Operators of the nine wilderness programs for troubled youths that operate in Utah have agreed to modify procedures slightly, following the deaths of two teenage girls in separate programs in the past six weeks.
Michelle Sutton, 15, of Pleasanton, Calif., died of dehydration in an Arizona desert in May while participating in the St. George-based Summit Quest program. Last week, 16-year-old Kristen Chase of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., died while hiking with the Challenger Foundation program in southern Utah. Early autopsy results have not pinpointed the cause of her death, but officials believe it was heat-related.In a meeting with law enforcement officials and the Department of Human Services on Tuesday, program operators said they will not allow hiking by participants between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. when temperatures are at least 90 degrees. Water intake also will be closely monitored during periods of exertion.
More drastic changes are not expected for some time - if at all.
"We don't know that anything specific is going to change," said Doug Nelson, spokesman for the Intermountain Wilderness Program Association, formed by the nine programs. "We don't feel there has been any violation of standards. This has not turned the industry on its end.
"These programs are a viable means of helping people. There are inherent risks with outdoor activities, no more than many of the other activities we pursue in our recreational lives. The programs are run by professionals with a lot of experience."
The meeting was called by Human Services officials to discuss licensing standards, which are being updated. In the past, Human Services has licensed programs that work with adjudicated youths. Programs like Challenger, which don't take youths from the legal system, were not required to be licensed until last Sunday, when a new law went into effect. It requires all youth therapeutic wilderness programs to be licensed.
"Two young women died. That's not acceptable to the department or the programs. We want to do everything we can to put standards in place to minimize risks as much as possible," Ken Stettler, department specialist for the licensing of youth programs, said during the press conference that followed the meeting. "We feel comfortable that a lot of issues have been dealt with."
Earlier in the day, Stettler emphasized that the deaths "could have happened to any one of you in any one of your programs."
Most or all of the programs are already meeting some of the standards discussed, according to Wayne Holland of Youth Corrections. "Like `adequate and complete radio communications.' There's no program here that doesn't have them. They were used (at the time of Chase's death)."
Stephen Cartisano, director of the Challenger program, expressed the group's frustration with the term "survivalist" to describe wilderness programs. "These are not survival programs. They are education programs. And they've been very effective. We've run 750 through Challenger without a problem. You don't hear about our successes. Just when something happens."
Possible standard changes discussed in the daylong meeting included the need for a physical examination by a physician familiar with weather, terrain and program activities, screening and "detoxing" of enrollees and honest communication with parents about risks.
"Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the parents to decide what's the most appropriate placement," Stettler said.
Drastic changes not immediate
Operator of programs for troubled youths:
-Will not allow hiking by participants between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. when temperatures are at least 90 degrees.
-Will closely monitor water intake during periods of exertion.
More drastic changes are not expected for some time - if at all. "We don't know that anything specific is going to change," Doug Nelson, spokesman for the Intermountain Wilderness Program Association, said. "We don't feel there has been any violation of standards. This has not turned the industry on its end."