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Assembly OKs VisionQuest Program for California

Times Staff Writer

The Assembly approved a measure Wednesday that would allow the controversial VisionQuest program to set up wilderness camps in California. Delinquent youths could be sent to the camps for an “outdoor living experience” as a condition of probation.

The bill, by Assemblyman Larry Stirling (R-San Diego), passed on a 56-13 vote. It would enable juvenile courts to refer sentenced minors to a stringently disciplined camp reform program, run privately by the VisionQuest organization, where outdoor living and wildlife care are stressed. Such youths now are committed to California Youth Authority facilities, or are sent on a contract basis by county agencies to VisionQuest camps in other states.

VisionQuest, which operates programs in Arizona, New Mexico and Pennsylvania, was praised in committee hearings as a successful program that stresses “confrontative and controlling programming.” Best known for its cross-country wagon train treks, VisionQuest emphasizes challenging outdoor activity designed to boost youths’ confidence by teaching them to cope with nature and to function as part of a community.

Critics, however, charged that VisionQuest authorities have used excessively harsh discipline on some juvenile participants.

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Assemblyman Peter Chacon (D-San Diego) spoke against the bill and denounced VisionQuest. He cited a San Diego County Grand Jury investigation of the group, which had been charged with abuse and the April, 1984, death of a San Diego youth who Chacon said was “killed by neglect” at a VisionQuest facility in New Mexico.

The youth, 16-year-old Mario Cano of Chula Vista, died four days after being placed in the New Mexico camp when a blood clot traveled to his lungs. Although Cano had complained of being ill, he was forced to work and do calisthenics by VisionQuest staff members who said they believed he was malingering. A New Mexico grand jury cleared VisionQuest of any “criminal intent” in the incident. Cano’s parents have filed a civil lawsuit against VisionQuest.

Chief opponents of the VisionQuest proposal to establish camps in California were probation officers.

Stirling, however, argued that the probation officers “don’t like competition by free enterprise.”

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“They never asked for an investigation before the grand jury did one,” Stirling said. “They . . . didn’t have the guts to look at the matter on their own.”

The potential annual cost of the program is estimated at $32,000 per youth, slightly higher than youth camps run under the California Youth Authority.

VisionQuest has been custodian for hundreds of San Diego juvenile offenders over the past four years under a contract with the county.

However, the county grand jury, Probation Department and the American Civil Liberties Union have recommended that the county sever all ties with the program when the current contract expires June 30. Last week, county supervisors voted to extend that contract for 60 days.

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Although no San Diego youths have been sent to VisionQuest since December, 32 youths remain in the program. The two-month contract extension should allow them to graduate.

In extending the contract, supervisors suggested that they may yet vote to renew the county’s $2-million annual contract with VisionQuest, should pending reports from the federal grand jury in San Diego and the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, include positive information about the program’s techniques and results.


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