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July|August 2004

Want Your Kid to Disappear?

For $1,800, former Atlanta police officer Rick Strawn will make that problem child someone else's problem. He even makes house calls.

By Nadya Labi

Louis Boussard has hired a professional to abduct his son.

On a late evening in early March, Rick Strawn of Strawn Support Services flew from Atlanta to Tampa, Fla. He rented a Ford Taurus with child-safety locks from Avis and set off for the coastal town of St. Petersburg with his assistant, Joshua Dalton, and me. An hour later, we were driving down a street filled with one-story homes. We slowed down outside a house with an American flag hanging from the eaves and a Jaguar and a Grand Cherokee in the semicircular driveway. It was 1:55 a.m., which meant we were early. Strawn parked in a nearby lot to kill time. He went over the plan, emphasizing, "We've got to leave by 3:15."

Flicking on the lights to look for Boussard's number, Strawn dialed his cellphone. "Um, Louis. Hi. Does your house have a circle driveway with a Jag in it?" he said. "If you're ready, we'll come on in. Is he asleep?" The connection broke up. Moments later, Strawn's phone rang. "Much better, yes. No, don't wake him up. We're going to talk to you for about an hour," he said. "I'm going to help you through all that. Okay. Bye-bye."

We drove back to the house at a crawl and got out of the car, easing the doors shut. Both men wore khaki pants and dark blue shirts embossed with a globe logo and the website address of Strawn's company. Strawn walked up the stone pathway, peered in the window of the front door, and lightly rapped. No one answered. "Maybe he said go around the back," Strawn said. "Wait here for a second." He began to walk toward the back of the house when a light came on inside.

A Haitian-American man in his late 40s opened the front door and beckoned us inside. Boussard (his name and the names of his wife and son have been changed) guided us to a dining-room table covered by a white tablecloth. It held a white vase filled with artificial pink flowers and two fat red candles in wrought iron stands. The matching white cushions of the dining-room chairs were covered in plastic. Boussard sat at the head of the table, flanked by his wife, Sandra. In spite of the late hour, they were impeccably dressed—he wore a beige linen suit and she wore a scoop-necked sweater set off by a gold necklace and bracelets. The couple's formality, however, soon gave way to the urgency of the task at hand. Two rooms away on the other side of the kitchen, their 16-year-old son, Louis, Jr., lay asleep in his bedroom.

The Boussards had hired Strawn Support Services to transport Louis, Jr. to Casa by the Sea, a school near Ensenada, Mexico that seeks to "modify" the behavior of troublemaking teens. Casa takes kids who parents have decided are out of control, usually because the teens are talking back, getting poor grades, staying out late, drinking, having sex too soon, or taking drugs.

Louis, Jr.'s parents had not told him that he was going to Mexico—nor how he would be taken there. They thought he would run if he knew what was about to happen. Now they kept glancing in the direction of the kitchen. "Louis is very suspicious," Sandra whispered about her son as her husband began a hurried account of the teen's misbehavior.

The troubles had begun a year earlier when Louis, Jr. was in 10th grade. His grades fell from A's and B's to C's and below. He stopped playing basketball with his father. He started talking back when his mother wouldn't let him go out to clubs with his friends. He broke his curfew, which was 7:30 p.m. during the week and 9 p.m. on the weekends. Often he left the house by his bedroom window. The Boussards thought Louis, Jr. might be smoking pot. Then all of a sudden, his report cards improved dramatically. "I thought, something is not right," said Boussard, squinting at the memory. He discovered a bad report card in his son's backpack, and Louis admitted that he had faked the good ones.

The Boussards enrolled their son in counseling; the counselor said he was doing fine. They sent him to boot camp for a day, where he got anger-management and drug counseling. He behaved better for about a week. At around the same time, Louis was told that he had to repeat 10th grade. His parents transferred him to a vocational program in carpentry at his high school with the hope that he would find the schoolwork easier. Louis hated it.

