San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Parents revile Teen Mentor, others claim program's value

Teen Mentor, a behavioral modification center that officials from the Child Welfare Office (PANI) closed March 18, is under fire by a group of parents whose children attended the program. Some former staff members, however, defend the now-defunct center.

Many parents of U.S. teens who attended the center, which was located in the Hotel Carara in the Pacific coastal town of Tárcoles, in Puntarenas, say they now feel they were tricked during the program’s admissions process, and that some information they were told by program administrators appears to be either erroneous or false.

A network known as the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) operated Teen Mentor. In the last 15 years, at least 16 programs operated by WWASPS have been closed due to allegations of abuse or lack of operating licenses.

Shelley Sylvester, who had to make an emergency flight to Costa Rica last week to retrieve her 16-year-old son after the program was closed, says she was told that her son, who had been struggling academically and behaviorally, would be in good hands with the staff of Teen Mentor.

“I was duped,” she said. “I was at the end of my rope with my son and someone was telling me that they could help me out. They said he would receive therapy, go to class six to seven hours a day, participate in yoga, go to the beach and work out his issues. I believed it. I’m ashamed to know that there are people out there that would take advantage of struggling parents. I’m ashamed at myself for believing them.”

According to Jorge Urbina, PANI’s technical director, a psychologist who visited and worked with the teenagers in the program sent a report to PANI that warned of abusive practices against residents of the facility. Urbina and other PANI officials then visited the program on March 18 to investigate. When they arrived, they found no administrative staff to supervise the 20 U.S. teenagers participating in the program.

Also, some residents told welfare officers that they had witnessed or experienced abuse during the program.

“We intervened and interviewed all the kids from the program. Their reports were similar to the reports made by the psychologists about mistreatment and rights violations,” Urbina told The Tico Times. “It was apparent that the regimen of discipline included physical, psychological and verbal mistreatment” (TT, March 25).

Urbina also said the program was not licensed to operate by the Health Ministry or PANI, which was another reason for closing it.

PANI officials removed the teenagers from the hotel and contacted their parents via the U.S. Embassy. Several parents said they received urgent phone calls from embassy or State Department staff requesting they make emergency travel arrangements to Costa Rica to pick up their kids.

Brande Ridd, an independent contractor with the WWASPS organization and who worked at Teen Mentor for two months, said the allegations against the program “are not correct,” and that she felt the majority of the parents and residents had positive experiences with the program.

“I know the facts and I know that it was a really, really good program,” Ridd said. “These kids are difficult kids. They have pushed their parents to a limit and they need help, they need an intervention. They beg to go into these programs… I know that the people who ran this school are very kind and very loving. But I also know that some of these kids are trying to manipulate their parents by telling them false accounts of what happened.”

According to Ridd, residents were making progress in the program before PANI intervened. She said that many of the residents and parents were disappointed with the closure of the program and have already expressed plans to enter their children into WWASPS facilities at other locations.

She also said the psychologist filed the complaint while the primary administrator of Teen Mentor, Robert Walter Lichfield, was out of the country visiting his family in the U.S.

“PANI took over and made everything into disarray. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t give anybody an opportunity to get to the bottom of anything,” Ridd said. “It caused a lot of turmoil with all of these families. Some of them had to pay a minimum of a few thousand dollars to fly to Costa Rica and get them. Several of the kids and parents were angry. Kids were saying, ‘There was no abuse. We were doing good.’ Several parents were angry with how PANI handled their kids.”

The case is currently being investigated by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ).

A Long History

The Teen Mentor program is the second WWASPS program closed in Costa Rica in the last eight years.

In 2002, Narvin Lichfield, Robert’s uncle, was director of the Dundee Ranch Academy in the town of Hidalgo, Orotina, west of San José. A Tico Times investigation that year found that many of the students who attended the academy accused Dundee staff of physical and psychological abuse (TT, Oct. 25, 2002).

In an interview with The Tico Times in 2002, Narvin explained his “high impact” behavioral modification methods, which included tactics such as making students walk 100 miles around a track under the hot Pacific sun to earn their “freedom,” or forcing them to spend up to five days in “solitary confinement” as punishment for looking out of the window during a lesson.

In 2003, Dundee Ranch was closed when PANI officials raided the facility after a U.S. woman living in Costa Rica, Susan Flowers, reported to PANI that her daughter was being held against her will at the academy. The raid resulted in a student riot and 35 teens escaped from the site (TT, May 23, 2003).

WWASPS was founded by Narvin Lichfield’s brother, Robert Browning Lichfield, who is the father of Teen Mentor operator Robert Walter Lichfield.

Since opening the first program in the 1990s, at least 16 worldwide residential programs operated by WWASPS have been closed. According to documentation in a pending civil lawsuit against WWASPS in the state of Utah, “no WWASPS facility has ever been licensed by any state regulatory authority as a ‘treatment center’.”

The lawsuit was filed by Dallas-based Turley Law Firm and Salt Lake City, Utah’s Parker & McConkie, both in the U.S. Court filings shows that 353 plaintiffs joined the suit against WWASPS. The civil lawsuit accuses WWASPS organization of negligence, fraud, breach of contract, battery, assault, false imprisonment and a host of other charges.

Of the thousands of parents who sent their children to WWASPS-run programs, many say they found the centers online, thanks to high visibility advertising. A Google search this week of the words “Teen Mentor Costa Rica” turns up 40 results. The first six link to WWASPS-operated programs. Each website has a different domain name and provides a different contact phone number, although the sites have nearly identical home pages and graphic images, as well as matching promises of therapy at a low-cost.

Veronica Barger, whose 17-year old son was at Teen Mentor for three weeks prior to its closure, told The Tico Times that she looked up residential programs and teen behavioral centers online and found WWASPS programs “nearly everywhere I looked.” After communicating with representatives of the program for several weeks, Barger said she was convinced the program was right for her son.

“They told me they would do everything in their power to help him,” Barger said. “They said Costa Rica was beautiful, that the kids would be raising local sea turtles, that [my son] would be involved in extracurricular activities and that the program was a good fit for him. It all sounded so good. I put my confidence in them, even started a friendship with the woman that helped me. I trusted them.”

Parents say visibility and a strong Internet presence have led them to WWASPS programs for years. 

“I sent my daughter to a WWASPS program in 1999 at a time when the Internet was still very young,” said Sue Scheff, who says that her daughter was abused at a WWASPS program in 2000. “Around that time, it seemed like everything you typed [online] about residential programs or teen help, [WWASPS] would come up in every search. It was a great marketing technique. It’s scary to think that it is still working.”

Yet despite the allegations of mistreatment in WWASPS programs, Ridd claims organization isn’t deserving of its bad publicity. 

“There are parents out there that didn’t get it their way when their child was in program and they have made it their mission to destroy WWASPS,” she said. “There are thousands of kids and parents that are so thankful for what the program did for them. It forever benefitted their lives.”

Repeated attempts to contact Robert Walter Lichfield via telephone and email were unsuccessful by press time. The Tico Times called several toll-free numbers advertised on WWASPS websites, as well as Lichfield’s Costa Rican cellphone and residential numbers, and the Hotel Carara, where the Teen Mentor program was held.

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