Migrant children may soon be housed at a for-profit facility in Philadelphia managed by the same company that ran a juvenile-detention center there until state authorities shut it down amid allegations of physical abuse two years ago.
The City of Brotherly Love is also a sanctuary city and it is staging a legal fight to block a federally funded $5 million plan by VisionQuest to hold 60 migrant children aged 13 to 17 at a facility called the Grace Dix Center. A judge found in favor of VisionQuest, but the city has appealed.
Popular opposition to the plan in Philadelphia was stoked when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the company’s founder, Robert Burton, overheard two counselors-in-training chatting with each other and told them “Don’t speak Spanish.”
That was just the latest in a long series of troubling incidents at VisionQuest, stretching all the way back to 1979, when Burton was quoted as saying the use of the N-word is “not necessarily improper.”
Back then, Burton did allow to the Arizona Daily Star that the word had been directed “inappropriately” by one of his staff to a 17-year-old girl in a group home run by his enterprise.
The girl was the daughter of active-duty U.S. Army Sgt. Wilma Parks and had been placed there as part of an arrangement with authorities at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. She is said to have been running away from home and violating curfew, but had not been charged with any criminal offense.
The Daily Star reported the girl told Army investigators the staff had called her the N-word. She said all the girls had been called “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore.” Counselors reportedly informed her and the girls that their problems stemmed from “being loose” and they needed to “realize what they really were.”
Parks’ daughter also reported being subjected to “physicals” in which she would be pushed against a wall and down to the floor, where the staff would twist her arms and legs. The girl was said to have been left bruised, swollen, and limping. Her face was reportedly scratched and there was a lump on her head.
Burton insisted to the Daily Star that “there wasn’t an abuse situation” and “there was more of an attack by the kid.” He said that he had reprimanded a counselor who used the N-word in this particular situation.
After Parks’ complaint, the military investigated, placing witnesses under oath. The findings were summarized in a letter to VisionQuest that was made public.
“The psychological harm which can result from this intimidating environment carries grave and unnecessary risks,” the letter said. “What VisionQuest interprets as confrontation appears to us as physical and psychological intimidation.”
The letter went on, “The VisionQuest program encourages the potential for physical abuse so far as house parents, counselors and other non-professional staff are frequently expected to provoke disturbed and acting out adolescents into physical reactions.”
The letter added, “The provocations, abusive as they are, invite countermeasures by staff which can result in physical and psychological injury to the patients.”
The letter noted violations of patients’ rights that “actually seem to be part of the treatment program.” There were also violations of standards regarding the quality of food and accommodations. Then there were allegations of overcharging and double-billing the government, which the letter suggested gave VisionQuest a “remarkably profitable return on investment.”
The military discontinued its dealings with VisionQuest, but the firm has remained in business in six states, despite subsequent allegations of undue use of force and negligence.
Burton founded VisionQuest in 1973 after playing pro football and working in a series of juvenile-detention centers, including one in Delaware where guards were officially allowed to slap children in the face with such force that at least three suffered ruptured ear drums
The Daily Beast asked him to comment on the company’s history, including his comment about the N-word.
A press agent called back instead and labored to put distance between VisionQuest and Burton. He told The Daily Beast the founder has not played an active role in the company in several years—even though he is listed on the website as chairman of the board.
“Their stuff is not updated,” the spokesman said of the website.
The Daily Beast sought comment from VisionQuest about the 1979 matter and a long list spanning four decades of other occasions when VisionQuest was accused of treating children in ways other than the way children should be treated. The spokesman said the company would need more time to comment on the specifics.
The list proceeds from 1979 to a 1980 incident in which seven teens drowned while on a VisionQuest voyage in a 25-foot boat across the Gulf of California.
In 1984, a mentally disabled VisionQuest teen sexually assaulted and murdered a woman whose body was found on VisionQuest property after his group was taken to see the horror movie Halloween. The victim’s family sued VisionQuest and the case was settled out of court.