Strawn listened to this litany of frustrations, nodding sympathetically. Then, he took a breath and started the spiel that he has honed over the course of six years and some 300 transports. "Behavior is as addictive as any drug or alcohol," he told the Boussards. Like all troubled kids, Louis, Jr. needed to recover from his bad behavior. "The way I look at it," Strawn continued, "any good recovery has three components: breaking down old habits, building a strong foundation, and building new habits." But Boussard pére was not paying attention. He was still steamed about the fake report cards. "I said 'Something is not right,' " he repeated.

There was a slight noise, and he and his wife jumped.

"Do we need to have Josh go outside?" Strawn asked, referring to his assistant.

"He's very suspicious," Sandra whispered, glancing over her shoulder toward her son's room.

Strawn went outside to make sure that Louis had not climbed out of his bedroom window. The teen seemed to be asleep, but Strawn left Dalton outside to stand guard. On the air conditioner outside the window was a bottle of cologne, which Strawn guessed Louis used to freshen up before his nights out.

Strawn squeaked back into his chair and rushed through his usual script. Now was not the moment to dwell on his own recovery from alcoholism, or to lead the prayer circle that he often suggests before a trip. He ran through what his clients should expect when he entered Louis's room. Strawn advised them to introduce him to Louis, to give their son a hug if Louis let them, and then to walk away. "The hardest thing I ask a parent to do is to turn around and walk out," he said. "Don't come back, no matter what you see or hear."

The mother and father nodded, shifting in their seats. Boussard got a black overnight bag from a closet and handed it to Strawn, along with a check for $1,800. In return, Strawn asked him to sign a notarized power-of-attorney that authorized his company to take "any act or action" on the parents' behalf during the transport to Casa. The document also promised that the couple would not sue for any injuries caused by "reasonable restraint." Strawn warned them that he would take Louis away in handcuffs. The father signed the release, then seemed to have a moment of buyer's remorse. He said he'd been obsessively reading the catalogue for Casa. "All of a sudden, the intensity just takes off," Boussard said about sending his son away. "We feel like we failed."

"Let me help you out there," Strawn reassured him. "I go to families all the time with four or five siblings. Only one of them decided to take this path. If it had anything to do with your parenting skills . . . " His voice trailed off. "It isn't because of that."

"We don't want to see him go to prison or jail," said Boussard, rubbing his hands over his face again and again. "Will he understand what we're trying to do for him?"

Boussard got up from the table with a sigh. The rest of us followed close behind. He walked into the kitchen and took a dinner knife out of a drawer, explaining that he would use it to pry open his son's locked door. Sliding the knife into the crack between the door and the wall, he prepared to enter.

RICK STRAWN IS AN EX-COP WHO STARTED HIS COMPANY in 1988 to help police officers find off-duty work guarding construction sites. Ten years later, he was asked by a member of his United Methodist church to transport the churchgoer's son to Tranquility Bay in Jamaica. The school is run by the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs, a company headquartered in Utah that owns eight schools in the United States and abroad, including Louis, Jr.'s destination.

Strawn said no to that first inquiry because he knew the boy involved. But he had stumbled upon what he now believes is his calling. In his first year of business, he escorted eight teens to behavior modification schools. Since then, his company has transported more than 700 kids between the ages of 8 and 17. Strawn has gone on about half of the trips himself; on the others he has sent agents. Either way, the company generally uses two escorts for the part of a trip that's on the road. Girls are escorted by coed teams; in the early years, Strawn relied on his wife, mother, or older daughter to help him on these trips. Now his wife, Susan, runs the company's office from the family home in the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee. After every trip, she sends the client a card with the message: "Just a note to say thank you for allowing us to assist your family."

Balding and slightly soft in the gut, Strawn is a reassuring 52-year-old. He speaks with a light drawl—he was born in Lubbock, Tex.—and he seems to mean it when he drops endearments like "hon." Strawn's easy manner has won over many parents and school administrators. "He's one of the few escorts who takes the time and effort to talk to the kids," said Karina Zurita, the admissions coordinator at Casa. "He lets kids know that they'll be in good hands."

