Parents' Last Resort : San Clemente Couple Send Away Their 'Defiant' Teen for Months of Behavior Modification

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was 9:15 on the night of May 27, and Cara Vanni was chatting with a friend on the phone, just like any number of San Clemente teen-agers.

Suddenly the line went dead. A minute later, strangers appeared in her bedroom doorway.

"My parents brought these three people into my room," Cara, 16, recalled. "At first I thought they were old friends of the family who were about to say they knew me when I was 4. They weren't."

In fact, they were kidnapers--of sorts--and they had arrived at the invitation of her parents to forcibly escort her to a private school in Utah.

Holding Cara by her wrist, the two men and one woman removed her shoes, belt and jewelry. Then they led her down the plush, curved stairway into the Vanni living room.

The walls of the stairway were bare. The framed pictures--including a portrait of Cara and her 6-year-old sister--had been removed so she couldn't use them as weapons.

Cara snarled at her mother, Nancy, calling her a "bitch." But she did not struggle. She was led into the garage, where she was belted down in the back seat of the trio's car between the woman and one of the men. Already locked in the trunk were her toiletries and clothes, folded in trash bags to save room.

The garage door was raised, and Cara began her trip to this small town in southwestern Utah, population 261. It was seven hours and a world away from San Clemente.

Cara was on her way to Cross Creek Manor, a residential treatment facility for troubled teen-age girls. Her experiences there would bring issues of teen-age privilege, power, family structure and discipline into sharp focus for her and her family.

The drive to Utah was interminable. In between tears and sleep, Cara began to learn details of her upcoming six-month program of behavior modification.

As do all new girls at the school, she would begin in "Phase 3"--a windowless basement room shared by three other girls.

Here, the doors are equipped with alarms, and shoes are confiscated to inhibit escape. Cara would not be allowed to leave her room without permission, and only under supervision would she be able to go outside and upstairs to meals. The worst insult for many of the girls: only one phone call home every two months.

To move upstairs and gradually gain privileges, Cara would need to earn points by demonstrating progress in a regular program of therapy, activities and peer relations.

Cara's behavior was about to be modified.

Sending their daughter away was the culmination of five months of severe discipline problems and "total defiance," according to Mike and Nancy Vanni.

"It was probably the worst thing I've had to do in my life," said Mike, who had disconnected the phone as part of the procedure to send her away.

"She first had a look of betrayal, then fear, then anger. It bothered me sending her away for what comparatively were not-so-serious problems: poor grades, bad friends and discipline problems. But we could not live the way we were living. We would not let her destroy her life."

"We couldn't tell her that they were coming to get her," Nancy said. "I had to get all her stuff together without her knowing about it. It was very traumatic for all of us, just awful."

In her younger teen-age years, Cara had exhibited what Mike said was "normal teen-age mouthiness and assertiveness." She also had a roving interest in boys.

The Vannis do not believe Cara's serious discipline problems began until she transferred in September, 1991, from St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano to a much larger public school.

"She was seeking broader social horizons and thought she could find them at San Clemente High," Nancy said. "She literally begged us to let her go. She said she could bring home the grades and things would be great, have more friends and less homework."

Her first semester at San Clemente was uneventful. But beginning with the second term Cara was rapidly losing respect for family and academic life.

She began spending a lot of time with an unsavory group of older students and dropouts, the Vannis said. She cut class more than 30 times, ran away from home twice and was increasingly spiteful toward her sister.

"I didn't want to follow rules," Cara says. "I wanted to live on my own with my friends. A lot of them were older, and they didn't have to go home at night. So why did I have to?"

Another potential problem--and a potentially fatal one--was AIDS, Nancy said. It was a danger to which Cara was indifferent, as were many of her friends.

"There was always that risk," Nancy said. "I could talk to them till I was blue in the face, but their general attitude is that AIDS only happens to homosexuals."

