A Utah-based organization affiliated with schools for troubled youths is stirring controversy in at least three states and is the target of congressional legislation unveiled Wednesday.
At issue are the persistent allegations of child abuse and claims of questionable business practices surrounding the World Wide Association of Speciality Schools (WWASPS) founded by Robert Lichfield of La Verkin, Washington County.
Lichfield is one of three directors on the board of WWASPS, which officially claims affiliation with seven schools, including facilities in New York, South Carolina, Montana, Utah and Jamaica.
The organization uses behavior modification tactics to curb rebellious behavior in kids and often establishes schools in rural, out-of-the-way areas to deter notions of running away. Monthly tuition is several thousand dollars, on top of admission fees.
The allegations of abuse and questions about the facilities' credentials — all of which WWASPS' president Ken Kay denies or says are overblown — have sparked investigations in numerous states, prompted closures of some facilities and led Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., Wednesday to call for federal legislation invoking more oversight.
It was Miller, the senior Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, who demanded in 2003 that then-Attorney General John Ashcroft investigate WWASPS.
The request, made again last year, never gained much traction, so Miller is now pushing for passage of the "End Institutional Abuse Against Children Act," which among other things, would establish federal civil and criminal penalties for abuse against children in residential treatment programs and expand federal regulatory authority to overseas programs operated by U.S. companies.
Miller's legislation is just but one of many recent actions involving WWASPS around the country.
In New York, the organization's Academy at Ivy Ridge had its accreditation suspended last week in the wake of a New York Attorney General's Office investigation that is probing the school's licensing and educational credentials.
A subpoena was issued in February gathering numerous documents for an ongoing probe — an investigation Kay characterizes as a "lack of communication" between Ivy Ridge and state officials.
Whatever the case, Ivy Ridge's accreditation was suspended by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools in Boise and the school put a disclaimer on its Web site, listing its lack of accreditation and detailing its negotiations with state educational officials to offer sanctioned diplomas.
The disclaimer comes despite the school's existence since 2002, when it opened just outside of Ogdenburg near the Canadian border and since then has promoted two forms of diplomas as an academic offering.
Kay said the problem is unfortunate because the students' education is being sacrificed simply due to "some bureaucratic jousting going on."
The Northwest Association, the regional accrediting agency for Utah and several other Western states, suspended Ivy Ridge's accreditation until the issue is clarified, Kay said.
"They ran gun-shy because they got a threat from the attorney general in New York."
For its part, the AG's office is remaining mum about the extent of the probe, but officials believe several procedural violations may come into play, including the school's failure to properly operate with a certificate of approval issued by the state Department of Education.
The paperwork problems come on top of complaints by parents who have claimed their children are abused.
Kay said claims frequently surface because of the nature of the schools' population. "They make up stories, they fabricate; you are dealing with a difficult part of society."
New York officials did find enough evidence to substantiate criminal charges against two men contracted to transport a teenager to Ivy Ridge last year.
WWASPS says parents routinely use such escort services — in this case Teen Escort from La Verkin — to transport an unwilling child to a facility.
New York officials, at the time, believed WWASPS and Teen Escort to be one and the same. WWASPS denies any connection.
The men were accused of beating the boy while handcuffed in the car after the teenager — who was then free of restraints — grabbed the steering wheel and caused the vehicle to crash.
Initially charged with misdemeanor assault and felony imprisonment, the two men reached a plea agreement in which they admitted guilt to misdemeanor harassment and were fined.
The New York problems with accreditation are continuing to unfold, even while Missouri officials firmly slammed the door on a proposal to establish a boarding school in the town of Boonville.
Kay said the bid to open a school for troubled youth at the site of the former Kemper Military School was completely unrelated to any WWASPS venture, even though it was founder Lichfield who cut the check for the earnest money deposit and a former WWASPS employee who was going to lease the property from Lichfield and run the facility.
"That is what is just the amazing thing because WWASPS had nothing to do with Boonville, nothing to do with Kemper and nothing to do with Mr. Hinton," Kay said, noting that Lichfield became involved by virtue of his real estate investment company, Golden Pond, and there was never any intention of WWASPS' involvement.
Skeptics, including police supervisors who issued a strongly worded memo advising against the sale, believed otherwise.
"Our personal opinion would be to deny any sale to any person associated with WWASP or its affiliates" until an intensive background check could be completed, the memo reads.
One newspaper editorialized against the venture, asking Boonville to think twice before getting stung by "WWASP" and advising that the city should tell Lichfield to take his checkbook and go home.
Enough controversy, including records supplied to officials that allegedly documented restraints used against children such as handcuffs, pepper spray and duct tape, led the Boonville City Council on Monday to unanimously reject Lichfield's offer.
Closer to home, in Washington County, Lichfield has filed a lawsuit against Shelby Earnshaw, her husband and her International Survivors Action Committee (ISAC).
The organization, which acts as a teen help industry watchdog, compiles complaints and documents related to residential treatment centers. WWASPS has frequently been in its bull's-eye.
The suit alleges the Earnshaws and ISAC have defamed Lichfield, invaded his privacy and caused intentional interference with "prospective economic advantage."
Earnshaw, reached at her offices in Virginia, said the suit will not deter ISAC's mission but admits it does have her perplexed.
"I've never even gotten a parking ticket," she said, adding his claim she spread untruths about Lichfield to Utah and Missouri officials is not true.
ISAC does assert at least one other troubled facility is actually a WWASPS affiliate in the conglomerate that bears Lichfield's stamp.
It is an allegation that Kay challenges anyone to prove.
"We are absolutely not affiliated."
But ISAC contends Bethel Boys Academy in Mississippi, most recently going by the name of Eagle Point Christian Academy, has strings to WWASPS. A riot occurred there this month that left seven teenagers injured.
Most recently in Utah, a children's advocacy group called for an investigation last month into WWASPS' Randolph facility — Majestic Ranch — alleging abuse and unsanitary conditions.
State child welfare officials, who were chastised in the group's report, subsequently said they found nothing that rose to the level of abuse or neglect. On Wednesday, however, a mother filed a federal lawsuit against WWASPS alleging that her son had been battered at the ranch.