But if Strawn is decent and likable, he will also go to almost any length to get his charges to do what their parents want. He has chased kids down. He has dragged teens to the car in their underwear. He has used a choke hold, learned as a cop, to render a few others unconscious. He has taken suicidal kids from hospital treatment to reform school.

Most of Strawn's clients are genuinely concerned about their children's welfare. They believe their children are at risk and want to save them. But these parents also revel in forcing their kids to sit up, pay attention, and do what they're told. Glenda Spaulding, who took out four loans to send her 14-year-old daughter to a WWASP school in South Carolina last November, had three words for Strawn before he took the girl away: "Go get her."

Strawn's willingness to use force differentiates him from other escorts. While no one tracks the teen transport industry, those in the business estimate that more than 20 companies nationwide take kids to behavior modification schools, residential treatment centers, and boot camps. Some of the bigger companies are more selective than Strawn about what they'll do. The Center for Safe Youth in Atlanta, for example, doesn't use restraints to force a child to go anywhere. And the center won't transport kids to WWASP schools because educational consultants with whom the company works don't recommend them. Its owner, John Villines, would like to create a professional association to oversee the transport industry. The standards he proposes are rudimentary: no agents with felony convictions or histories of irresponsible driving or drug and alcohol abuse. But they set the bar higher than almost any state does.

Instead of operating by rules, the escort industry runs on trust—the trust that parents won't put their kids in harm's way. But there is no trust between parents and kids in the households that Strawn enters. It has broken down so completely that parents think it's okay, and even courageous, to send a stranger into their child's bedroom. Strawn makes his living from that judgment and he is willing to mislead a child for what he sees as the greater goal of reform.

Once parents put their kids at Strawn's mercy, for a short time he is in loco parentis—in the place of the parent—in the fullest sense of the term. He has the authority to tell a kid what to do and to punish him for failing to obey. At the same time, he is the only person left to cling to when a kid is on the threshold of a scary, unknown world.

Three years ago, Strawn escorted Valerie Ann Heron, a 17-year-old from Montgomery, Ala., to Tranquility Bay. The school is the most hardcore in the WWASP system, the one to which students are sent when they repeatedly cause trouble at other schools. The trip went smoothly, according to Heron's mother, Nell Orange, and Strawn played his role well. "He made her feel comfortable with him. She trusted him. He talked to her about what to expect, where she was going," Orange said. "She gave him a hug when she left him."

The day after that hug, Valerie rushed out of a second-floor classroom and jumped to her death off a 35-foot-high balcony.

The suicide didn't faze Strawn. He didn't ask himself whether he should have taken Valerie to Tranquility Bay and left her there, or whether she needed more help and tenderness than the tough-love school provides. He doesn't even acknowledge that she might have been upset or unhinged enough to kill herself. "We had a really good trip. We were laughing and cutting it up," Strawn recalled. "Was she suicidal? Till the day I die, I won't believe that." Without any evidence, Strawn says that Valerie must have jumped in an effort to run away or in hopes of hurting herself so that she would be sent home. She landed on her head instead of her feet, he thinks, because one foot got caught in the balcony. "My feeling is that the majority of kids who talk about suicide, they're not suicidal," Strawn said. "What they are is manipulative."

LOUIS, JR. SAT STRAIGHT UP IN HIS BED. He was surrounded by three strangers and his parents. His chest was bare, and white acne medicine stood out against the dark skin of his forehead. He grabbed his wire-rimmed glasses from the bedside table and blinked a few times. The basketball posters of Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant were still there. His childhood teddy bear sat in a low-slung armchair by the door.

"Do you have some underwear on?" Louis's father said. "They're here to help us. They're here to take you to a school."

Louis shook his head to clear it.

"The only thing we want you to know is that we love you very much," Boussard continued. He and his wife stepped forward to hug Louis, but the gesture was forced and none of them seemed to want the contact.

"Where am I going? When am I coming home?"

Louis's parents walked out the door.

