Some say unregulated wilderness schools are a threat
to troubled teens' lives
Saturday, February 12, 2000
By Gordon Gregory, Correspondent, The Oregonian
BEND -- Utah officials who cracked down on
wilderness schools in the 1990s following the deaths of
three teen-agers say Oregon is courting trouble by
allowing similar camps free rein.
"Is your situation ripe for
abuse? Yes," said Ken
Stettler, who helped draft
standards and regulations
for the wilderness programs
in Utah. "By having no
regulations, you are
endangering the kids."
In Oregon, like in most
Western states, anyone can
set up a wilderness therapy
business. Such businesses
get permits and pay fees to
operate on public land, but
no agency oversees the
quality of programs or the
care offered children.
Four companies operate
wilderness schools in Oregon. In 1999, the schools
brought about 270 youths to the high desert of Central
Oregon, according to the Bureau of Land Management,
which issues land-use permits for the programs.
By their nature, wilderness therapy schools are hard to
oversee. The teen-agers are led far out into the mountains
or desert for weeks or months at a time. The regimen can
be grueling, both physically and emotionally. Often the
children are refused direct contact with parents or anyone
from the outside.
The escape of two teen-agers from an Obsidian Trails
Outdoors School camp in the desert near Christmas
Valley in December put a spotlight on such programs in
Oregon. The teen-agers robbed a ranch couple at
knifepoint, stealing the family's car.
The incident provoked an outcry among ranchers in the
area and prompted the BLM to suspend Obsidian's
permit. But no one checked on the conditions at the
camp, nor on the safety of the teen-agers who were
moved to another remote wilderness location on federal
Gregory Bodenhamer, director of Obsidian Trails, said
the robbery incident was much less serious than what
occurs in public schools. "There is no relationship between
the school and the crime," he said. "Thousands of
teen-agers leave school without permission and commit
crimes on a daily basis."
Links to Utah programs
Obsidian Trails' outdoor program apparently had no
serious problems before the escape. However, until last
week the program employed members of a family linked
to wilderness camps in Utah that had serious problems.
And until last summer, the program employed a man -- a
member of the same family -- who was charged with child
abuse and neglect in connection with the 1994 death of a
student enrolled in the now-defunct North Star
Expeditions school in Utah.
The former Obsidian employee, Eric Henry, 26, signed a
Dec. 11, 1996, diversion agreement with Garfield County,
Utah, authorities in which prosecution was deferred if he
refrained from involvement in similar programs for pay and
obeyed all laws for nine months. Yet, six months later -- in
June 1997 -- he was at SageWalk, an Oregon wilderness
school based in Bend. He was subsequently fired,
according to the current co-owner of the school, then
joined Obsidian Trails in 1998.
He left Obsidian Trails last summer, according to
Henry refused to comment.
Bodenhamer would not say why Henry was hired or why
he left. He objected to The Oregonian's inquiries. He said
it was unfair to tar his program because of something that
happened in Utah years ago.
"It's guilt by association," he said.
Parents pay up to $17,000
Desperate parents anxious to help their troubled
teen-agers have flocked to programs like Obsidian Trails'
over the past decade -- often paying up to $17,000 for
eight to 12 weeks of something like wilderness survival
therapy. The children are often taken to the schools
against their will, either by "escort services" or by parents
who sometimes must deceive their children to make them
One Bend outdoor school owner said he has had children
show up with snowboards, thinking they were headed to a
But wilderness therapy is hardly a vacation retreat.
The schools use harsh methods to teach responsibility.
For centuries philosophers have seen nature as
redemptive; wilderness therapy throws in a tough
survivalist approach to aberrant teens, in an attempt to
force them to understand the connection between actions
and consequences. Months of forced survival living in the
Oregon desert in winter are not unusual as the core of the
schools' techniques for teens.
All four of the Oregon camps say that safety comes first,
and there have been no reported serious injuries and no
Deaths prompt action in Utah
Utah's experience in the early 1990s proved to be the
warning wail about troubles in wilderness therapy
And the Henry family was smack in the middle of the
problems. Eric Henry's father, William Henry, owner of
North Star Expeditions, pleaded guilty to negligent
homicide in the 1994 death and was given three years of
probation. Bodenhamer was a contractor providing family
workshops off site for North Star and another troubled
Eric's mother, Pattie Henry, was not charged in the case.
She worked for Obsidian Trails until Tuesday, when she
resigned after the State Office for Services to Children
and Families sent a letter instructing Bodenhamer that no
member of the Henry family could be involved in his new
residential school. Pattie Henry said Tuesday that her
family was victimized in Utah, and that Obsidian Trails is a
"I don't understand the concern about us," she said. "I've
devoted my life to kids and family. I've tried to be a good
person my whole life, and to have this now keep me from
doing the work I love makes me mad."
In December, Bodenhamer set up a companion residential
school near the mountain town of Sisters to house
troubled teen-agers, but he failed to get the required state
license meant to ensure adequate supervision.
Dale Paulsen, licensing coordinator for the Oregon
Department of Services to Children and Families, said
Bodenhamer is in violation of state law, but that rather
than close the school down, "I chose to try and work with
Director charges unfairness
Bodenhamer said it is unfair to single out his program
because of something that happened in Utah years ago.
But a prosecutor who was involved in the Utah case said
he was troubled to learn that the Henry family had moved
to Oregon and that Pattie and Eric Henry had continued
to work in the field.
"That is just scary to me," said Wallace A. Lee, county
attorney for Garfield County, Utah.
He said he would have concerns with any program that
hired any of the Henrys.