The Vannis sought help with a therapist, who recommended a series of family contracts and other negotiations to help establish agreement about household authority.

But the discipline problems remained, twice erupting into physical fights at home during which Cara bit her father.

"The bottom line," Nancy said, "is Cara wanted to live here and be in complete control, but without any responsibility. She pushed every limit to the max.

"Week by week it got a little tougher. She used language that would make a Marine blush. She wanted to be declared an emancipated minor, which would make her legally free of our control. We offered to send her anywhere in the United States, to any school, but she refused."

"We told her any number of times there would be consequences" for her misbehavior, Mike said. "We told her to find friends that were more goal-oriented."

Throughout these troubled months, the Vannis had been researching 10 out-of-state residential facilities. California law prohibits parents from admitting children to a locked facility without a court or psychiatrist's order, according to attorneys with the Orange County counsel's office.

Then, the day after Cara was slapped by one of her new male friends--so hard that her pierced earring came off--the Vannis began to actively fear for her safety.

"We felt her next step would be drugs, possibly alcohol and physical harm," Nancy said. "We had no choice but to get her out of the geographic region--to stop it before it started."

They called Cross Creek Manor to arrange for her induction.

5/28 Mom,

. . . All I have is one question. Why? I understand that we had our fights and our disagreements but please why here. I wasn't a bad kid. I didn't do drugs or drink or smoke either. Mom do you realize we are locked up here. . . I can't even wear shoes. I'm kept in a basement. . . Do I really deserve this. I'm sorry for all I put you through but help me please.

Please don't leave me here. I can't take it. Home seems so wonderful compared to this. I'm not trying to kiss butt but I miss you, Dad & Amanda so much.

I wanted to get away but not for 3 or 6 mo. Give me 1 last chance to prove to you I can do it. . . .

Love, Cara

Just minutes from Zion National Park, Cross Creek sits on 1.3 acres and is surrounded by the towering, burnt-orange bluff and clear skies that are the hallmark and pride of Utah.

The school has a low student-to-staff ratio of nearly one-to-one, has no religious affiliation and is fully accredited, said Karr Farnsworth, associate director.

Licensed by the Utah Department of Human Services, Cross Creek has grown dramatically since its founding five years ago and has a highly qualified staff, said Patricia Kreher, state licensing director.

Utah is a popular location for such schools because of its relatively inexpensive land, she said. But running such a residential treatment center is not easy. Kreher said four similar schools had their licenses revoked this year because of poor financial management, unqualified staff or lack of maintenance.

One of 10 such programs in Utah and the only all-girl facility, Cross Creek currently houses 46 girls, most of whom, officials said, are from California.

Six of the current residents, in fact, are from Orange County; four are from Los Angeles.

"In Southern California you've got money and a lot of people preoccupied with careers," said Robert Gwilliam, the supervising therapist at Cross Creek.

Cara's therapist at the school, Jeff Voorhees, said that many Cross Creek girls who arrive from Southern California are affected to at least some degree by a gang influence.

"They build a family, which is a gang," he said. "Gangs can even have father and mother figures."

Mike Vanni often works 70-hour weeks as part owner of both a three-office real estate agency and a pizza parlor. Nancy, a registered nurse, works one or two days a week. But they largely discount this as a factor in Cara's problems.

"Nancy's father worked a lot, and my parents always worked a lot," Mike said. "Basically they worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I was a definite discipline problem for a number of years, but I was able to retain some focus on my education and get through college.

"Cara lost her focus. She abandoned her education. She was not capable of making good decisions as far as friends."

Bruce Christle, a family and child therapist based in Dana Point, said that often the dynamics of the entire family combine to create discipline problems.

"But the only person who looks bad is the child, because he's the one showing the symptoms," he said.

Cara now says she rues the day she got involved with the group of older boys in San Clemente.

"I wish I'd never met them. They weren't my true friends," she said. "Some of the guys I hung out with had past histories of hitting girls, not just guys.

