For nearly half a century, the for-profit firm VisionQuest has provided intervention and treatment programs to at-risk youth in states from Pennsylvania to California. But in recent years, struggling under the weight of debt, the firm has been casting about for a financial lifeline. Last summer, it finally found one in the booming business of migrant child detention. In July, the federal government handed the firm more than $25 million in four grants over three years to hold hundreds of the unaccompanied minors in its custody in California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

These grants follow a 2017 federal grant for $8.9 million to run a long-term foster care program for migrant children in Arizona, which has already opened its doors, and a 2018 federal grant for $8.5 million to run a medium-security facility for migrant children in Philadelphia.

The latest federal grants promise to boost the company’s annual revenues – $28.6 million last year – by 30%, a game-changer for a company that has lost money each of the last two years. There’s just one problem: VisionQuest appears to have won the federal grants without having secured many of the leases and permissions it needs to open the new facilities. 

As VisionQuest has sought to open shelters for unaccompanied minors in Philadelphia, San Antonio and Albuquerque, city and state officials have blocked its efforts. Much of the backlash stems from the company’s recent record in Philadelphia, where city officials ended a contract with VisionQuest in 2017 to run a shelter for youth referred by local courts or social workers. There, staff members had choked, slapped and injured children, and promised to “make life a living hell” for them, according to state inspection records later obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. But the debacle in Philadelphia is just the latest in a long line of scandals for the Arizona-based company over the course of its 46-year history.

Now, VisionQuest has picked another battleground: Los Angeles. 

Notes from a September meeting between city officials and the company obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting indicate that VisionQuest is seeking to lease a vacant two-story building on a main drag in Arleta, a working-class neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley, that “will host children who have entered the country as unaccompanied minors.” 

The planned move to Los Angeles, which VisionQuest has not yet publicly announced, has already stirred dissent. After being asked by Reveal about the proposed plan, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nury Martinez drafted a motion to press city staff to review whether a shelter is the best use for the property. “There is widespread community interest as to its future use given the needs in the surrounding area for economic development and desirable neighborhood enhancing uses,” reads a motion she sent to committee last week.

Credit: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office / Creative Commons

Los Angeles City Council member Nury Martinez during a 2017 awards ceremony. CREDIT: Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office / Creative Commons

The company has plans for a second shelter in the Southern California city of Hemet, where it’s in conversations with city officials about a large property with two residential wings and 102 beds.

To help deliver on its $12 million federal grant to operate in the state, VisionQuest has hired an East Coast consulting firm called Global Resource Advisors. Its president, Chris Myers, a former Lockheed Martin executive and onetime mayor of Medford, New Jersey, once ran for Congress on a platform that included increased border surveillance. Myers said he serves as VisionQuest’s director of federal programs for shelter grants.

“We understand there is a great deal of emotion tied to the proper care of these children, and there is a lot of misinformation online” about programs to shelter unaccompanied minors, CEO Mark Contento said in a statement. 

Floor plans, photos and video of the Arleta property posted to a real estate site where the property was listed for lease, illustrate small bedrooms in what appear to be three wings, each furnished with two single beds. It would house boys between the ages of 11 and 17, according to VisionQuest. The building was previously an assisted living facility permitted for 148 beds. 

Credit: CREDIT: Imagery ⓒ Google, Imagery ⓒ 2019 Maxar Technologies, U.S. Geological Survey, Map data ⓒ 2019

One of the proposed shelters in Los Angeles would be located in a two-story building that once housed an assisted living facility. CREDIT: Imagery ⓒ Google, Imagery ⓒ 2019 Maxar Technologies, U.S. Geological Survey, Map data ⓒ  2019

The Los Angeles City Council adopted a motion last summer saying that, “Private detention centers are not welcome in the City of Los Angeles, and we must ensure that none will ever be built or operated within its borders.” So approval may hinge in part on whether VisionQuest, known mainly as a youth treatment and corrections firm, can successfully argue that its proposal would not violate that mandate.

City records show that VisionQuest’s “project team communicated that this would not be a detention facility.” 

Unlike juvenile detention facilities that are staffed mainly by guards, shelters for unaccompanied minors are mostly run by social workers. Minors in juvenile halls were sentenced to time there by judges, while unaccompanied minors are only being kept in federally contracted shelters until they can be reunited with family members. 

But Martinez, the council member, doesn’t see much of a distinction. “I am vehemently opposed to placing immigrant children in what some call holding facilities or detention centers,” she told Reveal. “I call them prisons.”

