San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1998
Parents Had Right to Send Boy to Jamaica, Judge Rules
--Reform School was their last resort
Henry K. Lee
An Oakland couple had every right as parents to ship their 16- year-old son against his will to a rehabilitation school in Jamaica to try to resolve what the boy called a "power struggle," an Alameda County judge ruled yesterday.
The teenager wrote to his parents of his homesickness and longing to leave a place where "the water is so blue ... and the chain link fence so high." But there is no evidence that he is in any danger, Judge Ken Kawaichi said, capping a nationally watched case that tested when the government could intervene in parents' disciplining of their children.
Kawaichi's refusal to grant a prosecutor's civil petition to have David Van Blarigan returned to Oakland touched off a celebration in a courtroom packed with 100 people, most of them parents who sent their children overseas to behavior-modification programs like Tranquility Bay in Jamaica.
"I feel it was a proper decision," said the boy's father, Jim Van Blarigan, who was in Superior Court with his wife, Sue, to hear the ruling. "There really isn't any violation of law we committed. I think the judge made a clear determination."
Deputy District Attorney Robert Hutchins had asked the judge to order David Van Blarigan's return, arguing that his well-being at the program in Jamaica was in question.
The judge said he was troubled that pepper spray and Mace could be used to control youths under contracts signed by the Van Blarigans. But he found no evidence that the boy was in imminent danger.
Hutchins had wanted David Van Blarigan to testify in Oakland about his experiences.
"We won't know anything about physical abuse until David Is back here and can be interviewed in a neutral environment and find out exactly what happened," the prosecutor said.
In a letter to his parents dated December 15, part of which hutchins read in court, the teenager gave no indication that he was abused but said he was homesick. Court officials later made available part of the handwritten letter without changing the youth's spelling errors.
"I never realized how much I had and I never thought that I would miss my family so much," the teenager wrote. "I guse you ment a lot more to me than I thought you did."
The boy said in the letter that he believes his parents could have found another way to deal with his troubles at school and home.
"I looked at our relationship as a power struggle," he wrote. "You would give me punishments that hert me and I would do things to try to hert you back but I was really herting myself."
He said of life in Jamaica: "The water is so blue, the beach looks so sandy, the hills are so green, the weather is so nice and the chain link fence so high."
The Skyline High School student's sudden trip out of the country began at 12:30 a.m. November 10 when he was "ripped out of bed" by two burly men hired by his parents. according to Hutchins.
The men drove him 700 miles in a locked car to a private adolescent hospital in Utah for an evaluation. From there, he was taken to Tranquility Bay, but not before the teenager secretly called a neighbor from the airport to express his unhappiness.
The neighbor, administrative law judge Neil Aschemeyer, got in touch with Hutchins, who filed court papers last month alleging that the Van Blarigans were "aiders and abettors" in a kidnapping and false imprisonment of their son.
He's awakened at midnight and 12 hours later he is in a totally foreign surrounding," the prosecutor said. "I say that's psychological abuse."
The Van Blarigans' attorney, Dan Koller, said his clients acted responsibly and decided to send their son to Jamaica after therapy for the boy failed.
Koller bristled yesterday at what he. called the "forbidden government Intrusion into the sacred domain of parental rights."
A dejected Hutchins said he had no choice but to accept the judge's decision. "That's what his feeling is," he said. "You win some, you lose some."
The Van Blarigans said the ruling was in their son's best interests and added they hoped to visit him soon in Jamaica, where they said he is doing well and progressing.
"I feel he's much safer there than he is in Oakland," Jim Van Blarigan said.
Youth advocates who had lined up against the parents said the judge's ruling showed that child protection laws needed strengthening.
"This is an area that's not real clear in law," said Loren Warboys, managing director of the Youth Law Center in San Francisco.
"Our office has seen and heard about a lot of abuse in private facilities, many of them located in other states and countries," Warboys said "Even if parents are acting in the best interest of the child, we wouldn't have child-abuse laws if that was always true," he said. "There needs to be some protection for children who are being sent to places like this."
But Tern Mesple of Concord, who had her 16-year-old daughter, Andrea, spirited to a girls camp in Utah last year, said the judge recognized the need for parents to take action in handling their teenagers.
"You've got to let parents do what they have to do," Mesple said. "I don't want my daughter to end up in the juvenile justice system--it's a disaster."
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