Also in 1984, a troubled 16-year-old named Mario Cano was sent from his home in San Diego to a VisionQuest “juvenile rehabilitation” facility in New Mexico. He complained throughout his time at VisionQuest’s Wilderness Camp in Silver City of dizziness and nausea and soreness.
A San Diego grand jury subsequently found two nurses proclaimed him to be in good health. He was deemed to be faking to escape work and exercise. He was detailed to dig a latrine, but became too weak to pick up the shovel. He was made to continue with a dustpan and his bare hands, according to the grand jury report.
When he insisted he was too ill to do calisthenics, he was made to do them anyway, the grand jury found. He was left so weak it took him 15 minutes to ascend the four steps up to the teepee where he was assigned to sleep. He awoke the next day to more of the same. He required two other teens to assist him up the two steps to the toilet.
Back in the teepee, he was subjected to “managed exercise.” He was forced to do repeated knee bends. He fell again and again, once striking his head. The nurses examined him and announced that his vital signs were stable. He finally just lay there, his eyes open and dry to the touch. He was already in rigor mortis when he was finally taken to the hospital. The doctors determined he had died of a pulmonary embolism.
The grand jury handed up no indictments but it did recommend that San Diego cease sending teens to VisionQuest. Burton was quoted saying, “We didn’t think it was a medical issue, we thought the child was a malingerer.”
In 2007, the VisionQuest state director for Arizona, Anthony James Zasa, was charged with transporting 5 kilograms of cocaine between that state and New Jersey. He pleaded guilty.
Also in 2007, the Office of the Child Advocate in New Jersey suspended admissions to a VisionQuest program because it placed “the safety, well being, and general welfare of children in the facility’s care at risk.” Child Advocate had become alarmed when there were 189 escapes and 276 uses of physical restraints at the facility in a six-month period.
A 2008 incident involved a child who was left unsupervised in a VisionQuest housing unit in Pennsylvania with youngsters who attempted to sexually assault him one day, then tried again the next. Two of the youngsters bent him over and kicked and punched him. A third, Jerome Justice, picked up a toilet plunger.
“Defendant Justice maliciously forced the toilet plunger into [the victim’s] anus,” court papers report.
Justice was subsequently convicted of rape.
In 2017, Pennsylvania officials shut down a VisionQuest facility in Philadelphia after staff members were found to have punched and hit troubled and “at risk” children there. The VisionQuest spokesman said that the program had had inadequate funding and the company had decided to “vacate the contract” anyway.
“It was a mutual agreement,” the spokesman insisted.
But VisionQuest saw an opportunity to put the facility to new use. Online records show the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) granted it three contracts for this year and next to oversee unaccompanied minors from south of the border. The ORR failed to respond to a request for details of the contracts even when provided the file numbers. The ORR further failed to comment on whether it was troubled by or even aware of VisionQuest’s history.
After the Inquirer reported on Burton’s admonition that staffers should not speak Spanish, VisionQuest offered a statement on behalf of Burton, saying, “It was not my intention to dishonor or offend anyone, and I apologize for any confusion I may have caused. My intention was simply to encourage a work environment that promotes open communication and understanding among everyone.”
The spokesman told The Daily Beast that Burton was only at the facility “training as a volunteer.”
“He came there to help the program,” the spokesman said, “to get that program up and running.”
News of the “Don’t speak Spanish” incident further inflamed opposition to the migrant housing project. Philadelphia officials went to court to nix the shelter on the technicality that the facility is only zoned for children who are placed there by the courts.
After a judge ruled in VisionQuest’s favor, the city appealed and the case is pending. The speakers at a protest rally outside the facility last October included a teen named named Lilly, who had been consigned there for truancy and running away before it was shuttered. She had been just 13 and she was left with cause to wonder why VisionQuest is allowed to profit off kids of any kind.
