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Teen Behavior Programs in Spotlight

January 19, 1998 GMT

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) _ At 17, Jeremy Hawthorne was speeding toward failure, a high school dropout who drank and took drugs. He is sure he’d be in serious trouble by now if his parents hadn’t sent him to an overseas treatment program for defiant teen-agers.

Lyn Duff was sent to a similar program at 15, but she has a vastly different view. Her only ``problem,″ she says, was that she is a lesbian.

Two stories, two sides of a controversial issue now playing out in a California courtroom: Does shipping children off to a growing number of treatment programs amount to true love or false imprisonment?


The case at the center of the debate is that of 16-year-old David Van Blarigan, who was taken from his bed in the middle of the night and taken to a treatment center in Jamaica known as Tranquility Bay.

Oakland prosecutor Robert Hutchins is fighting to have David returned, saying parents Jim and Sue Van Blarigan overstepped their authority. The Van Blarigans, who say David is deeply troubled, want him to stay put. A judge is to decide Tuesday.

The case is focusing attention on what happens when parents believe they have run out of options with what to do with their children.

While exasperated parents have long turned to boarding and military schools, the new programs ``run the gamut from ... a slightly more kind of controlled environment in a boarding school to virtual work camps,″ said Mark Sklarow, director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va., a placement service for such programs.

Like David, Hawthorne’s parents sent him to Tranquility Bay.

``It was real scary for me, because, I thought, `This is really cruel,‴ his mother, Nelda, said in a telephone interview from the family home in Austin, Texas.

But she said she and her husband were determined to make one last effort to help her son, who was smoking marijuana and getting drunk nearly every night. Counseling and a stint in a Texas adolescent hospital had no effect.

``I was real mad. I was kind of nervous and it really scared me,″ Hawthorne said of being forced from his home.

Things looked up after he got to Tranquility Bay, one of five programs for which a Utah-based organization called Teen Help does intake and referrals.

At the center, he had to earn points _ through academics, for instance _ to win privileges such as telephone use. He’d lose them for breaking rules or showing poor attitude. Misbehavior was met with ``consequences″ _ anything from manual labor to listening to a 45-minute tape on famous people and then filling out a 30-question worksheet.

The message got through, and he checked out of the program when he turned 18. He said he realized he had been ``killing myself″ and has been drug and alcohol free ever since.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic.

``You should not be able as a parent to have your child forcibly abducted and sent to another country against his will,″ said Shannon Minter, an attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights who has assisted Ms. Duff.

Ms. Duff describes her time at the Rivendell Psychiatric Hospital in Utah as six months of torment. At Rivendell, which is not affiliated with Teen Help, Ms. Duff said counselors advised her to ``work at becoming more heterosexual.″

``They’d do these type of treatments where they’d show you pictures of women having sex and they’d make you smell ammonia,″ she said. Counselors also told her she was hurting her family because of her homosexuality, she said.

Ms. Duff escaped by feigning illness and ran away on the way to the doctor. She made it to San Francisco, where Minter helped her win a court order in 1993 that put her in foster care until she was 18.

Officials at the center where Ms. Duff was treated did not return a telephone call to The Associated Press. They issued a written statement to ABC’s ``20/20″ news program, which reported Ms. Duff’s story in 1996, denying they treated anyone for homosexual tendencies. The statement said ``homosexuality can become an issue while treating other disorders.″

Ms. Duff’s mother told ``20/20″ that Lyn went to the hospital voluntarily and she was sent there only because of disruptive behavior.

``Adults shouldn’t think about my case as being extreme and say, `Well, my kid, he’s not being treated because he’s gay. It’s only because he’s defiant,‴ said Ms. Duff, now an editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco.

``These hospitals are set up to make money. They’ll take anyone for any reason and they’ll do whatever they can to make you behave.″

But Narvin Lichfield, who was involved in Teen Help for seven years and now runs another referral service, said the programs are a desperate measure to fill a desperate need.

``I’ve never seen a situation where I felt like a parent was just trying to get rid of a child,″ he said. ``I see parents in tears trying to figure out what to do with their child.″