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2 Juvenile Judges Want Courts to Again Place Youths in VisionQuest

Times Staff Writer

San Diego County’s juvenile courts may soon return to placing delinquents in the controversial VisionQuest program, which uses cross-country wagon train treks and other challenging outdoor activities to rehabilitate wayward youths who fail to respond to other forms of detention.

Supervising Juvenile Court Judge Napoleon Jones and Juvenile Court Judge Judith McConnell have sent a letter asking the county Board of Supervisors to agree that VisionQuest is still the best hope for some troubled young offenders.

McConnell said Monday that the judges are satisfied that Tucson-based VisionQuest, a for-profit business, has been cleared of the allegations of wrongdoing that led the court to stop sending local youths to the program in December.

“I would like to place some kids there today,” McConnell said.

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McConnell said she has reviewed investigations of VisionQuest’s programs and of the death last year of 16-year-old Mario Cano, a Chula Vista boy who collapsed and died at a VisionQuest camp near Silver City, N.M. She said she read transcripts of 50 interviews with San Diego youths who spent time at VisionQuest.

“This program has been scrutinized by the FBI as well as virtually every other agency under the sun,” McConnell said. “I’m satisfied that for some tough kids it’s a good program.”

McConnell said she was not bothered by VisionQuest’s use of physical force to restrain misbehaving youths, a tactic that has attracted most of the criticism directed toward the program.

“If the kids get out of control, they are held and placed on the ground,” she said. “I don’t think that’s wrong. I’d rather see that done than have them locked up in isolation cells or put in straitjackets or given medication that turns them into zombies.”

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Although the court agreed in December to temporarily stop placing its wards in VisionQuest, about 30 San Diego youths remain in the program. Despite a grand jury report urging that the county sever all ties to VisionQuest, county supervisors in July extended the contract to Feb. 28, covering those youths still in the program.

Supervisors said the extension was needed to allow the county staff time to evaluate a pending study of VisionQuest by the Rand Corp. and a federal grand jury report expected soon.

McConnell said Monday that the county’s Juvenile Justice Commission has recommended that VisionQuest be used again, and she said she puts more faith in that report than in one produced earlier this year by the county grand jury.

County officials could not be reached for comment Monday.

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