Another Lichfield “Troubled Teen” School Hit With Another Abuse Lawsuit (And How Mitt Romney Benefits Directly from For-Profit Teen Boot Camp Industry)
— “Mitt Romney’s Special Interest”
First things first — WWASP:
“The World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS or WWASP) is an organization based in Utah, in the United States. WWASPS was founded by Robert Lichfield and was incorporated in 1998. WWASPS states that it is an umbrella organization of independent institutions for education and treatment of troubled teenagers, all operating in accordance with WWASP guidelines. Many outside observers believe, however, that the WWASPS-affiliated institutions are actually owned (through limited partnerships, many of which have used the same street address) by WWASPS or its principal officials or their close relatives. WWASPS is connected to several affiliated for-profit companies. These include … Premier Educational Systems, LLC (also called Premier Educational Seminars), which conducts orientation and training workshops for parents whose children are in WWASPS facilities.
A thicket of interrelated, for-profit companies has grown up around the nonprofit WWASPS. They include Teen Help, the association’s marketing arm; Teen Escort Service, which convoys children to and from member schools; and R&B Billing, which sends the monthly bills to parents and processes their payments.
Thomas Burton, an attorney in Pleasanton, Calif., who has sued WWASPS, its member schools and associated businesses at least seven times — though he has yet to win a case — contends that all of these entities function as a huge, single commercial venture with Lichfield at the heart.
“The corporations keep shifting and being reconstituted with different people in different places,” Burton said. “It seems they want to keep this a moving target.”
In March, the Northern California lawyer filed suit in federal court in Salt Lake City on behalf of a former student at Tranquility Bay, claiming the WWASPS school in Jamaica was a “steaming squalid jungle camp, infested with flies, mosquitoes, scorpions and vermin.”
— John-Thor Dahlburg
“Key to His Schools’ Success?
It’s God, Founder Says”
Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2003
“WWASPS claims to have helped over 10,000 students with issues related to personal behavior. Some participants and parents give positive reports of their experiences, but others say that WWASPS programs were abusive. WWASPS has faced widespread allegations of physical and psychological abuse of the teenagers sent into its programs, resulting in a lawsuit filed against the organization in 2006. WWASPS officials report that the organization is no longer in business, but because of ongoing litigation, it has not been dissolved.
“WWASPS operates, formerly operated, or is associated with, several facilities in the United States and in other countries. In 2003 there were 2,300 students enrolled in its facilities and programs. At one time, WWASPS facilities had tuition income of more than $90 million per year.
“In July 2007 World Wide’s president, Ken Kay, told the Salt Lake Tribune that only two schools remained in the WWASPS network, including Majestic Ranch Academy in Utah, which he said was likely to sever its ties with the organization. In a December 2010 newspaper article, Kay was reported to have said that the organization was no longer in business, but because of ongoing litigation, it had not been dissolved. …
“Sky View Christian Academy, for boys, in Hawthorne, Nevada. Enrolled about 120 students and employed about 63 staff and teachers, with a total annual payroll of $1.57 million. It was closed abruptly in 2007 after a hazing incident. …”
While we can’t say what was involved in this “hazing incident,” we can say we’ve heard more than once that it was “sexual in nature,” perhaps even rape. But don’t quote us — we weren’t there, and we don’t know.
“WWASPS and its associated institutions have been the target of criticism over their treatment methods, including allegations of severe abuse and torture by staff at programs supported by WWASPS. The programs have been the subject of legal investigations by several U.S. states. In 2003, a reporter for The New York Times interviewed 60 current and former program participants and parents; some gave positive reports of their experiences, while other participants and parents said that WWASPS programs were abusive.
“Sky View Academy, A Christian Boarding School … teaches accountability, values, integrity, respect, honor and responsibility with a Christian basis … uses a specialized academic curriculum to assist students who do not do well in the traditional classroom setting. …
“On Sundays, the students participate in a nondenominational worship service to provide the opportunity for spiritual growth. During the week, students also may participate in a Bible study. Students and staff at SVA work to develop a value system through faith in Christ, while developing knowledge, individual worth, service, integrity, and honesty. Our main rule for both staff and students is to treat each other with dignity and respect. …
“Our hand picked staff provides our students the nurturing necessary to help them find and develop God’s purpose for their lives. They do this through patience, structure, discipline, healthy activities, discussions, Bible study groups, Christian values, and positive peer interaction. Our staff’s dedication to develop a personal connection with each student as a guide and a mentor helps our students to realize their potential. Each student is considered unique and valuable and each student is given the opportunity to bloom like the desert cactus.”