In one perverse way, VisionQuest could be seen as ahead of its time. A U.S. Justice Department lawyer sparked outrage in recent days when she suggested that the government might not necessarily be required to provide toothbrushes and soap to immigrant children. Lilly reports that when she was housed in the Pennsylvania center three years ago, VisionQuest was supplying children with neither.
Lilly says only she got hygiene essentials when her mother provided them. She adds that shelter residents who did not have someone on the outside had to make do even when they had their periods.
“Use toilet paper,” she told The Daily Beast this week.
Lilly reports that she was strip-searched upon her arrival at the facility even though she had just been searched at court. She was then ordered to squat and cough.
“Why do you do this to a girl?” she later asked.
(A spokesman for VisionQuest denied that Lilly or anybody else at the facility was strip-searched.)
Lilly was issued pants, a shirt, and slippers. Her eyes and nose led her to a conclusion.
“The clothes are not even washed,” she told The Daily Beast this week. “The smell. When I put on the clothes I started immediately itching, itching.”
She says her case worker gave her a warning.
“She is telling me this is a really bad place, things happen there. Don’t talk to anybody, keep to yourself. It was 10 times worse than she described it.”’
She was lodged in what resembled a college dormitory, only without windows. The two bedrooms off the long hallway were called “huts.” The day began with a banging on the door, and she missed breakfast if she failed to rise promptly. She was left wishing she had missed one particular dinner when she discovered maggots in her peaches.
“There was not one, but four or five maggots,” she said. “I didn’t know if I had eaten any.”
She told a staffer, who promised somebody would come talk to her. Nobody did. In the meantime, she decided that the worms had come from a growing mound of garbage.
“They just piled it up, piled it up,” she recalls.
At another meal, she was served an uncooked hot dog.
“I didn’t care care, I was so hungry,” she remembers.
The windowless day room was aptly named because that was where they were required to spend each day.
“Just sit,” she said. “No TV. No education. No teacher. Nothing. We just have to sit there and look at each other.”
She had seen an open outdoor space when she was first brought into the facility, but they were not permitted to venture outside.
“There’s a whole field out there and we could never go out and play,” she says.
One time, she refused to go to the day room.
“A staff person body-slammed me,” she reports. “Then, they put me in a small room with just one staff person for about a whole day. The room was in the boys’ hall, and I had nothing to do in there.”
Once or twice a week, Lilly was allowed to speak to her mother for five minutes, but she was afraid of being overheard telling her what was going on.
“I was so scared to talk to my mom,” she says. “They watch kids talk to their parents.”
The instant the five minutes on the phone with her mother were up, Lilly was ordered to hang up.
“I couldn’t even tell her I love her,” Lilly says.
She had been prescribed Zoloft for anxiety and depression before she arrived at the facility, and the medication now triggered a seizure. A call went out for a “Code White,” meaning a resident had urgent need of medical assistance. The result was a male staffer who seemed to know nothing.
“He just told me to breathe and breathe,” Lilly recalls.
Another teen who had learned from her own experience advised her to lie on her side on her bed and breathe until she calmed down.
“What if she wasn’t there?” Lilly wonders. “What would have happened to me if that girl wasn’t there.”
When a fight erupted between two of the girls, the staff sounded a “Code Black.” Backup soon arrived.
“One big guy,” Lilly recalls. “He’s about six-eight, over 300 pounds. He just grabs a girl, body-slammed her face-first on the floor. I don’t know how her neck didn’t break. They gave her ice. Ice, that’s it.”
Lilly poses the question, “Why would I feel safe in there?”
When she met with her case worker, it was in a nice room apart from where she and the other children were confined.
“I wanted her to walk where I walk, I wanted her to see what I see, I wanted her to feel what I feel,” Lilly says.
The longer-term residents who were favored by the staff sometimes sought to order Lilly to do this or that. She would refuse and the staff would give her food to the favored girl.
“So I started not trusting staff,” Lilly remembers. “I was so lonely to myself. I was depressed.”
She adds, “I didn’t feel like I had anybody.”
