They Seize Teens Who Take Drugs : Treatment: A Canoga Park transport firm tracks down missing youths, although it lacks a license. Clients praise it. The state has begun a probe.


When their 15-year-old daughter ran away from their Simi Valley home in 1988 after a history of cocaine use, Donald and Alice Soeder were frustrated and scared.

They knew that Jane should be off the streets and in a drug-abuse program, but they had only a vague idea of where to find her, and no clue as to how to get her into treatment.

On the advice of officials at Anacapa Adventist Hospital, a Port Hueneme drug treatment facility, the Soeders called S&L; Teen Hospital Shuttle, a Canoga Park firm that transports youths with drug problems, sometimes forcibly, to treatment programs.

Within days, using photographs of the girl and telephone records, the firm found Jane and drove her, bound by the hands and feet, to treatment, Alice Soeder said.

Two years after she completed her treatment at Anacapa, Jane and her parents have nothing but praise for S&L.; "There was no way that they by themselves could have gotten me," Jane Soeder said of her parents.

But the firm has also drawn criticism from some drug treatment officials and attention from regulatory officials.

S&L; operates as both a transport and an investigative service, those who have used the firm said. Sometimes the company simply drives stubborn youths with drug problems from their homes to treatment centers.

In other cases, those familiar with the firm say, it uses investigative techniques to locate addicted teens who have run away from home, then restrains the youths during the drive to rehabilitation facilities.

Last month, in response to inquiries by The Times, the California Department of Consumer Affairs' bureau of collection and investigative services began to investigate S&L;, said Gretchen Werry, the bureau's program coordinator.

There is no law prohibiting private citizens from helping parents to find and retrieve a runaway child, even if the effort requires them to use "reasonable force," said Dallas Binger, a consultant to the Los Angeles Police Department's juvenile narcotics unit. But anyone who does so as a business must be licensed for the task, Binger said.

S&L; is authorized by the state to operate only as a transport service. It is registered with the California Public Utilities Commission, the agency that licenses businesses such as limousines, buses and airport shuttles.

The firm is listed in the telephone book as a conventional ambulance service but is not licensed as such by the city, county or state, officials said.

Neither is S&L; licensed to conduct private investigative work.

Leslie Miller, who with Steven Sawhill owns and operates S&L; out of the couple's Canoga Park house, referred questions about the firm and the state investigation to their lawyer, Laurence H. Mandell.

"They just transport kids that have drug problems because the parents can't do it for themselves," Mandell said. "They have their referrals, and things are working out good, and they'd just like to keep it at that."

Mandell declined to discuss S&L; or the state's investigation in more detail.

The Department of Consumer Affairs last Tuesday sent S&L; a "cease and desist" letter, ordering the firm either to shut down permanently or to stop the investigative part of its work until it applies for and receives the proper state license, said Denise Grayson, the department investigator assigned to the S&L; case.

Drug treatment officials had varying estimates of the proportion of S&L; cases that involve investigative work, ranging from 20% to 90%.

In their application for a state transport permit, Sawhill and Miller identified themselves as an equal partnership under the name "SLTHS." They claimed five years of experience in the transport field, and described their business as "shuttling teen-agers and adults to requested destination."

Lin Raistrick, Santa Clarita Valley representative for Toughlove, a nationwide counseling group for teen-age drug abusers and their parents, said Sawhill told her he began S&L; simply to help troubled teens receive help.

Raistrick said Sawhill told her he once knew a teen-age girl with a drug problem who died after running away from home, and that as a result of the experience he decided, "I'm going to dedicate my life to this. I'm going to help these kids. I don't want any more to die."

Drug treatment workers who have referred parents to S&L; said the firm's fees are based on the driving distance and time involved in locating and transporting each teen-ager.

One treatment worker said the fee averages $600 per case.

Brent Lamb, administrator of Anacapa Adventist, a 48-bed juvenile psychiatric hospital in Port Hueneme that uses S&L; "a couple times a month," said S&L;'s fee is not covered by patients' medical insurance. He said Anacapa, the facility to which S&L; brought Jane Soeder, pays the transport fees for the teen-agers it receives from S&L;, and does not pass those fees on to the youths' parents.

S&L; is called in "only . . . upon the concurrence of the parents and the intake people and the admitting doctor," said Anacapa controller Mike Ogden. "So it's not, 'Go out and grab them.' It's a pretty reasoned process.

"But it's like anything else--unscrupulous things occur out there."

Past S&L; customers said the firm's workers do not carry weapons, and that when they suspect they may confront violence in retrieving a teen-ager they contact the police for backup help.

Customers and treatment centers that have used the firm said they knew of no instance in which S&L; injured a teen-ager who was under its care. Many praised the company as acting professionally and compassionately in an obscure and poorly regulated field where the potential for abuse is great.

Some drug treatment experts took issue with the concept of forcing teen-agers to enter drug treatment centers.

Others who work with adolescent drug abusers, however, argued that forced entry into a treatment program sometimes is necessary.

"It's not as simple as, 'They have to want the help to get it,' " said Jay Cavanaugh, president of the board of directors of Interagency Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Programs, a nonprofit group that runs four non-residential adolescent drug treatment centers throughout the Los Angeles area and that has used S&L; in the past. "There are a lot of times when the kids are very ill."

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