Some don’t want a building named for controversial founder of ‘troubled teen’ programs. Here’s why Hurricane’s mayor isn’t backing down.

Robert Lichfield, who founded the Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools, donated a building to Hurricane to be used as a recreation center.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) From left in the back, Nora Ashleigh Barrie, Allie Hutchings and Emily Pitt look on and record a groundbreaking event for a new recreation center Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023 in Hurricane. They were among a handful of people in attendance who were opposed to the naming of the center after Robert Lichfield, the controversial founder of a network of troubled-teen programs.

Hurricane • On the northern edge of this small Utah city, the site of the future Bob Lichfield Recreation Center is little more than an empty red-dirt lot behind an American Legion building. The steel building that will soon be erected there currently sits in pieces at Hurricane’s power department.

That building — which city officials say will hold a much-needed community space large enough to fit two basketball courts and a pair of restrooms — has brought unexpected controversy to Hurricane in recent weeks. Hundreds of people from across the country have signed a petition. Some Utahns drove nearly 300 miles to oppose the recreation center during the city’s groundbreaking.

The reason for the pushback? Hurricane City’s decision to name the building after Lichfield, a controversial figure who in the 1990s spearheaded a large and lucrative network of programs throughout the world for so-called “troubled teens.”

Hurricane Mayor Nanette Billings said the city opted to name the building after the longtime La Verkin entrepreneur for a simple reason: He donated it.

But former residents of troubled-teen programs — including some Utahns — are upset that the small city would honor a man they say built his wealth growing a network of problematic programs.

Allie Hutchings’ parents sent her to a Lichfield program in 2013 when she was a young teenager. The 25-year-old still lives in Hurricane now, and she said she felt angry when she found out that a building would be dedicated in Lichfield’s name.

“It was like a slap in the face,” she said.

Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools

Hutchings attended Horizon Academy, which was Lichfield’s first program and opened in the mid-1980s. (It was called Cross Creek then.) Today, it’s a hotel that caters to tourists making the 20-mile drive to Zion National Park.

When she thinks back to her time at the facility, Hutchings said, she remembers struggling to advance in the program because she was shy and quiet. It was traumatizing, she said, to watch as her friend screamed while staff members once held her down in a restraint.

Allegations of abuse and mistreatment have come out of Utah troubled teen programs for years, which by 2021 led Utah legislators to add more regulations to the industry. There is currently no federal oversight of these types of programs, though former residents-turned-activists are working now to lobby Congress to pass a bill to collect more data and require reporting standards.

But in the early 2000s, these types of programs were much less regulated in Utah and elsewhere — due, in part, to Lichfield’s own lobbying opposing stricter standards. His network of programs, operated under the umbrella company called the Worldwide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools, was plagued by allegations of severe abuse and torture at many facilities before the company dissolved in 2010.

The New York Times reported in 2003 that, by that time, WWASPS-affiliated programs in Mexico, Costa Rica, Western Samoa and the Czech Republic had closed under allegations of cruelty. The Costa Rican facility, The Times reported, dissolved in 2003 after the students revolted when national officials visited the program and informed the teenagers of their rights.

In a 2011 Utah lawsuit, about 500 parents and former residents sued WWASPS, alleging in court papers that students were beaten, chained, locked in dog cages, forced to eat vomit and made to lie in urine and feces as punishment. The complaint also alleges students were forced into sexual acts. A judge dismissed that lawsuit several years later, ruling the group had not properly argued a fraud claim.

Lichfield has tried to distance himself from these allegations, telling a Times reporter in 2013 that he supplied only business and educational services to programs, and did not know children were being harmed.

“Allegations against schools I did not own or manage, I can’t answer,” he wrote in an email to The New York Times. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t abuse or mistreat students, nor did I encourage or direct someone else to do so. I provided business services that were non-supervision, care, or treatment services to schools that were independently owned and operated.”

Efforts to reach Lichfield on Monday were unsuccessful.

Billings, Hurricane’s mayor, said she knew about these allegations before she asked Lichfield if the city could name the building after him.

But the city needs a place for people to recreate, she reasoned, and his help would save the city money. She estimated that with the donated building, the cost to build the recreation center will be around $1 million.

“Someone donated something to you,” she said. “So how do you say no? He didn’t ask for it, I asked him. It’s just tough.”

A needed recreation center becomes controversial

Billings said Hurricane residents voted down a general obligation bond several years ago which would have funded a $26 million recreation facility. When she became mayor in 2021, she began reaching out to local business leaders asking them to help fund a center. She learned from one that Lichfield had a metal building stored in Utah that had never been erected.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) Hurricane Mayor Nanette Billings addresses those on hand for a groundbreaking event for a new recreation center Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023 in Hurricane. Billings used her time at the podium to explain the financing of the center and to address the concerns of handful of spectators opposed to the naming of the new facility after Robert Lichfield, the founder of several troubled-teen programs.

She began contacting Lichfield, she remembers, trying to ask him if he would donate the building to the city.

“Finally we were able to talk,” she said during last week’s groundbreaking event. “And I begged. And then I pleaded. And then I got on my hands and knees. And then I said pretty please.”