— Sky View Academy (archived)
“Numerous former students or their parents have filed lawsuits against WWASPS, its personnel, or individual schools. Most have been settled out of court or dismissed for procedural reasons. For example, a 2005 lawsuit filed in California on behalf of more than 20 plaintiffs was dismissed because the judge found that California lacked jurisdiction. In June 2007, Utah attorney Thomas M. Burton told a reporter that six suits he had filed against WWASPS on behalf of his clients had been dismissed on procedural grounds. WWASPS president Ken Kay told an interviewer that lawsuits against WWASPS are ploys to get money, brought by people who ‘are never going to be happy.’ A lawsuit filed in 2007 against WWASPS and its founder, Robert Lichfield, on behalf of 133 plaintiffs alleging physical and sexual abuse and fraudulent concealment of abuse brought negative publicity to Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, because Lichfield was one of six co-chairs of the Utah state fundraising committee for Romney’s campaign.
“On several occasions, WWASPS and its principals have responded to criticism by suing their critics. Robert Lichfield sued two individual people associated with the International Survivors Action Committee (ISAC) for defamation, invasion of his privacy, and causing ‘intentional interference with ‘prospective economic advantage.’ … In May 2005 a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed (on jurisdictional grounds) a defamation lawsuit brought by WWASPS against a United Press International reporter who had done research for a news story about alleged abuse at several WWASPS schools. …
“On August 31, 2007, [former WWASP staff member] Randall Hinton was convicted of one count each of third degree assault and false imprisonment, for mistreating students at the WWASP-affiliated Royal Gorge Academy, of which he was manager and co-founder. …” — More: Wikipedia
The most recent (March, 2011) WWASP facility to be shut down was Teen Mentor, which operated out of a hotel in in Costa Rica. “This one,” reported the Tico Times, “was run by the association’s director,” Robert Walter Lichfield, son of Robert Browning Lichfield and nephew of Robert B.’s brother, Narvin Lichfield, “who ran a similar center here until it was voluntarily shut down in 2003.” A spokesperon for Costa Rica’s child welfare office said: “We intervened … and interviewed all the kids from the program. Their reports were similar to the reports made by the psychologists about mistreatment and rights violations. It was apparent that the regimen of discipline included physical, psychological and verbal mistreatment.”
“I’d like to know why her husband’s company, Bain Capital, owns the Aspen Schools with have lots of allegations for abuse.
“Would you also ask her about her husbands [sic] connections with Robert Litchfield, the owner of the WWASP programs which were closed due to abuse and Mel Sembler, the founder of Straight Inc which has over 40 suicides directly linked to it and thousands of brainwashed kids walking around today as adults?
“And how her husband has Mel Sembler as his finance campaign manager and had to ask Robert Litchfield to step down last election due to the law suits he was facing? …”
“I would also like her to answer for her husbands connections to Robert Litchfield, founder of the worlwide association of specialty programs whom had had more than half of their ‘schools’ shut down by FOREIGN governments due to allegations of child abuse (trust me these allegations are credible, I was in one of these places myself). …”
“As someone who attended an overseas WWASP schools, one of the programs that provided a great deal of funding to Romney’s campaign, I find it outrageous that he would allow for any further ties to be made between him and this abusive industry. Even the smallest amount of research on the programs that have supported him (which his wife would likely pay back through her involvement) will reveal cases of death, neglect, abuse, and deceptive marketing. This is an outrage and I know that I personally will be speaking out about this issue. I hope that ABC News will present the stories of teens who suffered through this industry an outlet as well, in the effort to be balanced. ‘Help’ should never come at the cost of abuse.”
“The sheer irony and horror to see such a lady associated with so many monsters claim to even want to help the children who suffered do to the company her and her husband choose to keep. …”
“Mitt Romneys relationship with Mel Sembler and his followers like Robert Litchfield are just the tip of the iceberg of well documented cases of torture and abuse. …”
— Reader comments in response to ABC News article, “Ann Romney Says She’ll Work With Troubled Teens as First Lady,” October 5, 2011
That same month, Narvin Lichfield lucked out of a charge of writing bad checks on the closed account of the defunct Carolina Springs Academy in South Carolina, which, reported IndependentMail.com, was “shut down in 2009 after state officials sought to revoke its license. Their decision was based on numerous violations found in the course of 19 site visits conducted over 18 months. Although Lichfield has said he wants to reopen the facility as a Christian boarding school that would be exempt from state regulations, he is having trouble lining up investors.”