One staffer did offer to straighten her hair, and Lilly briefly hoped she might have somebody after all. The staffer then burned Lilly’s neck with the flat iron.
“She burned me intentionally,” Lilly alleges. “I told her, ‘You burned me.’ She is like, ‘OK.’”
The burn was serious enough to have warranted another Code White, Lilly claims, but it went untreated.
“I never saw a nurse,” she says. “Why? The nurse is part-time, temporary.”
VisionQuest says that there was always a nurse on duty, as required by state regulations.
“That’s flat-out untrue,” the spokesman said of Lilly’s allegations.
By Lilly’s account, nobody said anything about the burn, and everything continued as if nothing had happened, just as it had after the worms.
“They just acted like it’s a brand new day,” she reports.
A week later, she recalls, the burn did catch the attention of a security guard who checked children for injuries before they went to court.
“She’s like, ‘That’s a big mark,’” Lilly says.
The guard alerted a judge, who ordered Lilly moved to another floor until a bed opened up at a group home. She eventually was returned to her own home.
She recalls of her weeks inside the facility: “They made me feel like a monster.”
She resumed her schooling and became a youth advocate with the Juveniles for Justice project at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. She wrote a piece for the organization’s publication, Broken Bridges:
“I am a sophomore in high school. I love to shop, dance, be with my family and have fun. I have many plans for the future, including attending college for criminal justice, joining the S.W.A.T. team, and becoming a lawyer and an advocate for foster youth.”
The piece was accompanied by a photograph on which was drawn a crown and the words of a teen determined not just to survive but to prevail.
“I am a Queen, NOT A MONSTER.”
When Lilly returned to the facility to protest plans to house immigrant children there, she recounted to the crowd of fellow protesters her own experience with VisionQuest.
“I am speaking here today to send a message to the parents and leaders of Philadelphia,” she said. “My mom thought going to a juvenile holding facility would be good for me. She thought I would be safe. She did not realize that I would be abused, strip-searched, mistreated.”
She went on, “I hope that by me sharing my story today, you all understand the impact of placing children in these facilities, that you won’t continue to put youth at and in places like VisionQuest. I know firsthand the safety concerns that people have because I experienced mistreatment at this location when VisionQuest was here. When I was here, it was the worst. There was a lot of physical abuse happening in the facility.”
She continued, “I know that this is not the only juvenile-delinquent center where youth may be going through the same things that I faced. It is already hard for youth to speak up about these things. When I was at this facility, I was too scared to open up and talk. I didn’t think anyone would believe me, and I didn’t think anything would be done if I did speak up—why should I think anyone would help me as they sit there harming me?”
She then spoke of the immigrant children that VisionQuest wants to place there.
“I thought Philadelphia was supposed to be the City of Brotherly Love and welcoming any person from different cultural background. Instead, I feel like we’re punishing children for things not in their control and that’s wrong, and I’m disappointed and afraid for them.”
She kept on.
“I want to leave you all with this: Consider your own kids, would you trust them with someone who had allegations of abusing children and making them unsafe? Then, why would we trust a corporation that already had one location shut down due to safety concerns?”
She concluded, “I ask you all to please consider our experiences before placing any youth under the supervision of VisionQuest.”
The VisionQuest spokesman said the goal of the proposed program at the Grace Dix Center is “to help these young [migrant] boys find their families or get them sponsors to other families that want to house them.” Boys who leave the facility will be immediately replaced from the boundless supply of immigrants.
The company already runs a similar facility for immigrant children in Arizona, the spokesman said. He insisted that the conditions there are markedly better than at the far larger shelters where children are held by the thousands.
“They want to go there,” a VisionQuest spokesman said of the children sent to the Arizona facility.
The spokesman reported that all of VisionQuest’s programs in juvenile detention and child welfare are bankrolled with government funds.
“City, state, and federal,” he said.
But he could not immediately say exactly how many programs VisionQuest runs.
“There’s just so many programs that have come and gone,” the spokesman said.