charges more than those run by the state or county.

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But these negatives are outweighed by VisionQuest’s attributes--its philosophy of making young people who already have made major mistakes recognize that they are responsible for their actions; its work with the family that is intended to develop a support system for the young offender once he or she is released; the ability to help youngsters experience their first success by learning to live and cope with nature; its ratio of two staff members for every three inmates.

VisionQuest is not the perfect solution for all juvenile offenders any more than the California Youth Authority or the county Probation Department camps are. But it is an alternative that should be retained and used by the courts for those young people for whom it is the last, best hope.


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