Billings said Lichfield eventually agreed to donate the building with a few strings attached: He had no architectural plans and the city agreed to reverse engineer the building and take it in “as-is” condition. The city couldn’t scrap the metal if it ended up not erecting the building, and it agreed to break ground on the site by Sept. 30. The deal was memorialized in a Jan. 13 donation agreement that Billings shared with The Tribune.

Word had spread in recent weeks throughout activist networks of former troubled-teen residents about the Lichfield naming. One former resident, Caroline Cole, started a petition asking the city to reconsider — which as of Monday had 553 signatures. A small group of Utahns who were sent to teen treatment programs also drove to Hurricane for last week’s groundbreaking.

“It feels like a gut punch,” said Emily Pitts, a 36-year-old Sandy woman who was sent to Copper Hills Youth Center and Stillwater Academy in the early 2000s. “Obviously, Bob Lichfield is a member of the community that people respect. And what he is doing is an attempt at a good measure, him trying to make good by the community. We understand. For me, though, the history of accusations against him – [which are] long-standing, over many decades — and to overlook that? It’s not a great representation.”

Nora Ashleigh Barrie, a 35-year-old who lives in Taylorsville, was sent from another state to a Utah wilderness program in 2003, followed by a stay in a Montana facility. She said it’s a unique experience living in Utah now, and seeing the ways that the troubled-teen industry is so closely tied to the community.

There are more than 100 programs in Utah alone, and more kids are sent here to troubled-teen programs than to any other state — and it’s not even close. It’s estimated these teens bring hundreds of millions of dollars into Utah’s economy every year, according to a research brief from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“It is more extensive,” Barrie said, “more intertwined, more deeply connected to the community and the economy than anywhere else.”

And in southern Utah specifically — where Lichfield initially started growing his businesses decades ago — it’s hard to ignore the footprint that the wider troubled-teen industry still has today. In Washington County, 19 programs are registered with Utah’s Office of Licensing. There are four licensed teen treatment programs just in Hurricane, a 52-square mile town where the population in 2022 was estimated to be around 23,000 people.

That’s not including a recently shuttered program, Diamond Ranch Academy, which has no connection to Lichfield. State regulators closed the 108-bed facility this summer after 17-year-old Taylor Goodridge died there less than a year ago after suffering from an infection that her family’s attorney say is usually “easily treated.”

‘His name is going on the building’

Before Billings and the Hurricane city council officially broke ground in that empty lot last Tuesday, the mayor addressed the controversy head-on.

“First of all, I am really sorry, if anyone has had anything that’s happened to them where they’ve been wronged,” she told the small crowd that gathered in the sweltering late afternoon heat. “And I don’t know anyone that has personally done anything that they’ve talked about,” she added. “I don’t know any of the employees that have done those things. I don’t know any of the allegations that have actually been to court and where someone’s won.”

Billings continued by telling the crowd — a handful of whom were former residents — that the teens’ parents may also bear some responsibility for sending their children away to treatment programs that may have been harmful.

“This is really honoring our community to have a recreation center,” she said. “But his name is going on this building because he donated this building. And when people donate, they oftentimes get something of it, recognition for whatever it is they do.”

She wrapped her speech by quoting a Bible verse, Matthew 7: “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

“I know that forgiveness is difficult,” she said. “But I know that the only way that we gain true peace and comfort is by forgiving someone else for things that they’ve done to wrong us. So whatever that is, I hope that you can have that in your heart. And that we will move forward as a community and recognize the blessing that it is that he donated this building.”

Noticeably absent from the ceremony was Lichfield himself; Billings told The Tribune that he was out of the country and had no plans to attending the event.

The mayor’s message didn’t sit well with the group of former residents who attended the groundbreaking. Some said they felt frustrated, or that the recountings of experiences from them or others urging the city to reconsider were not heard.

“She was saying that parents should be accountable, too,” Hutchings said. “I blame my parents. I blame Bob Lichfield.”

James Roddy, an 18-year-old who left a Texas treatment program earlier this year, said he knows the industry still uses harmful tactics that were pioneered decades ago — because he has been there. He felt the mayor didn’t take the accounts of other former residents seriously when she made her remarks.

(Jud Burkett | Special to The Tribune) James Roddy, left, a former resident of a troubled-teen program, records a groundbreaking event for a new recreation center Tuesday, Sep. 19, 2023 in Hurricane. Roddy and a handful of people attended who were opposed to the naming of the center after Robert Lichfield, the controversial founder of a network of troubled-teen programs.

This small group of former residents said they wanted to be at the groundbreaking to represent the troubled teen industry survivor community. They hoped to start a dialogue, to talk with the city about ways to provide a needed resource for Hurricane residents — without recognizing a man, they say, whose business model caused many of them pain.

The mayor, however, doesn’t seem to be changing her mind about the building name.

But that’s OK, Emily Pitts said. She feels there’s still time.

“The building isn’t built,” she said. “This is just a groundbreaking. We’re well aware there’s many steps. And we will be here for every single one of them. This is just the beginning.”