Strawn broke the silence that followed their exit. He launched into what he calls "the scenario," a three-minute script that he instructs his employees to memorize and deliver, right down to a required chuckle. "Personally, I feel like I do it better than anyone else because I designed it," Strawn had explained earlier. The scenario is the key to a smooth escort, he believes. It gives teens time to cool off, weigh their options, and realize that their best course of action is to follow orders.

"I want you to know that we are not here to be bad guys and bullies. We are not here to lecture you, or right-or-wrong you to death," Strawn told Louis. "We are here to get you safely to the school and we are going to do that. But we'll absolutely give you as much respect as you allow us to give you."

Louis stared at him and drummed his leg against the bed.

"Quite frankly, cuffs do not embarrass us," Strawn continued. "But if it goes there, it will be 100 percent your choice." He concluded with the question that the scenario is designed to set up. "I have an important question for you. If you walk out of here cuffed, do you understand that it's 100 percent your choice?"

"Uh-huh," Louis said. He looked around the room. His mind was working but coming up empty. He asked if he could grab his clothes. The answer was no. Instead he was allowed to direct Dalton to hand him a gray t-shirt, a black-and-gray Fubu jersey, and black mesh gym shorts.

"Am I coming home today?" Louis was trying not to cry. He blinked rapidly behind the smudged lenses of his glasses.

"I will not lie to you," Strawn hedged. "I might not answer your questions . . . "

"So when am I coming home?"

"I mean no disrespect, but I learned a long time ago that I don't want to chase you," Strawn plowed on, ignoring Louis's question. He explained that he would handcuff Louis to Dalton. "And son, if you can drag this ugly sucker far and fast enough to get away, well, God bless you, you weren't meant to go." Strawn gave the scripted chuckle.

Louis was still trying to buy time and find a way out. "Can I brush my teeth?" he asked.

Strawn shook his head, and cuffed Louis to Dalton. Strawn wrote his script to give his charges the illusion of control, but he often cuffs the kids, especially boys, no matter what they say. He hustled Louis to the car, guiding him into the back seat along with Dalton, to whom he was still cuffed. Taking the wheel, Strawn explained to his passenger that he would stop talking—"I consider it disrespectful to talk to you in the rearview mirror," he said—until he reached the airport.

At the mention of an airport, Louis said, "Oh, God."

When we arrived at the Tampa airport half an hour later, Strawn took off Louis's handcuffs. As we walked to catch our connecting flight to Atlanta, Dalton grabbed the waistband of the boy's shorts, which rode low on his hips and might have fallen off if Dalton hadn't held fast. The teen rolled his eyes and cracked a piece of gum that Dalton had given him. He was auditioning for the part of bad boy, but the role didn't fit. He was too quick to say "Thank you" and too eager to talk. He had spent the past year bottling those impulses around his parents and chafing at the limits they had set for him. His abduction struck him as the latest outrage. "I don't listen to them, I don't like what they say," he said. "I don't listen to the curfew. I'm not doing that. It's too early."

When his parents bore down, Louis pushed back. He hung out with a crowd they didn't like and he drank and smoked pot. "I came home high once. My father said, 'I know you're high,' " Louis remembered. "Then I went to a one-day boot camp last August. You exercise and they talk to you. I came home high again and he sent me to this juvenile rehab thing that lasted two and a half days. It was pointless."

THERE COMES A POINT IN JUST ABOUT EVERY ONE OF STRAWN'S TRANSPORTS, whether he's soothing a nervous parent or bonding with an upset teen, when he will mention his six-month stint in 1997 at a halfway house for alcoholics. "Seven years ago, I entered recovery. My drug of choice was alcohol. You know far more about where you're going than I knew about myself," he told the 14-year-old girl he escorted last November to a WWASP school in South Carolina. "In my mind, I was kicking and screaming. But the loveliest day of my life was when my wife and mom dropped me off at that halfway house. I can tell you now that it's the best thing that ever happened to me."

