WWASPS, Straight and the Costa Rican Embassy or
Is the fox in the hen house?
by Wesley M. Fager (c) May 27, 2003

There's an article in the New York Times today telling of the arrest of an American citizen in Costa Rica for running a juvenile treatment program that authorities feel is excessive. According to the article students report that "Children were divided into six levels, the lower ones forbidden to speak freely or raise their eyes, the higher ones free to discipline and punish inferiors. A muscular cadre of minimum-wage staff members enforced the system. Communication between parents and children was barred or closely edited. Parents were told that complaints from children were manipulative lies." This sounds like Straight, Inc. doesn't it?

Well it's not. It is the Academy at Dundee Ranch in San Jose, Costa Rica, operated by Narvin Lichfield, an American. Dundee Ranch is part of the World-wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools (WWASPS) based in St. George, Utah. WWASPS programs in the United States and overseas charge between $30,000 to $50,000 in tuition and fees, generating yearly revenues of $60 million or more. But there have been problems. On May 13 the NYT ran an article about alleged abuses at Casa by the Sea in Mexico, another WWASPS-affiliate program. According to that article over the last seven years local governments and the US state department officials have investigated WWASPS-affiliated programs in Mexico, the Czech Republic and Samoa on charges of physical abuse and immigration violations. A program in Mexico and the one in the Czech Republic subsequently closed down. The Times reported that according to the Utah attorney general's office, six weeks ago, a director of Majestic Ranch, another WWASPS-affiliate, entered into a court agreement to have no unsupervised contact with children after he was charged with misdemeanor child abuse. South Carolina officials have fined Carolina Springs Academy, another WWASPS-affiliate, $5,000 for operating without a license. The Vienna Convention authorizes state department officials to visit overseas programs to check on the well-being of American citizens under 18. In January, after several such visits, the state department issued a notice on "behavior modification facilities" in Mexico, Costa Rica and Jamaica. The programs may "isolate the children in relatively remote sites and restrict their contact with the outside world", the notice states.

It's strange that the NYT would be reporting today on the controversial Dundee Ranch in San Jose, because also today (and tomorrow) Straight, Inc., under its new name, the Drug Free America Foundation, is co-hosting a conference on drug policy leadership at the Radisson Hotel in San Jose. The conference was announced on May 23 in a press release from the US Embassy in Costa Rica. (Last May DFAF hosted a drug policy summit with the Italians at Ambassador Sembler's Magic Kingdom in Rome.) Two days after the embassy press release, officials from the state child-welfare agency, PANI, accompanied by the police, marched onto the ranch and informed the students that under Costa Rican law children have certain rights like the right to speak privately with their own parents! In fact, the kids were told they had the right to leave Costa Rica, if they chose to do so. After the state officials left, there was a revolt. Lichfield was subsequently arrested, but released after 30 hours in custody. He has been ordered to stay in the country for the time being. He is now considering suing the prosecutor.

WWASPS was founded by Robert Lichfield, Narvin's brother. It is operated by Ken Kay. Last year WWASS donated $215,290 to the Republican Party making it the biggest Republican corporate donor in Utah. I guess Mr. Lichfield does not realize that if he gives another $34,910 he can become one of Mel Sembler's Republican Regents and quite possibly they'll offer him an ambassadorship to Costa Rica, Australia, Spain or even Italy.