"I'm afraid that if I go home and talk to one, I'll see the bad ones. So I figure if I just don't see any of them it'll be easier."

Just as in the outside world, students at Cross Creek quickly form attachments with their peers.

Cara is nearly inseparable from her roommate, Kayla, 15. On a recent evening the activity in their bedroom resembled that of a college dormitory: giggling, gossip, card playing, rap music on the radio, makeup sessions and good-natured roughhousing.

Much of the talk among the girls concerns Cross Creek and its system of rewards and punishments. Breaking rules invariably brings a "consequence," which can range from a few to hundreds of hours of work and moving to lower phases, which means a loss of privileges.

A few of the girls who have failed to move quickly from their basement quarters are especially disgruntled with the system and contemptuous toward those who know how to play the good-behavior game.

"A lot of people are jealous of Cara," Kayla said, "because she's so beautiful and because she advanced so quick."

Indeed, it was only a few weeks before Cara had moved out of the basement quarters and began what became rapid progress. Now in Phase 7, Cara goes on unsupervised trips to the mall and is attending Hurricane High, the local high school.

"She's done rather exceptionally well, basically because of her solid home" background, said Gloria Gwilliam, her case manager. "What gets a child and parents at odds varies a lot, but a teen-ager trying to break loose can be unreasonable, like a mule. You really have to get their attention."

What got her attention, Cara said, was the very fact of suddenly being shoeless in a stark Utah basement just hours after lounging in her lavish home.

"I realized that I need to be here, and I realized (my parents) only did it because they cared," Cara said. "If I hadn't come here I'd probably be in trouble with the law by now."

Positive family reinforcement arrives almost daily in the form of letters from parents, four grandparents and no fewer than six great-aunts. Ongoing contact with the family is a key part of the therapy at Cross Creek, Farnsworth said.

Seven weeks into the program, Cara had begun to articulate why she was at Cross Creek:

7/20 Dad,

. . . It was so good to hear from you. . . . The reasons I feel that I am here is because my friends were no good. . . . didn't go to school . . . didn't follow rules . . . I was making the house misearable (sic) and pulling the family apart. I was hurting everyone even myself . . . (E)veryone was unhappy. I didn't want to fix it either. That is basically what I feel. . . . I love you alot.

Love, Cara

Letter writing is a regular therapeutic exercise at Cross Creek, and officials warn parents to be prepared for hate letters. Cara's first letter home, however, showed no hate and only a trace of the anger she felt for the first two days of her confinement.

"I was really angry for the first couple days," she said. "I looked around to see if I could run away, but there's no way. I felt less than helpless."

This feeling of helplessness is deliberately cultivated by the school at first. Seizing power from the girls, showing them that their parents are ultimately in charge, is key to the girls' rehabilitation, Cross Creek officials say.

However, critics of residential treatment cite a variety of complaints with the programs.

"Involuntary commitment of a child is a stigma and amounts to a deprivation of liberty," said Bob Goodlow, an ACLU spokesman. "A child has the right to challenge the parents' wish by having a lawyer represent the child."

Said Margo Carlson, executive director of Community Service Programs in Irvine: "I thought we'd moved beyond that kind of attempt to redirect behavior. It sounds like we're going back a number of years in terms of handling a juvenile."

Some therapists criticize aspects of treatment facilities while acknowledging that they often do prevent further trouble.

Ed Kaufmann, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UC Irvine, said "it's a travesty" when parents send their teen-agers to residential treatment programs before trying to solve the problems with local counselors.

"If they've exhausted other therapy, the last resort is some sort of residential treatment," he said. "And if the adolescent refuses to go, the only resort is to use the escort."

Dana Point therapist Christle points out that the alternative to forced residency at a treatment facility is often the juvenile courts.

"Then it's the police who come to the door and take the child away," he said. "Because the family didn't make a choice, society has to."

