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CONTROVERSY SHROUDS USE OF PROGRAM ESCORTS

SHARE CONTROVERSY SHROUDS USE OF PROGRAM ESCORTS

Mont Ferwerda spends a lot of time with teenagers. Usually, they'd rather be with someone else.

Ferwerda is an "escort." With written authorization from parents, he picks up troubled youths and accompanies them to the wilderness therapeutic program they usually don't want to attend.Not all youths object to going. But if they're willing to go, Ferwerda's skills aren't needed.

Escorting is one of the most controversial aspects of wilderness treatment programs. Youths have filed lawsuits over the practice, claiming it amounts to kidnapping and denies them human rights. Licensing officials have questioned whether escorting is appropriate. Program officials vocally defend it.

"I think the day's coming when the Legislature will discontinue the entire (escort) practice," Ken Stettler of the Human Services Office of Licensing told program operators.

"When it comes to saving a child's life, you take whatever measures are necessary," countered Gayle Palmer of Summit Quest. "This is a lifesaving business we're in. We have people with children who are literally in danger of dying on the streets. Parents have a right - an obligation - to do what it takes to save their lives."

"I'll say up front that it creates trauma. I don't want to belittle that," said Larry Wells, program director for Wilderness Conquest. "But if it's done properly, without pain, it's all right. Parents have lost control of a child. To save that child's life, the option has to be available. Either escort them now or escort them to prison or the grave later. But it has to be used on a bare-bones minimum basis."

Ferwerda has had to restrain only one student, he said. The rest, initially reluctant, get to know him and believe he wants to help them.

Wayne Holland, who licenses programs for Youth Corrections, is not convinced that escorting is good. "I am an advocate of kids' rights, right down the line," he said. "There's no law against escort services. But I don't like it."

Escorts have to be licensed by the state. They also have to read and sign a provider code of conduct, based on Utah's child-abuse and neglect law, so that they don't cross over legal lines to bring youths to the programs.

"You can't control through the use of pain," Stettler said. "You have to use the least amount of force required to gain control of a situation."

Most programs subcontract with escorts such as Ferwerda to avoid any conflict of interest. The escort is given a signed agreement between the parents and the wilderness program. And he meets with the parents to learn about the child, Nelson said.

Usually, though, programs try to work out a situation where the family brings the youth to the program.