A leading member of Congress said Wednesday he is seeking a Justice Department investigation of a Utah-based group of "tough love" schools, in which he believes the health and welfare of hundreds of American children may be in jeopardy because of "an extensive and consistent pattern of abuse."
Rep. George Miller of the Northern California city of Martinez, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has asked Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft to investigate allegations of child abuse, human rights violations, deceptive advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment under the Internal Revenue Code at the 11 schools belonging to the World Wide Assn. of Specialty Programs and Schools, headquartered in St. George, Utah. The privately owned schools for troubled teens have facilities in the United States and overseas.
"We just continue to get reports from various organizations and individuals and media about mistreatment of children, about parents in many cases who are in very desperate situations trying to get suitable care for their children," Miller said in a telephone interview from Washington. "They are lured into these programs with promises of care and treatment and professional standards, and then find none of this exists."
At WWASPS schools, the congressman said, there "is a very long laundry list of abuse toward children: deprivation of food, deprivation of contact with their peers, physical abuse, mental abuse, sexual abuse." In a letter he sent Monday to Ashcroft, a copy of which was provided to The Times, Miller referred to "allegations that hundreds of children have been mistreated."
Miller wrote: "We believe that the Department of Justice should investigate whether federal laws concerning child abuse and neglect, interstate commerce or unfair or deceptive advertising have been broken by WWASPS or those operating these facilities." He asked Ashcroft to report in writing by Nov. 17 on what actions the government would take.
Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez said Wednesday evening that the department will review the letter and "determine whether any federal action is warranted."
Interviewed after learning of Miller's request, WWASPS President Ken Kay said no one had presented proof of wrongdoing.
"Where is the evidence?" Kay asked by telephone from St. George. "Our schools have been investigated by government officials, law enforcement, parents, educational consultants, accrediting authorities, child protective services -- and there is no proof."
Currently, 2,200 children are enrolled in the 10 WWASPS schools that are open in locations from New York state to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. "Overall, the one encapsulating term is, the schools ... are in the business of saving lives," Kay said.
In July, The Times published a story that detailed claims from parents and former students that boys and girls enrolled in the schools were subjected to brutal discipline, filthy living conditions and physical abuse by staff members who frequently lacked professional qualifications. Similar allegations were reported in the New York Times.
Last May, police in Costa Rica raided Dundee Ranch Academy, a WWASPS school, after reports that the human rights of students there were being violated. Kay said the school's operator has voluntarily closed the facility while authorities in the Central American country conduct an investigation.
In his letter to Ashcroft, Miller said that no fewer than seven facilities affiliated with WWASPS or its marketing arm, Teen Help, had been shut since 1996 after running afoul of the law, including schools in Mexico, Utah and Western Samoa. In September, Bell Academy in Terra Bella, Calif., closed after failing to meet state licensing requirements, Miller said.
The congressman, who has long been active in children's issues, estimated that parents pay WWASPS schools between $30,000 and $50,000 in yearly tuition and fees. "Big money is being paid for services not rendered," Miller said. Because hundreds of minors may be at risk, he said, the government needs to intervene.
"These kids are obviously crossing state boundaries, international boundaries," Miller said. "They [WWASPS schools] are really trafficking in these kids for profit."
Kay responded: "If he had concerns, he could at least have had someone contact me or our schools. I checked, and none of them has any record of being contacted by him."