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Escaping Justice

Nora Ashleigh Barrie | April 12, 2023

In the aftermath of each of the more than 300 deaths of kids in Troubled Teen Industry programs, there are less than a handful of cases where perpetrators were required to serve jail time.

In all but four cases where criminal charges were pursued, all charges were dropped almost immediately after they were filed. This includes numerous cases where program staff were initially and justifiably charged with first degree murder. In cases that have gone to trial, almost every single defendant has been acquitted of all charges in addition to being allowed to continue to obtain employment at other residential programs for kids.

The handful of defendants who had their sentences upheld and enforced were in no way connected to or employed by a Troubled Teen Industry program. These convicts fall into one of two categories:

  • Adults outside of the Troubled Teen Industry

    • Dawn Marie Birnbaum, 17, ran from the Elan School in Bangor, Maine in 1993 to escape the physical and sexual abuse being inflicted on her by program staff. She was given a ride by a truck driver who subsequently assaulted and murdered her in Centre County, PA. Her body was discovered in a snow bank three days after her death next to a set of tire tracks later matched to the killer's vehicle. She was given the name "Spring Dawn" by investigators after she was found without identification present on her body. She maintained this moniker for months until a phone number written on her hand was finally traced to a former guidance counselor who was able to give investigators her real name and she was officially identified. This was not the first time that James Robert Cruz, Jr. was suspected of ending a life for his personal satisfaction. The 1991 disappearance of Brenda Condon, 28, has been attributed to Cruz. She went missing two years before Dawn's death, from an area just one mile from the location where Dawn's body was found. She still remains missing 22 years later. Cruz was later sentenced to life in prison for Dawn's murder and he is still serving his sentence as of April 24, 2023 in Pennsylvania.

  • Other students residing in the same program as the victim

    • On March 25, 1996, a group of boys ranging from 15 to 18 years old put a months-long plan into motion to take over the 160-acre Mountain Park Baptist Academy, located in Patterson, Missouri, with the intention of gaining notoriety through news coverage. Will Futrelle, 16, was deemed a threat to their plan. The perpetrators proceeded to drag Will into the woods surrounding the main part of campus and beat him with a club and a brick before slashing his throat three times and leaving his body to be discovered in the aftermath of the attempted uprising. Two minors involved in the murder were arrested and charged as juveniles. Anthony Gene Rutherford, 18, was arrested, imprisoned without bail, and subsequently sentenced to life in prison for the first degree murder of Futrelle. Rutherford died on July 7, 2015 at the age of 37 while still serving his life sentence at the Missouri State Prison in Cameron, Missouri. No foul play was suspected in his death, although an official cause of death has yet to be made public.

Cases in which jail time was served by program staff members are rare. Notably, Colonel Charles Long served nine years for the hyperthermia and drowning death of Anthony Haynes, 14, that occurred July 1, 2001 at an Arizona boot camp. Initially charged with first degree murder, Long was only convicted of involuntary manslaughter, despite evidence that he intentionally withheld water from Haynes and other students as punishment while forcing them to participate in hours of strenuous exercise. On the day of Haynes' death, temperatures peaked at 115 degrees in the area of Arizona where this boot camp was located. Long's prison sentence is the longest ever imposed on any individual associated with the Troubled Teen Industry. Following Long, the next longest sentence given in relation to the program death of a student was four years. In that case, the defendant ended up serving one year of probation with no jail time.

In most cases of deaths that occur in programs, the only way that families can hope for programs to face consequences is through a civil lawsuit. Like with criminal cases, it is rare for a jury or judge to rule against a program and in favor of families. In the handful of cases when a family won a wrongful death lawsuit against a program, the courts determined that the value of

a child's life was under $700k. These families pay exorbitant amounts to programs that promise positive results, period. The average cost of one year of treatment in a Troubled Teen Industry program ranges from $250k to $480k. The average length of stay for a child in the Troubled Teen Industry is two to four years. The total cost of keeping a child in the Troubled

Teen Industry for the amount of time most programs require starts at $500k for two years of residential treatment. Depending on the program and length of stay, this can skyrocket to a total of $1,920,000 for just four years of treatment in the Troubled Teen Industry. For reference, this amount could provide a person with:

  1. Eight years of education at the most expensive university in the country -AND-
  2. A reasonably sized home in the most expensive part of the country -AND-
  3. Any vehicle on the market

For the same amount as treatment in an adolescent program, a person could purchase all of the items listed above and still have money left over.