Christle, who during the past decade has worked with about 50 teen-agers who have spent time in residential facilities, says that most programs, although they're far from perfect, do help the teen-agers avoid serious problems.

"What most kids learn is a crude message, which is, 'If you come home and misbehave again you go back' " to the facility, Christle said. "The danger is that you can come to depend on an outside agency to discipline your child."

Christle also has found that many kids remain resentful toward their parents when they return home, especially if the programs did not involve the parents in their child's rehabilitation process.

Although no girls with criminal records are accepted at Cross Creek, many of the students, who are between 12 and 18 years old, have a history of substance abuse or suicide attempts.

The comprehensive treatment is not within everyone's means. For the first six months, Cara's program will cost $16,900, some of which will be paid by insurance, Nancy said.

The family paid an additional $1,000 to have her escorted, although officials say most parents drive their children to the school themselves.

"I couldn't fathom us trying to do the job they have much more experience doing," Nancy said of the abduction. "She would not willingly have gone anywhere, and we were not equipped to do it. It would have been a nightmare."

Mike Vanni blames the crisis in part on what he sees as lax discipline in the public school system.

"The state of California limits and intrudes upon parents' rights," he said. "It's producing a student who's not as educated or motivated because of restrictions put on teachers. They can't tell a kid what to do anymore; they can't use corporal punishment in any form, so basically these kids just run roughshod over the teachers."

The average stay at Cross Creek is nine months. Nearly all girls stay for at least six months, at which time the staff confers and makes a recommendation to the parents. Parents sometimes take their girls home against the advice of the counselors.

"We have what I call a high parent satisfaction rate," Farnsworth said. "But we don't give a success rate, because you have kids who leave whom everyone is happy with, but then there are kids who leave whom we don't call a success, but the parents do."

The Vannis are among those ready to call the program a success.

"We're very happy with the results so far," Nancy said. "We needed the time and space, and Cara needed it as much as we did."

Nancy, a diabetic, says she has been able to reduce her daily insulin dosage by a third, a reduction she attributes to the drop in stress since Cara went to Cross Creek.

"Amanda also misses her sister terribly," Nancy added. "She asks, 'When Sissy comes home, will she be nice to me?' We've told her yes ."

For her part, Cara says the experience has motivated her to clean up her act. In discussing her changes, Cara uses the unequivocal language of the newly converted:

"I've changed so much. Most people here have more severe problems. It makes me realize what I've got. When I get out I want to get my grades back together, and I plan to totally respect my parents."

Cara and her parents have decided she will attend Santa Margarita High, a Roman Catholic school, when she returns home. This is a compromise between St. Margaret's, which Cara says is too small, and San Clemente High, which all three agree is not acceptable.

Three months after her abduction, Cara is nervously anticipating her first reunion with her parents. The family plans to spend two days exploring Zion and the St. George area.

"I never thought the day would come when I'd be this excited to see my parents," she says. "Waiting for my first phone call seemed like a lifetime, but I've been waiting for this day forever."

It is the Vannis' first visit to Cross Creek, and three wrong turns have made them an hour late. Cara has finished her therapy session and is in the dining hall when she sees her parents' rental car pull into the driveway.

For the next 15 minutes, the Vanni family rides an emotional freight train of expectation, tears and joyful relief.

Nancy, rushing to the front entrance, is momentarily thwarted by the facility's locked doors, but the passionate embrace that occurs two seconds later belies the months of friction that brought Cara here. Next, Mike and then sister Amanda tearfully greet their wayward family member.

"As low as we felt when we had to send her here, this is the opposite end of the scale," Nancy says. "This is what we did this for, to feel this way again."

From the dining room windows, the other girls watch the joyful scene in the parking lot.

To no one in particular, Kayla, her nose to the window, quietly voices the simple wish that the other girls doubtless share.

"I want to see my parents too." And for her also, tears begin to fall.

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