Camp O’Neal Has History of Violating State Rules

This article was reported by Times staff writers John Hurst, Jenifer Warren, Kevin Roderick, Joel Sappell and Cathleen Decker, and was written by Hurst

Camp O’Neal, the youth facility in charge of three teen-agers who died in the Convict Lake tragedy, has been repeatedly cited over the last two years for violating state licensing standards--including improperly supervising and medicating residents, failing to train staff adequately and supplying inadequate clothing for youngsters.

“There have been some pretty chronic problems there,” said Kathleen Norris, public information officer for the state Department of Social Services, the agency responsible for licensing private group homes for troubled youngsters, such as Camp O’Neal. Norris said that the camp had shown some improvement in the last year and no action to revoke its license is being taken.

Bobbi Trott, camp director, said that the facility is the victim of unfair and overzealous inspectors working out of the state’s licensing office in Riverside.


“I think we have a chronic problem with the local agency,” she said.

An official of Mono County, where the camp is located in the Eastern Sierra, said local youngsters are no longer sent to Camp O’Neal partly because of its alleged problems with the care and treatment of the disturbed delinquent boys it serves.

Probation department officials in Tulare and San Bernardino counties, who have sent youngsters to the camp, have praised the facility and said they were not aware of chronic problems cited by licensing authorities.

Licensing officials said that the camp has had chronic troubles but declined to compare the facility to others in the state.

State licensing reports of alleged violations over a three-year period at Camp O’Neal make up scores of pages in a two-inch-thick file. By comparison, a six-year file on Boys Republic, a Chino facility for delinquent youth which is also inspected by officials from Riverside County, makes up about 10 pages. The Boys Republic houses 151 youths, whereas Camp O’Neal’s capacity is 34.

State and local authorities continued their investigation into Monday’s incident in which seven drowned. There have been no allegations that camp personnel were responsible for the tragedy.

On Thursday, Trott disclosed that one of the youngsters who died in the frigid waters of Convict Lake had been diagnosed as having a condition that made him “manic, extremely hyperactive with poor impulse control.”


The youngster, with three others, had strayed from a group of 16 camp residents, who were on an outing under the supervision of two counselors, one of whom was working his first day on the job, Trott said. As the youngsters strayed toward the center of the lake, the new counselor, Randy Porter, tried to warn them that the ice was not safe, according to camp spokesmen.

Four youths plunged through the ice as Porter and veteran counselor Dave Meyers went to their aid and also fell through the ice. Two other would-be rescuers also went down. One youngster survived, but the others perished.

Asked why a hyperactive, impulsive youngster was allowed to go on an outing at the potentially dangerous lake, Terry Christensen, a member of the camp’s board of directors, said: “The kid had begun to make improvements.”

Camp officials have hired a Newport Beach public relations firm, Professional Image, which on Thursday issued to local newspapers a press release lauding the behavior of counselors on the ice.

“The ratio of supervision here was one (counselor) to eight (students),” the release read. “One of the victims’ parents told me his child was never so happy in his life as he was with us.”

Benjamin Epstein of Professional Image said he was contacted by camp officials Wednesday.

“They were very concerned,” Epstein said. “ . . . The impression everyone is left with when they see a story like this is there was irresponsibility in some way on the part of the camp and camp counselors.


“The rescue efforts were heroic. That’s the part they want people to understand--they haven’t done anything wrong.”

Privately run facilities for delinquents such as Camp O’Neal are inspected annually by state licensing officials who also make visits if complaints are received. Inspectors monitor the quality of housing, clothing, food, clients’ rights, medical care and other services provided by the facility. If the care is not up to standard, the facility is cited for a “deficiency” and fined if the violation is not corrected or if the transgression is considered especially serious.

Last month, licensing officials accused Camp O’Neal of tranquilizing youngsters against their will.

“Clients are provided psychotropic drugs to mask (control) such behavior as aggressiveness, hyperactivity, etc.,” the report said. It also said such policy is against state regulations.

Trott maintains that the state inspector, Paul Zimmer, is not qualified to reach conclusions regarding improper medications and that he had not reviewed the clients’ medical files. She said one-third of the youngsters in the camp are on medication and many came there already using such drugs.

During the same visit last month, the state inspector reported that youngsters were inadequately clothed.


Trott said that the inspector thought the youths looked like “ragamuffins” because “shredded jeans are in style.” She said the camp attempted to buy adequate clothing, but that some of the youngsters demanded expensive acid-washed jeans.

The camp was cited for lack of supervision last December when an inspector discovered that a resident had attempted sexual acts with nine other youths.

“It is evident that the staff were lacking in care and supervision if this one client was able to (attempt to) commit so many acts of sodomy and oral copulation . . .,” the report said.

“We got rid of the kid,” Trott said, adding that it is not feasible to provide a staff member to supervise each child.

The facility also was cited for inadequate staffing in 1988 when 21 incidents were reported of youths leaving the grounds without permission.

Trott maintained that several of those “AWOLs” were the same youth running out the door and explained that camp personnel are not allowed to physically prevent youngsters from leaving.


Both state officials and former staff members complained that the camp does not provide adequate training to deal with the troubled delinquent youngsters it serves.

In February, 1988, the camp was cited by the state because it allegedly had “no plan for orientation, development and training of staff.”

“The money that was coming in, I couldn’t see it going back to the kids or to staff training,” said Lynn Morris, a child care supervisor at the camp who left in October, 1988, because of his dissatisfaction.

Trott said new staff members receive on-the-job training and an hour of instruction per week.

Mono County turned over the camp, which had been run by its probation department, to Camp O’Neal Inc. in March, 1987, after officials decided the facility was too expensive to run.

Trott, who had overseen the camp as a probation department employee, became the secretary of the new nonprofit corporation and continued to run the facility. Tim Christensen, who helped arrange the transfer from the county, serves as vice chairman.


In September, 1987, after the county withdrew school services to the camp, Christensen said he was forced to open his own school on the grounds and established the for-profit High Sierra School. Christensen and Trott were married the next month.

Youngsters sent to the camp by various counties are deemed in need of special education and attend the school run by Christensen.

Camp O’Neal charges $32,220 per client per year and High Sierra School charges $30,960.

Some former employees and critics of the camp said that Trott and Christensen have a financial incentive to keep the camp beds filled and to expand by accepting clients regardless of whether they are amenable to treatment.

Alice Watkins, a former office aide at the camp, said that when the camp had difficulty filling its beds, Trott began to accept more severely troubled boys. Watkins, who was at the camp for 13 months, said she resigned because of her dissatisfaction with the way the camp was run.

But, Christensen said: “We are here to help the kids. We take a child because we feel we can work with him. . . . We don’t take violent or heavy-duty kids. We take kids that need a break and a highly structured environment. Unfortunately we don’t succeed with everyone.”