Next: Robert Browning Lichfield, a very rich Utah Mormon who was the co-chair of Mitt Romney‘s Utah fundraising committee for Willard’s 2008 run at the White House, and “the single largest individual donor to Republicans in Utah, giving at least $212,000 to GOP politicians since 2003,” per the Deseret News (in a 2006 article no longer online). “He is also No. 6 on the overall list of individual Utah donors.
“He is the owner of Teen Help, which operates sometimes controversial treatment facilities, schools and other programs for troubled teens.
“An example of how his donations may bring influence is that in 2004, Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens blocked floor consideration of a bill opposed by Lichfield that would have brought state regulation to his boarding schools for troubled teens.
“Six days after the legislative session ended, Lichfield donated $30,000 to Stephens’ campaign for governor.”
At DailyKos, SClayton wrote in 2007: “Lichfield is the deep pocket behind RECAF Inc., the company that contributed $250,000 to unsuccessful Maine gubernatorial candidate Chandler Woodcock. Why would a rich crackpot in rural Utah contribute to a Maine governor’s race? To help fellow Latter Day Saint Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, of course.” SClayton cites a Salt Lake Trib article, “The Lichfield-Romney connection: Spreading blessings all around,” in which Paul Rolly notes:
“Lichfield, associated with boarding schools that have been accused in governmental investigations and a civil lawsuit of abusing and neglecting students, has an interesting history in Utah as a political operative and campaign donor. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in September 2004 that Lichfield donated $30,000 to the gubernatorial campaign of then-House Speaker Marty Stephens, who had successfully killed a bill that would have mandated state regulation of boarding schools for troubled teens.
“… But Stephens wasn’t the only political benefactor of Lichfield’s generosity. Lichfield hedged his bets when sprinkling the power of his purse among political office seekers. …
“So why would Lichfield care about the Maine governor’s race? …
“Lichfield … is co-chairman of the Utah finance committee for Romney’s presidential campaign and helped organize a $1,000-per-plate breakfast for the former Massachusetts governor. The Press Herald reported that Romney was chairman of the Republican Governors Association, whose Maine-based PAC received the $250,000 contribution from RECAF.”
But Romney’s connections to the WWASP “schools” — and to other allegedly abusive teen boot camps — hardly appear to end with Robert Lichfield. In addition to the Romney-Lichfield connection, an article on the site The WWASP Diaries, “The Politics of the Troubled Teen Industry,” reminds us of the close relationship between Romney and ex-ambassador Mel Sember — current (2012) co-chair of the Romney’s Florida Finance Committee — who, with his wife, Betty Sembler, founded the once-lauded but ultimately disgraced and shuttered Straight, Inc., as well as Romney’s relationships with numerous other Republican donors and activists deeply invested in “troubled teen” schools and programs.
Perhaps the most eye-catching note from The WWASP Diaries is this:
“Elliot Sainer and Bain Capital — Founders of Aspen Education: In 1997, Aspen Education Group was founded in part by Elliot Sainer. A subsidiary of CRC Health Group, Aspen Education is owned by Bain Capital Group, founded in 1984 by Mitt Romney. Aspen Education Group provides therapeutic programs for youth including wilderness therapy, residential treatment facilities, therapeutic boarding schools, and weight loss facilities. Aspen Education is one of the most profitable teen treatment chains, boasting annual revenue of $150 million plus. According to an article by Keith Chu of The Bulletin, many of Aspen Education Group’s programs — including now defunct Mount Bachelor Academy — were based directly on the CEDU [formed by Mel Wasserman, a former Synanon attendee] methods of treatment. Lauding support by celebrity figures such as Dr. Phil and several other TV programs including ‘Brat Camp,’ ‘I Know What You Ate Last Summer,’ and ‘Intervention,’ Aspen Education has become one of the most revered and successful programs of it’s [sic] kind. Recent lawsuits and scrutiny, however, have led to the closure of multiple facilities and a total restructure announced in March of 2011. Mount Bachelor Academy, once one of Aspen Education’s top programs, closed in 2009 after lawsuits alleging sexual reenactments of past sexual abuse in front of peers, sleep deprivation, forced lap dances as part of therapy, and emotional and physical abuse. Sagewalk, one of Aspen’s top wilderness therapy facilities, was called “reckless” by State authorities following the death of 16-year-old Sergey Blashchishen. At least four other teenagers have died under Aspen’s care. Criticisms of Aspen’s weight loss facilities have also indicated child abuse, noting that children within it’s care were subjected to diet plans of under 10 grams of fat daily. … After being acquired by Bain Capital, Aspen Education Group became a direct source of revenue for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.”
