Migrant Kids

Controversial Company That Profited From the “Troubled Teen” Industry Now Has Millions from the Feds to Open a Lock-up for Immigrant Kids in Los Angeles

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

Monday morning, protesters gathered in Arleta, California, outside the tentatively proposed site for a new federally-funded detention center to hold migrant children who have been separated from their parents.

Specifically, the proposed lock-up for immigrant kids would be located at a now-vacant former nursing home located in the San Fernando Valley,  north of Sherman Oaks, near to the intersection of Nordoff St. and Woodman Ave.

In mid-October of last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB32, which prevents the state from entering into an agreement or renewing an existing contract “with a private, for-profit prison facility.”

The new state law, however, which went into effect on New Year’s Day (and has inspired a large lawsuit from the GEO Group), can’t prevent the federal government from making its own deals with for-profit companies to provide detention facilities — including federal lock-ups for kids — in California or any other state.

And that appears to be exactly what has happened, except now the planned lock-ups are for kids.

In the case of the possible new Arleta facility, the feds turned to a firm called VisionQuest, which made a bunch of money during the 1980s and 1990s running programs for at-risk and lawbreaking adolescents.


The cash cow that was at-risk teenagers

For several decades, there was almost zero regulation of the multi-billion dollar troubled teen industry, where enterprising companies marketed their often boot-camp-like “therapeutic” programs to confused and frightened parents who didn’t know what to do when their teenage children began getting into trouble. And what few regulations did exist were easily circumvented by companies like VisionQuest, founded in 1973, which located their camps and facilities primarily in states like Arizona and Utah where regulation was pretty much non-existent.

It was worth the trouble.  As the tough-on-crime trends of the late 1980s through the 1990s, combined with a rise in drug and gang crime, caused youth arrests to skyrocket, VisionQuest discovered that the really big money was less in private customers than it was in government contracts to take lawbreaking teenagers off the hands of overwhelmed municipalities.

Seeing a potential gold rush that was similar to that which the private prison industry was already mining, VisionQuest began selling its services to counties and states, claiming that its tough-love methods would cost less and do a better job than government facilities were able to manage.

By the late 1990s, California alone was spending $45 million a year to send young law-breakers out of state.  And a third of that money went into the coffers of VisionQuest and a similar chain of youth programs,  the Arizona Boys Ranch, according to a 1998 account in Phoenix New Times.

Over time, however, alarming stories of abuse in the wilderness camp programs run by VisionQuest, the Boys Ranch, and other industry leaders resulted in lawsuits and a growing amount of press coverage describing excessive use of physical restraints and isolation, verbal abuse, food deprivation, humiliation, intimidation, and more in the boot camp-like programs.

And then there were the deaths.

In the case of VisionQuest, ten kids reportedly drowned in the company’s various programs, 8 of them in a single boating accident in the early 1980s. In 1984, a 16-year-old San Diego boy named Mario Cano died of a blood clot that moved into his lungs during strenuous exercise as camp staff accused him of faking his illness, according to a 1998 Phoenix New Times report.  Cano’s death caused San Diego County to suspend its contract with VisionQuest for a year, as SD Probation continued to criticize the company for pushing kids into activities that “posed unnecessary risks to their health and safety,” according to a 1987 report by the Rand Corporation.

In 1994, 13-year old Carlos Ruiz died of injuries incurred in an outdoor activity.  In June 1995, Dawnne Takeuchi, 18, died at one of VisionQuest’s Colorado programs after reportedly being thrown from a supply semi-truck driven by a camp counselor, who was later charged with reckless driving.

In the period between 1995 and 1998, VisionQuest reportedly had 11 charges of abuse substantiated against its programs, with many of the charges serious in nature according to an August 1998 account in Phoenix New Times.

Such disquieting reports, plus the continuing large slide in juvenile crime and arrests eventually caused VisionQuest’s multi-decade money train to slow down, according to a November 21, 2019 story about the company’s more recent endeavors by Reveal reporters, Aura Bogado and Patrick Michels.

By 2017, the company had fallen on hard times and was in need of a new source of income, wrote Reveal.  That’s when the ever-resilient VisionQuest found its new money train in the form of “the booming business of migrant child detention.”


A brand new gold mine

It seems that past allegations of abuse notwithstanding, the feds saw VisionQuest as an ideal provider.

Thus, in July 2019, the federal government handed the firm “more than $25 million in four grants over three years to hold hundreds of the unaccompanied minors in its custody in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.”

One of the planned California locations for VisionQuest is the Arleta site.

Prior to the big new grant,  VisionQuest got a 2017 federal grant for $8.9 million to run a long-term “foster care program” for migrant children in Arizona, which has already opened its doors.

They also got another fat federal grant for $8.5 million in 2018 to run a secure facility for migrant children that was planned for Philadelphia.

Yet, while these new contracts have allowed VisionQuest to remake its cashflow, there are indications that its treatment of the kids in its care may not have received the same makeover.

One disturbing example is described in a probe by the Philadelphia Inquirer, which tells of the abuse of kids in a VisionQuest-run youth shelter located in the city.  The disturbing reports were bad enough to cause local officials to withdraw their support, and VisionQuest was forced to close the shelter in 2017.

Soon after, however, VisionQuest was making plans to open a brand new fed-funded facility for 60 undocumented immigrant children at the same site of the recently closed venture.  Then company CEO Peter Ranalli told the Inquirer’s reporters that the new shelter would be “better run, better staffed, and much better financed,” adding that complaints of abuse surface at all juvenile-justice centers, but not all those lodged against VisionQuest workers “were true.”

Philadelphia officials didn’t buy the assurance and eventually said no to the proposal — which brings us back to the proposed Arleta detention facility.


Zoning codes to the rescue?

Although AB32 can’t block such a youth detention center in LA County,  many are hoping that some changes to local zoning codes might do the necessary blocking.

With this in mind, City Council President Nury Martinez has introduced a motion.

Meanwhile, other city, county, and state officials have expressed their opposition.

“I will not sit quietly as a detention center opens in my district that would put more children in cages and separate families,” said Rep.Tony Cárdenas, after Monday morning’s demonstration.

Assemblywoman Luz Rivas who represents Arleta agreed.

“The Trump Administration has a proven track record of the inhumane and grotesque treatment of putting children and families in cages with inadequate services. Children have died behind these bars. Private prisons to detain innocent children have no place in a humane and civil society and does not reflect California’s values.”

Next week, the Los Angeles Unified School District board will vote on a resolution authored by board member Kelly Gonez to oppose the proposal for the detention center.

LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl put out her own statement after the Monday demonstration.

“Over the last three years, LA County has made clear over and over that we will not cooperate in the federal government’s demonization of immigrants and the destruction of their families,” wrote Kuehl. “I vigorously oppose the opening of a proposed immigrant detention center for youth in my district. I do not believe that breaking up families has any place in American immigration policy, and I do not believe that tearing children out of their parent’s arms and placing them in cages makes America safer or more secure. When the history of these times is written, these immigrant detention centers will be viewed as a stain on the national conscience. I encourage my constituents and other elected officials to stand up and join in the effort to oppose this facility.”

We’ll keep you posted.


Photo at the top via Rep.Tony Cárdenas’ Twitter feed.

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