"I would worry about their involvement in a wilderness
program because the attitude they had . . . would
somehow bleed into any other program they're working
with. And I fear that if they're there, that Bill Henry is
having some influence into what's going on," he said.
Bodenhamer dismissed such worries as "silly."
Bodenhamer said that William Henry, the co-founder of
the Utah school and one of the people prosecutors say
was most responsible for what happened there, has never
worked for Obsidian.
"Bill did not work for us, does not work for us, will never
work for us," he said.
Stettler, who regulates the camps in Utah, said that most
wilderness therapy schools operating nationwide are
probably safe, but reports of abuse and neglect are not
unusual. Unregulated programs can be magnets for
pedophiles and crooks, Stettler said.
"If I were a child molester and wanted to get in a situation
where I have access to kids, this is perfect," he said.
With tuition of up to $350 or more a day per student, the
industry can be attractive to charlatans. "You've got
people who say, 'Hey, $15,000 per kid, if I just took four
kids out for six weeks, that's $60,000. That's all I need to
live off of for a year. I don't have to have any training. I
don't have to have any background checks,' " Stettler
Obsidian earned $618,000 in gross revenues in 1999,
according to BLM records.
The deaths at schools like North Star led Utah in the early
1990s to become the first Western state to adopt licensing
standards and regulations for wilderness schools. Arizona
soon followed suit, and California has some form of
regulation. Idaho and Montana are looking into regulation.
Other Western states, including New Mexico,
Washington and Oregon, have no regulations, said Keith
Russell, an assistant professor at the University of Idaho
who studies outdoor therapy schools.
All agree regulations needed
Oregon state Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Bend, is drafting
legislation that would require wilderness therapy schools
to be licensed and meet state standards.
Bodenhamer said he welcomes state oversight of outdoor
"I think in the long run everyone will profit from that,"
Brett Merle, co-owner of SageWalk, the Outdoor
School, the Bend school that originally hired Eric and
Pattie Henry, also endorses state involvement. Merle was
not an owner at the time either Henry was hired, he said.
"We don't have to answer to anybody, and that scares the
hell out of me," Merle said. "Oregon needs some
(regulation) before children die."
William and Pattie Henry have a history of involvement
with troubled programs, said Lee, the Utah prosecutor. In
1990, the two were employed at the Challenger
Foundation, where a 16-year-old girl died of
hyperthermia and dehydration.
After Challenger folded following the unsuccessful
prosecution of its owner, Steve Cartisano, William and
Pattie Henry co-founded North Star Expeditions, also of
Like Challenger, North Star adopted William Henry's
tough approach to dealing with its students, Lee said.
"I think that Bill Henry . . . built an atmosphere where the
kids were worthless and not to be trusted," he said.
And that, said Lee, was conducive to abuse.
Teen loses 23 pounds in a month
Lee said the 1996 prosecution of the Henrys and others
involved in North Star was one of the most emotionally
trying cases he'd ever been involved with.
In all, eight people were charged with felony child neglect
and abuse in the death of Aaron Bacon, a 131-pound
16-year-old. Bacon died March 31, 1994, after almost a
month of camping in the northern Arizona high desert. The
youth, whose parents had sent him to the school because
he had begun smoking marijuana and his grades had
plummeted, lost about 23 pounds while at the camp.
Prosecutors say he was deprived of food, forced to
march when he was too weak to even lift his pack, made
to sleep without a sleeping bag in below-freezing
temperatures, and harassed and ridiculed by North Star
His death brought a flurry of publicity to the wilderness
therapy movement in the mid-1990s, then the attention
faded away. Yet the programs continue to thrive.
Lee said William Henry not only set the tone for the
treatment of Bacon, he was personally informed of and
approved of the care Bacon was receiving. And that care,
Lee said, was horrific. Bacon became so weak from an
undiagnosed medical condition that he couldn't keep up
with the group.
On the morning of Bacon's death, the field staff finally
decided that the boy, who was too weak to stand, should
be taken out of the field.
Eric Henry drove a truck to the camp to retrieve Bacon.
"When Eric did arrive, they put Aaron in the seat in back
of the (club) cab, and then Eric just came around and shot
the breeze with the other counselors there for about (15 to
20 minutes). I mean they left him in the truck, goofed
around," Lee said. "And kind of poked fun of (Bacon)
and accused him of faking again and told him how pathetic
he looked. And when they got back to the truck, they
noticed he was slumped over. That's when they noticed he
Eric Henry began CPR, but Bacon was either already
dead or died shortly after.
An autopsy found that Bacon died of peritonitis from a
Pattie Henry said authorities grossly distorted the situation.
She said no one suspected the boy was ill and he was not
mistreated. She said her entire family has been devastated
by the death.
"Our lives were destroyed; it was like losing a child of
your own," she said. "That's how you feel about the kids."
Cathy Sutton's 15-year-old daughter died of dehydration
in 1990 just three days after she was enrolled in a Utah
program called Summit Quest. Today, from her Ripon,
Calif., home, Sutton runs a nonprofit foundation that tries
to act as a watchdog for the industry.
Her daughter, Michelle Sutton, was simply hiked to death,
she said. While an extreme case, it underlines the risks to
students in these programs, she says.
Sutton said parents are almost powerless to assess such
programs, particularly in states that provide no oversight.
In unregulated states, she said, parents must rely on the
information provided by the programs themselves.
She is now calling for national regulation of the industry.
The reason: Some individuals who have problems in one
state simply move to another state or country. She said
that she was upset, but not surprised, when she learned
that Eric and Pattie Henry were working in Oregon.
"Money is governing the industry," she said.
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