Officials of Rite of Passage, a wilderness treatment program that houses California delinquent boys on a remote desert campsite in Nevada, insists that it is “bouncing back” from child-abuse allegations made last winter, but the organization remains at the center of a bitter and complex controversy.
The dispute surrounding Rite of Passage is in some respects a case study of the complexities of maintaining standards for the housing and treatment of troubled and delinquent youngsters. The Rite of Passage case is further complicated by jurisdictional questions because the program is located on an Indian reservation.
The nonprofit Rite of Passage organization charges about $36,000 in federal, state and county funds per year for each of the 30 youngsters it now houses at the campsite leased from the Walker River Paiute Tribal Council. The youngsters, most sent by county probation departments in California, spend an average of six months in a rigorous physical fitness program under spartan living conditions. The camp is located 17 miles east of the hamlet of Schurz.
While Rite of Passage says it is rehabilitating youngsters who would otherwise be sent to tough California Youth Authority reformatories, others, including some California probation officers, describe the youngsters there as hard-to-place, disturbed youths rather than sophisticated, hard-core delinquents.
When a probation officer from Contra Costa County in California raised the allegations of child abuse and neglect against Rite of Passage last December, a swarm of local, state, federal and private agencies began looking into the program. The results, five months later, are mixed and sometimes bewildering:
- Larry G. Bettis, district attorney of Mineral County, Nev., where the desert camp is located, has concluded that living conditions within the program do not constitute child abuse or neglect, but Bettis left open the possibility that individuals could be charged with abuse.
- The Nevada state fire marshal’s office recommended that the camp be closed pending correction of 18 major safety violations, including a propane stove hookup in the substandard dining hall and the use of unvented kerosene heaters within flammable tepees that house a dozen youngsters each.
- The Nevada state fire marshal’s office subsequently learned from the state attorney general’s office that it has no authority over safety conditions at the Rite of Passage camp because it is on an Indian reservation.
- L. J. David Wallace, sanitarian for the Indian Health Service, an office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, has been involved in inspections of the camp since it opened two years ago and, contrary to the fire marshal’s findings, reports that “there is no undue risk to life and safety at the camp.” Wallace, too, lacks authority over conditions at the camp and acts in a solely advisory role to the Walker River Paiute Tribal Council.
- Robert Horel, deputy director of the Welfare Program Division of the California Department of Social Services, cited the Nevada fire marshal’s inspection of Rite of Passage in a March 21 letter to California county officials and strongly recommended removal of California juveniles from the camp. But Horel now says: “I don’t have the authority or the responsibility to tell the counties where to place the children. My authority runs to the funding.”
- A regional office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services has warned the state Department of Social Services that it is considering a finding that the Rite of Passage campsite is a “detention” facility and therefore ineligible for federal child-care funds. Such a finding would cost California more than $300,000 in federal reimbursement money.
- State Social Services officials say they disagree with the federal office’s tentative finding, and will continue to fund the program.
- A 15-year-old youngster who was kept at the desert camp for 18 months, and whose arm was broken by a staff member, is suing Rite of Passage as well as Contra Costa County and the State of California for putting him there. Attorney Tanya Paschkowski said she also is preparing a suit on behalf of an Alameda County youngster who, she says, suffered repeated stress fractures of a leg while trying to meet the rigorous running standards of the camp.
- Some California counties pulled youngsters out of the Rite of Passage program after the child-abuse allegations last winter, and others put a freeze on further referrals, but at least two counties--Alameda and San Bernardino--are once again sending youths to the camp.
‘We Were Hurting’
“We were hurting, really hurting,” said Jim McKenry, director of Rite of Passage. “But we’re bouncing back.”
McKenry said he expects other California counties to resume placing children with Rite of Passage. He was reluctant to discuss incidents that may involve litigation. He also said that kerosene heaters had been removed from the tepees, but had not yet been replaced by another heating system.
Because of the controversy over Rite of Passage, McKenry said, “I imagine . . . any and every boy who even thinks there’s a claim is going to submit one.”
Contra Costa County Deputy Probation Officer Dennis Lepak, who sparked the controversy when he angrily pulled two youngsters from the camp last winter and accused Rite of Passage of neglect and abuse, is bitter over subsequent developments.
Litany of Abuse
The youngsters had recited a litany of abuse and deprivation allegations, but Lepak complains that Nevada authorities, during a two-month investigation, did not interview either boy. Mineral County Dist. Atty. Bettis and investigating officer Anthony DeCrona of the Sheriff’s Department failed to return repeated telephone calls from The Times seeking information about the status of the investigation.
Rite of Passage officials acknowledged in interviews for a Times article last winter that instances of abuse had occurred at the camp but maintained that they were isolated incidents and that staff members involved had been disciplined or fired.