There’s much, much more at the link.
“In all fairness,” writes Jillie, “long after Romney left Bain Capital, CRC Health was acquired by Bain Capital in 2005. Aspen Education was acquired by CRC health in 2006, where child abuse and deaths have occurred. As stated before, unfortunately for Mitt Romney, he is still ‘the face’ of Bain Capital.”
That’s very true, and very important to remember: Mitt Romney officially left Bain in 1999 — and his campaign swears “he gave up all management control and operational responsibility over the firm and its investments” (but then, that’s Andrea Saul speaking, and you can guess how much credence we give her). Never mind, of course, that “he retained a key financial interest” in Bain until August of 2001 (“key financial interest in” meaning “wholly owned by” as of January, 2002).
But far more importantly, nothing counters the fact that Romney has continued to benefit from his buddies who have made their fortunes in the “troubled teen” industry — and who have made their own “investments” in Mitt Romney’s political future in the form of campaign contributions — or that one of the most prominent of these teen-profiteers, Mel Sembler, is an official 2012 Romney activist.
All of which brings us to the latest lawsuit filed against one of Lichfield’s alleged abuse farms, filed May 14, 2012:
By Nick DiVito, reprinted with the kind courtesy of Courthouse News Service
LAS VEGAS (CN) — A Mexican teenager’s brief stint in a Nevada boarding school was marked by plates full of cigarette butts and other abuse, the student and his mother claim in court.
The Sky View Christian Academy in Hawthorn, Nev., covered up the abuse by screening mail between students and their parents, according to the complaint.
Anthony Vaca entered the academy, located 134 miles southeast of Reno, in May 2007. Shortly after his arrival, the 15-year-old boy “began receiving physical and mental abuse from the defendants and the defendants’ employees and agents,” according to the complaint.
Now 19, Vaca says a school employee forced him to fight a student two years older and much larger than him.
Employees also allegedly forced other students to watch the doors and windows to shield what was happening.
When Vaca was predictably injured from the fight, school officials denied him medical treatment, and “a fellow student with no medical training or expertise” helped “set his nose without the benefit of any anesthesia or pain killers,” according to the suit.
Vaca, who is Mexican, says an employee pushed him, threatened him and used racist names and epithets while speaking to him.
“[The Lord had] plans for me. …I noticed an ad in the paper for teachers at a new private boarding school in the area and was intrigued by the idea of having kids in a controlled environment where they would not be exposed to the negative behaviors of peers or the negative influences of parts of our society. Also, a private school had much more latitude in determining how classes could be set up and students could be taught. …
“When I received the opportunity to start a school of my own my dream was for a school designed to give kids the opportunity to excel in their studies and learn to develop and function in healthy relationships without fear. This school would provide a safe environment…”
— Orval Hagerman
“About the Owner-Director” (archived)
Sky View Academy
Vaca “would often find cigarette butts and ashes from cigarettes in the food served to him by Sky View Academy,” the lawsuit states. “At times, Mr. Vaca would only have an apple or other small piece of fruit to eat for many days at a time because the food was so bad.”
Defendants also “forced Mr. Vaca to submit to screening of his mail, both incoming and outgoing, in order to control his mental state and thoughts, to convince him his mother knew of and approved of what was happening to him when she in fact did not,” according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also says Vaca was forced to sleep on the floor, and that Sky View employees brought drugs into the school for students.
Cynthia Shepherd says removed Vaca, her son, from the school after just five months because it had refused to let her see students’ living conditions.
She and Vaca claim that the school failed to disclose that it was under investigation by state officials for physical and sexual assaults on children.
Nevada suspended Sky View Academy’s license Sept. 28, 2007, according to the complaint.