In the red

From October 2018 to September 2019, a record 76,000 children crossed the border alone into the United States, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Thousands of them were sent to huge temporary facilities, including a tent city in Tornillo, Texas, and a federal complex in Homestead, Florida. Children as young as age 13 spent months in these mega-shelters, during which they had limited access to physical and mental health care or legal aid. By July 2019, those temporary shelters were shuttered as federal officials sought to open new, smaller shelters across the country.

So far this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded more than $785 million in new grants to 32 service providers to set up shelters for these migrant children. Some of these providers, including VisionQuest, have track records of abusing or neglecting children. Several others have no experience caring for migrant children – or housing children at all.

Some providers have already opened their new shelters, including three facilities for very young children and teen mothers in Arizona, Pennsylvania and California. But several providers that won multimillion-dollar federal grants, including VisionQuest, have been stymied by local opposition, unable to secure the facility leases, state licenses and local zoning changes they need in some states.

Sheltering migrant children would be a major new line of business for a company founded to offer last-ditch interventions for repeat juvenile offenders. VisionQuest distinguished itself early on as an intense and unconventional program that sought to change kids’ behavior by taking them on outdoor adventures outside of their comfort zones. 

The company’s most recent financial audit suggests one reason for the shift: VisionQuest has not been turning a profit. In each of the two years before it won the grants to house migrant children, VisionQuest had business losses of around $700,000, according to financial audits, in which the auditor expressed “substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” As of the end of its 2018 fiscal year, the company’s debts exceeded its assets by more than $8.5 million. The audit cites VisionQuest management plans to get major debts forgiven, shut down unprofitable programs, and move into the child migrant shelter business as key strategies for improving its financial prospects.

Contento, who took over earlier this year as CEO, said in a statement to Reveal that his “primary requirement” in his new role is “to correct the agency’s financial position while continuing to deliver top-tier sanctuary model services to children.” The new federal grants could substantially increase VisionQuest’s revenue – but only if the company can successfully open shelters.

Local opposition has complicated the company’s expansion plans so far. In New Mexico, state officials denied VisionQuest’s application for a residential child care license in August, citing concern that information provided by VisionQuest did not accurately reflect the range of violations that led to its losing its license to run a facility in Western Pennsylvania, where state officials had cited the company for, among other things, “dragg(ing) a child out of bed by the child’s arms,” bending another child’s arms behind the child’s back for refusing to do chores, and failing to properly administer medications. In Texas, the San Antonio zoning board and the Universal City Council rejected applications for new VisionQuest shelters this month, in the wake of community opposition to VisionQuest’s status as a for-profit company and the prospect of detaining migrant children. And in Philadelphia, the city zoning board has held up the company’s plans to open a shelter amid criticism from the public and even its own staff over the company’s track record in the city.

With its financial survival on the line, the company has dug in for long fights in each of these communities. VisionQuest has contested the denial of its zoning application in Philadelphia and won a court decision there on Oct. 31, the same day that VisionQuest laid off its entire Philadelphia staff. The company has said it plans to reapply for the license in New Mexico. In San Antonio, a VisionQuest partner, the Second Baptist Church, has threatened to sue if the city council stands in the way of allowing it to lease out its space for the shelter.

Citations for violence

Bob Burton, VisionQuest’s founder, has said that his vision for the company began in his early 20s, while he was serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer with the Crow Nation in Montana. He describes it as a formative experience, one that provided philosophical and cultural inspiration for his life’s work. He went on to work in youth corrections, but felt constricted by the traditional institutions where he’d found work. He founded VisionQuest in 1973 with a focus on physical activity and wilderness survival skills, filtered through his version of Native American iconography.

VisionQuest founder Bob Burton. CREDIT: Christopher Pillitz / Alamy Stock Photo

“VisionQuest has adopted many American Indian traditions over the years to help troubled teens and their families grow together,” reads a mission statement on the company’s website. It has housed children in tepees, held sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies, and trains new staff using circles in which the employees pass a feather to signify who has the right to speak.

Burton grew the company, opening programs from Tucson to Philadelphia, by convincing individual judges that his unconventional methods would help kids who had not responded to other programs.

VisionQuest invited its young residents to test their mettle by camping in the woods, taking long trail rides, even going out to sea. At least 15 teenagers died in the custody of VisionQuest during its first two decades, including seven who drowned in 1980, along with two staff members, when their boat sunk in the Sea of Cortez. The most recent death was in 1995, when an 18-year-old was thrown from a VisionQuest truck.

Its most controversial early practice was “confrontation” therapy, in which staff would circle around a child, yelling at them, and tackle them if they tried to escape. In the 1980s, VisionQuest amended its physical restraint policies, according to a RAND Corporation review of the company. Asked if the company still employs this method, Contento said he was not familiar with the concept of “confrontation circles” as “a ‘circle’ in VisionQuest’s world is a Native American ceremony” that “involves mutual respect (and) honest dialogue.” 

