Hiram Van Blarigan suspected trouble was brewing for his grandson as early as last summer. That’s when David Van Blarigan, then 16, called his 13-year-old brother Timmy a “butt.” “My son and daughter-in-law grabbed hold of him, pulled him into the bathroom and washed his mouth out with soap,” recalls Hiram, 78. “They didn’t realize the boy was just growing up.”
What Hiram didn’t realize was just how far they would go. At 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, David was awakened from a deep sleep by his father, Jim, an Oakland, Calif., architect, and two burly strangers. The two men led the boy—still wearing the sweats he’d slept in—to a waiting car, threatening to use handcuffs if he caused trouble. “Why don’t you get a real job,” spat the teenager, “instead of kidnapping children?”
As it turned out, the men were not only doing their jobs, they were hired by David’s parents. Though he had no history of drug use, violence or truancy, David had grown disrespectful to his fundamentalist Christian parents. “Because of the rebellion and the rejection of parental authority,” Jim, 47, later said, “it was almost like he wasn’t our kid anymore.”
Fed up, he and his wife, Sue, 49, a homemaker, took a step that more and more desperate parents resort to each year: They signed their son over to a private behavior-modification school, Tranquility Bay, an American-owned camp on the island of Jamaica, at a cost of $38,000 a year. There he remains today, despite a lengthy battle by Hiram and his wife, Phyllis, 80, to bring him home.
In the past decade, several hundred such institutions—from grueling wilderness camps to so-called “attitude adjustment” schools—have sprung up, mostly in remote parts of the U.S. and at offshore sites as distant as Western Samoa and the Czech Republic. State regulations regarding such schools vary within the U.S., and offshore programs like Tranquility Bay are subject to the laws of their host countries. Though some require parents and children to take an oath of secrecy, their mission is clear: to reeducate wayward kids boot-camp style.
At Tranquility Bay that means rising at 6:30, lights out at 9:30, and hours of tough-talking seminars and correspondence classes. To graduate, students must complete six levels of behavior modification that focus on such qualities as obedience, respect and responsibility. Letters are monitored, and teens aren’t permitted to call their parents until reaching level three, which takes at least six weeks.
Living quarters are so crowded, says one recently released girl, that some female students must sleep in hallways. For breaking the rules, punishments include what the school calls “observation placement,” which some returning students describe as lying on a tile floor all day for up to a month, with only meal and bathroom breaks.
Even so, these schools are increasingly popular. At Tranquility Bay, which is one of six behavior-modification programs marketed by Teen Help, an umbrella group based in St. George, Utah, enrollment has grown to 288 in its 20 months of operation. (Denying claims of overcrowding, Teen Help says the school has space for 444.) “When a kid is on drugs, not coming home at night, and parents are really terrified,” explains psychologist Margaret Singer of Berkeley, Calif., who researches behavior-modification techniques, “you can see how these schools appeal to the truly desperate family.”
Some alumni do credit them with getting their lives on track. Three years ago Californian Linda Lindholm, 18, was living on the streets. After 21 months in Teen Help programs, she says, “I got my self-pride back. I’ve got a life.”
Still, no follow-up studies have been done to measure the schools’ rate of success or long-term effects. And the experience of David Van Blarigan—and others—raises serious questions. In April the California Department of Health Services cited an East Bay hospital for referring a patient to Tranquility Bay without ensuring the facility provided “quality care.” In a separate case, an independent therapist who inspected the site reported that there were no qualified teachers or therapists there. And Karen Lile, the mother of a troubled 16-year-old daughter who was sent to Tranquility Bay, accuses the school of everything from providing poor education and medical care to indulging in psychological abuse. Says Lile, 39: “They are really messing with these kids’ minds.”
Like at least two other mothers, Lile decided to pull her daughter, now 17, out of the program after attending part of a required three-day Teen Help seminar for parents, which, she says, used tactics of intimidation: “In the first hour, this facilitator comes up to me and stands in my space and says, ‘I could kill you, take away your womanhood, rob you.’ ” Her daughter maintains that the program turned her life around. Even so, when Lile and her husband, Kendall Ross Bean, 44, with whom she runs a piano advice hotline, arrived at Tranquility Bay to collect their daughter, several girls asked them for hugs. She recalls one saying, “It has been so long since I have had a mother’s hug.”
For his part, Jay Kay, the 28-year-old owner-operator of Tranquility Bay, defends his school’s tough-love approach. Kay says the program’s correspondence curriculum is not only accredited but supervised by qualified teachers, and that two medical doctors and a therapist are on call. Both Jamaican Children’s Services authorities and a U.S. embassy official toured the facility earlier this year and gave it the all clear. “You get individuals who just are not aware of the problems that are going on in a home,” says Kay, a college dropout who previously managed a juvenile mental hospital. “They look at a program like ours and say, ‘How can you possibly do that to kids?’ ”
Yet Hiram Van Blarigan believes his grandson doesn’t belong at Tranquility Bay. At Oakland’s Skyline High, David excelled in computer studies even as he struggled with writing and reading skills. “He was always on time and tried hard,” says Lerneda Lacy, 40, a substitute teacher who instructed him for three weeks. “He did not strike me as a problem child.” After school David did odd jobs for a neighbor and spent hours building an elaborate tree house in his family’s backyard. On the day before he was taken away, recalls Hiram, “he seemed so happy. He had plans.”
But so did his parents. David’s first stop that night was Brightway Adolescent Hospital in St. George, Utah. After a one-hour analysis, a psychiatrist recommended that David spend a year at Tranquility Bay. In fact, Jim and Sue Van Blarigan had already signed the enrollment forms. (In February, Brightway voluntarily closed after having its license restricted twice in one year for such violations as failing to report a suspected case of child abuse. The hospital’s last administrator, Jay Kay’s father, Ken, says the closure was forced by health insurers’ reluctance to underwrite its services.)
When he landed in Jamaica on Nov. 23, David managed to phone his neighbor and close friend Neil Aschemeyer, an administrative law judge. “He said Brightway had been like a prison, and he wanted to come home,” Aschemeyer, 69, recalls. “Then, in mid-sentence, the conversation terminated.” That was the last he heard from David. But it was enough to inspire Aschemeyer and David’s grandparents to fight for his return. Last December, Deputy D.A. Robert Hutchins filed a petition on their behalf in the Alameda County Superior Court, arguing that Jim and Sue Van Blarigan had exceeded their parental authority and that David should be returned to California to testify in court about his own kidnapping. His parents’ counterargument was simple. “The law is very clear in California: Parents have the right to control,” says their attorney Dan Koller, adding that “David is doing wonderful.”
Sadly for Hiram and Phyllis Van Blarigan, the judge denied their petition. Now they barely speak with Jim and Sue and can only look forward to David’s expected return in November. Meanwhile, they read his occasional letters again and again. “The water is so blue. The beach looks so sandy. The hills are so green. The whether [sic] is so nice,” he once wrote, “and the chain-link fence so high.”
Gabrielle Saveri in San Francisco, Fannie Weinstein in Miami and Ron Arias in Agoura, Calif.