Shepherd and Vaca seek damages for assault, battery, false imprisonment, negligence and fraud. They name as defendants the academy; Sky View manager Orval Hagerman; the academy’s parent, World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools; and its sister company, Lifeline Family Services.
• “The Men Behind Teen Help,” Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse
• “Mitt Romney / Robert Lichfield / Mel Sembler Connection,” Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse
• “Robert Lichfield – Mitt Romney,” robertlichfield.blogspot.com
• “WWASP News,” Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse
• Forum: Sky View Academy, AntiWWASP Forums
• Forum: AntiWWASP Persons of Interest, AntiWWASP Forums
• “Rest in Pieces: The Dead Program Files,” Heal’s Back Room
• “Teen Help sued: Mother Sues Utah-Based Business Treating Teens in Jamaica,” Greg Burton, Salt Lake Tribune, May 12, 1999 (via Rick Ross)
• “Teen behavioral centers push ‘tough love’: Utah-based network’s program draws many cries of outrage,” Lou Kilzer, Scripps Howard News Service, July 21, 1999 (via Rick Ross)
• “Owner of Private Discipline Academy in Costa Rica Is Arrested,” Tim Weiner, New York Times, May 24, 2003 (via Rick Ross)
• “Teens’ ‘prison’ closed: Schools for rebellious teenagers are accused of taking drastic, abusive measures,” Julie Smyth, National Post, June 6, 2003
• “The last resort,” Guardian/Observer, June 28, 2003
• “Program to Help Youths Has Troubles of Its Own,” Tim Weiner, New York Times, September 6, 2003 (via Rick Ross)
• “A lucrative business: Teen Behavior Modification,” A Human Tragedy, March 6, 2005
• “Utah-based group under fire: Legislation targets association of schools for troubled youths,” Amy Joi Bryson, Deseret Morning News, April 21, 2005 (via Rick Ross)
• “Boarding school ordered to refund tuition: N.Y. academy has ties to St. George association,” Nicole Warburton, Deseret Morning News, August 19, 2005 (via Rick Ross)
• “No More Nightmares at Tranquility Bay?,” John Gorenfeld, AlterNet, January 23, 2006
• “WWASPS Back in Court, Again,” Coalition Against Institutionalized Child Abuse, August 26, 2006
• “Suit alleging abuse names GOP donor,” Kevin Wack, Portland Press Herald, May 6, 2007 (via caica.org)
• “Romney Utah Money Co-Chair Sued for Sexual, Physical, Emotional Abuse,” Ellicatt, DailyKos, June 20, 2007
• “Lawsuits hit a Romney money man,” The Hill, June 20, 2007
• “Romney, Torture, and Teens: The former governor’s connections to abusive ‘tough love’ camps,” Maia Szalavitz, Reason.com, June 27, 2007
• “Romney Fires One Teen-Abuse Linked Financier, Keeps Big One,” Maia Szalavitz, Huffington Post, September 6, 2007
• “The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry,” Maia Szalavitz, Mother Jones, September/October, 2007
• “You’ve heard of Norman Hsu — why not Robert Lichfield?,” Jamison Foser, Media Matters, September 28, 2007
• “Ever unconventional, long controversial,” Keith Chu, Bend Bulletin, November 15, 2009
• “A gay teen describes her experience at a Utah brainwashing facility,” Reddit, May 27, 2011
• “William Chase Wood, a.k.a. Chase McKinney, et al. v. WWASPS, et al.,” September 1, 2011
• “Torture Alleged at Chain of Children’s Homes,” Jonny Bonner, Courthouse News Service, September 6, 2011 (“Hundreds of parents claim a group of boarding schools tortured their children: locked them in dog cages, forced them to lie in feces and eat vomit, masturbated them and denied the troubled teens any religion ‘except for the Mormon faith.’”)
• “Utah-based troubled-teen schools subject of lawsuit,” Amy Joi O’Donoghue, Deseret News, September 6, 2011
• “Paul Babeu, R-MachoClosetCase, Ariz., & ‘Headmaster’ of Bizarre “Tough Love” School, Mass.,” Conservative Babylon, February 20, 2012 (Is the irony lost on anyone? Paul Babeu — Mitt Romney’s 2012 Arizona campaign chair until Babeu was outed as gay — was the headmaster of the DeSisto at Stockbridge School in Massachusetts, a “troubled teen” school as controversial as any WWASP school?)
• Utah Lichfield campaign contributions: Newsmeat
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