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, scandals plagued the company, which was repeatedly investigated for violent handling of children. In 1979, the daughter of an Army officer stationed in Arizona said she was physically abused at a VisionQuest group home, and was the target of sexually and racially offensive language by staff. The company disputed the complaint, but after conducting an investigation, the Army stopped sending children to the program, citing concerns about its therapeutic practices and inadequate supervision.

In New Mexico, where VisionQuest is seeking to open one of its new shelters, officials revoked the company’s license in 1984 following allegations of child abuse at a Silver City program for juvenile offenders.

Pennsylvania officials found that in 1984, VisionQuest had used public money to lease homes and cars from company officials. The company’s 2018 audit suggests those practices may not have been eradicated in the decades since. It notes that the company’s revenue comes primarily from government agencies and that VisionQuest “leases office space and residential treatment facilities from current board members, shareholders and employees, some of whom are also officers of the Company.” The company’s only two board members today are Bob Burton and his wife, Claire.

Contento claimed that “VisionQuest does not, and has never, used federal grant funds to make lease payments to its own officers, shareholders or employees.”

In 1994, a Department of Justice civil rights investigation found that VisionQuest had fired 13 employees over two years from a program in Pennsylvania for “known or suspected abuse or physical harm.”

“Since its inception 20 years ago, VisionQuest has been plagued by credible allegations of physical and mental abuse of residents,” the DOJ report reads. “The fact that these allegations have occurred over many years at different VisionQuest facilities seems to preclude any claim that all the allegations are false or are a result of prejudice, disgruntled employees, or misunderstood policies.”

In his statement, Contento said that while VisionQuest began as a juvenile justice program, the company has “matured” over the years, and has “expanded and improved its method of service delivery by incorporating several evidence-based models into its programs.” 

In 2007, after 187 kids ran away from a New Lisbon, New Jersey, VisionQuest facility over a span of just three months, state officials found the program relied on untrained temporary workers and kept children for longer than it should. VisionQuest’s then-president, Peter Ranalli, who served as CEO until earlier this year, told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I should have had more oversight. That got past me.” State officials temporarily stopped sending children to the program, but VisionQuest kept its contract by agreeing to monitoring by the state.

That same year, inspectors confirmed sexual misconduct by staffers targeting boys at a VisionQuest facility in Hesperia, California. San Bernardino County canceled its contract, and VisionQuest sued over breach of contract, resulting in a $2.7 million settlement in 2009.

In his statement, Contento argued that VisionQuest “has built a higher level of transparency and accountability” into its operations, “which has significantly improved our practices preventing, detecting, responding to and reporting instances of sexual misconduct by both staff and youth.” 

In Los Angeles, the motion drafted by Councilwoman Nury Martinez requests a report from the Planning Department, the Building and Safety Department, and the city attorney about what laws and regulations may apply to the commercial stretch where VisionQuest is lobbying to open its shelter. The motion, which will first need to move through the council’s planning committee, also requests details about whether public hearings would be held prior to approval. 

The former assisted living facility in Arleta is no longer available for lease, but the building’s owner would not confirm whether it had been leased to VisionQuest, and VisionQuest told Reveal it “has no finalized plans for specific locations.” But lobbying filings from early November show that VisionQuest is seeking approval to use the Arleta facility as a shelter. At press time, the company had yet to file a formal permit request to the buildings department.

This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Stephanie Rice.

Aura Bogado can be reached at abogado@revealnews.org, and Patrick Michels at pmichels@revealnews.org. Follow them on Twitter: @aurabogado and @PatrickMichels.

Aura Bogado is a senior reporter and producer for Reveal, covering immigration. Previously, she was a staff writer at Grist, where she wrote about the intersection of race and the environment. She also was the news editor at Colorlines and a writer for The Nation. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The American Prospect, Mother Jones and a variety of other publications. She holds a bachelor's degree in American studies from Yale University, as well as a certificate in indigenous peoples rights and policy from Columbia University. Bogado is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Patrick Michels is a reporter for Reveal, covering immigration. His coverage focuses on immigration courts and legal access, privatization in immigration enforcement, and the government's care for unaccompanied children. He contributed to Reveal's award-winning project on indigenous land rights disputes created by oil pipelines. Previously, he was a staff writer at the Texas Observer, where his work included an investigation into corruption at the Department of Homeland Security and how the state's broken guardianship system allowed elder abuse to go unchecked. Michels was a Livingston Award finalist for his investigation into the deadly armored car industry. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's degree in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, where his work focused on government contractors grappling with trauma and injuries from their time in Iraq. Michels is based in Austin, Texas.