The most disturbing aspect of this is not even that they are assigning a monetary value to the life of a child. The most disturbing part is that the value that is ultimately awarded in compensation, totals less than the amount of money families paid to Troubled Teen Industry programs for the care and treatment of the deceased victim. In the few cases where families have been deemed deserving of financial compensation for the deaths of their children, they did not even get fully reimbursed for the money they spent on the programs. The settlements they were rewarded are despicable and unacceptably small. Because the amount awarded was less than the amount families had already provided to the programs, these families ended up essentially paying programs for ending their children's lives.

Troubled Teen Industry programs are some of the most profitable sources of income in the country. Individuals who occupy the highest positions of power in the industry: owners, directors, and founders, can expect to collect approximately $1MM every year for each individual child placed into their care. Individual program occupancy can range anywhere from about twenty students to over two hundred students at any given time.

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This kind of astronomical wealth allows individuals with this level of unquestionable influence over Troubled Teen Industry programs the fortification to challenge and win both criminal and civil cases that follow fatal incidents. In countless cases, programs have continued to fight parents and families for years over the monetary value of their childrens' lives, purely because the programs have the expendable finances to do so.

On October 15, 1988, eighteen-year-old Brandon Hadden was a resident of South Austin's Healthcare Rehabilitation Center, a behavioral health treatment center owned by parent company, The Brown Schools. Brandon was placed into a straitjacket and forceably restrained face-down on a bed by two staff members. He began to vomit. Both staff members continued to hold him in place until he choked on his own vomit and soon stopped breathing. Brandon's mother, Judy Chandler, filed a lawsuit against The Brown Schools and a civil court case ensued. Defended by merciless attorney Charles Moody Sr., The Brown Schools aggressively fought Chandler until, in 1997, emotionally exhausted and financially ruined, she made the difficult decision to settle the case out ot court. She was awarded an undisclosed amount. Brandon's case never even made it in front of a jury.

In an unsettling twist of fate, just one day shy of the fourteenth anniversary of Brandon's fatal restraint, in the middle of the night, Charles Moody, Sr. received the the most devastating call a parent can get. His own child and only son, Charles "Chase" Moody Jr., was dead. Just six days earlier, Chase had been sent to On Track, a wilderness program operated by The Brown Schools out of Mason County, TX. After less than a week in the middle of a desolate 6000-acre wildlife preserve, hundreds of miles from his family, Chase took his last breath face-down in the dirt surrounded by nothing but miles of pristine, uninhabited Texas back country. He was just seventeen years old.

Chase's cause of death was ruled to be traumatic asphyxiation by the Travis County Medical Examiner. In the late-night hours of October 14, 2002, Chase had been reprimanded once already for talking after bedtime. After program staff heard him speaking a second time, he was violently dragged from his tent, thrown face-down on the ground, and forcefully restrained by three untrained staff members. This type of restraint had been banned in Texas years before, yet it was illegally used the night of Chase's death.

When Mason County Sheriff's Deputy Harold Low pulled up to the remote campsite, his headlights illuminated a disturbing scene in front of him. All three staff members were still on top of Chase, restrained in a prone position with his face in the dirt. Low approached the patch of disturbed ground where Chase now lay motionless. Following protocol, Low placed a handcuff on one of Chase's wrists and repositioned him onto his back. It was undeniably apparent that Chase was not breathing. When

Low positioned the teenager to begin CPR, he was horrified by the amount of thick, dense mud that had penetrated deep into his mouth and nose. Despite his desperate attempts to clear Chase's airways, his efforts were futile. Chase had likely passed away before Low even arrived at the campsite.

The Medical Examiner determined the factors that led to the fatal traumatic asphyxiation. The three staff members restraining Chase applied such a substantial amount of pressure to his body that it forced him to vomit involuntarily. Due to his positioning, Chase began to asphyxiate on his vomit. Because his movement was restricted, he was unable to reposition himself in a way that he would be able to clear his airways. As Chase suffocated and his movement slowed, staff members never thought to consider the reason he had stopped moving. They continued the restraint until law enforcement arrived and it was discovered that he had stopped breathing. None of the three staff members were properly trained to recognize distress during a restraint. None of the three staff members were properly trained to use restraint techniques. None of the three staff members were properly trained to perform lifesaving measures. None of the three staff members acknowleged that the use of this type of restraint was unlawful.