Putting VisionQuest in Focus: A Controversy Over Rehabilitation


Since its founding in 1973, there has been heated debate about the methods and merits of VisionQuest, a privately run, publicly funded rehabilitation program for juvenile felons.

The program has been attacked for being profit-making. Its effectiveness in straightening out thieves, arsonists and killers has been questioned. And it has been condemned for using physical confrontation methods to handle its charges.

VisionQuest also has been criticized in connection with the accidental deaths of 12 children in its care. (Ten were by drowning, including seven in a boating mishap in the Sea of Cortez in 1980. One was a runaway. And in another publicized case, in 1984, 16-year-old Mario Cano of Chula Vista died during strenuous wilderness camp training. An investigation showed he had suffered a pulmonary embolism before coming to VisionQuest, which was criminally cleared.)


“We’re the most investigated child care agency in the world,” says co-founder and CEO Bob Burton, a big man of 50 who wears a tall-crowned, flat-brimmed Indian hat. “I think we should be under a microscope. We’re dealing with human beings.”

But Burton, who formerly ran a juvenile detention center in Las Vegas, says he did not start VisionQuest to make money, or to build an empire, but to effect change.

VisionQuest attempts to rehabilitate teen-agers with a philosophy of mutual trust. There are no cells. Clients spend three to five months in a camp where they are introduced to the outdoors. Later, they apply what they have learned to living on a wagon train.

From the beginning, though, there has been considerable opposition from some county probation departments in California--including Los Angeles. Today, only a dozen counties participate in the program, which gets its clientele from juvenile court judges on the recommendation of probation departments. San Diego County sends the largest number of juveniles.

San Diego Superior Court Judge G. Dennis Adams, was, while presiding juvenile court judge, an early and fervent advocate of the program. Generally speaking, VisionQuest is “more positive” than traditional lockup solutions, he says. He attributes the opposition from government agencies to turf protection and entrenched bureaucracies.

“We philosophically don’t choose that kind of structure for placement for our youngsters,” says Michelle Lewis of the Los Angeles County Probation Department. “We much prefer to use programs that are located (nearby) so that the family can be involved in the treatment process.”

There are two VisionQuest group homes in California--in Oakland and in Stockton--but the state has thrice rejected requests to open camps and another request for its wagon train program.


Kathleen Norris, a Department of Social Services spokeswoman, says while there are positive aspects to the program, “there are some heavy-handed tactics to keep the kids in line, such as ‘prone containment’ (putting a youngster on the ground). But,” she adds, “this is a very difficult clientele. These are not sweet little abused children.”

Who goes to VisionQuest?

* Convicted felons between 13 and 18. Teens who have committed premeditated murder or who need psychiatric care are not eligible.

* About 10% are girls, virtually all of them victims of sexual abuse.

* Sixty percent are black, 25% white, the rest Asian, Latino and American Indian.

* The cost per day per youngster is $115, or almost $42,000 for the year; the California Youth Authority cites $31,700 for each of its clients. (VisionQuest’s annual budget of $30 million is largely from cities and counties.)

* A typical family profile includes a single mother, siblings by different fathers and incidents of child, alcohol and drug abuse.

* To date, 7,000 clients have gone through the program, which has an East Coast base in Pennsylvania and a West Coast base in Arizona--the latter drawing chiefly from California. There are 800 enrolled now.

But how successful is the program?

RAND Corp., which in 1987 compared the first 100 teen-agers to go through VisionQuest with a similar group at a state-run probation camp, found a 10% lower rearrest rate after 18 months for VisionQuest kids.

RAND’s Peter Greenwood says, “In this business, 10% is terrific.”

VisionQuest also points to the numbers as proof that the program “humanizes” kids.

David Perdue, 22, is a VisionQuest success story. He was a street kid who came to VisionQuest when he was 12, and today is an account representative for an insurance company in Arizona.

“There’s not a kid who’s gone through, no matter where he’s sitting right now, that this program hasn’t helped in some way,” he says.

“They did this, and they can always say they did this.”