That's Strawn's version of the story, which starts a generation earlier. Strawn joined the Atlanta police force in 1973. He'd previously been in sales, but he knew that being a cop would suit him better. "In sales, the customer is always right," he explained. "But as a cop, I'm always right." Strawn relished that authority. "It seems at times he has to have the last word," one of his supervisors noted in an evaluation early in his police career. That's a good thing in a cop, and the reviews Strawn received during this period were uniformly favorable.

Strawn worked many different beats, including patrol, drug enforcement, and homicide. He earned the respect of his colleagues for calming down troublemakers. "They have to think that you might be the toughest guy," he said of the suspects he arrested. "I was able to talk people into doing what we wanted them to do."

Strawn was losing control of his own life, however. He was drinking heavily and in 1992 he was briefly suspended for disappearing from work without explanation. Strawn said that he stayed sober on the job, but the smell of alcohol seeped from his pores. His colleagues complained. Internal Affairs investigated. Strawn tested clean.

Four years earlier, Strawn had married Susan Kyzer, a single mother with a young daughter. Strawn didn't get along with the girl. She had attention-deficit disorder and the Ritalin she took wore off by the time she got home from school. "Her behavior was like a needle point with Rick," Susan said. "He was of the view that kids should be seen but not heard, and this kid was always heard."

In 1996, the stepdaughter told a counselor that Strawn had molested her two years earlier, when she was 12. She'd just gotten home from a school football game, and she was still wearing her green-and-white cheerleader's outfit. She fell asleep on the living-room floor while watching TV with her stepfather. She said that she woke to the feel of something hard against her vagina and ran out of the room. Strawn was arrested for molestation. During the police investigation, he claimed that he'd fallen asleep after drinking, and in his dreams had confused his stepdaughter with his wife. But Susan told the investigators that just after the incident, Strawn had told her that " 'it was just a weak moment.' . . . He got turned on by her laying there with a short skirt on and all, and lay down beside her and unzipped his pants against her." Strawn grew depressed and began taking medication. He also admitted to detectives that a year earlier he had fondled the breasts of his niece on two separate occasions, when she was 12 or 13.

The Atlanta police department suspended him for several months. But Strawn's stepdaughter recanted her accusation, leaving prosecutors little choice but to drop the molestation charge. Strawn was taken out of the field, however, and assigned to do desk work. He was no longer the go-to officer. "I was being tolerated," he said. "And for someone with my personality, being tolerated is enough to make you want to get drunk."

One night in January 1997, Strawn went home drunk. After arguing with Susan, he said he was going to shoot himself and he got his .38 revolver out of the garage. "I've had all I can take," he told Susan, his stepdaughter, and the couple's 8-year-old son, Jared. But his threat was, to use his word, manipulation. He fired into the air and left. When he returned home later that evening, he passed out.

The next day, Susan confronted Strawn about his alcoholism, as she had many times in the past. His stepdaughter chimed in that she had snapped a picture of Strawn in his stupor the previous night so that he could see what he'd looked like drunk. Strawn wanted to destroy the roll of film but Susan and her daughter wouldn't let him, because it included a photo of the family cat, which had since died. A struggle ensued, and Strawn kicked the girl in the groin. He then grabbed his wife by the throat, choking her while his stepdaughter called 911.

Strawn left the house and drove to a nearby park, where he continued drinking. Susan and her daughter found him there. Susan tried to calm her husband down. Her daughter called the police. Strawn was arrested and charged with family violence, reckless conduct, and four counts of simple battery—misdemeanor charges that in Georgia together carry a maximum sentence of six years. Less than a month later, he was arrested again when he was found drunk and nearly passed out in his car. He avoided jail by pleading guilty to reckless conduct and a DUI charge.

Strawn likes to say that his wife made him go to the Hickey House Recovery Community. But a judge sent him there, as a condition of his probation. He spent six months at the halfway house while his family stayed away. Strawn hadn't prayed for some time, but he started going to a small church nearby. The defensive stance that he'd adopted slipped away. "Things started loosening up," Strawn said. He felt closer to God. When he got home, Strawn set to work on mending his family. While he was drinking, Susan had considered leaving him. Jared had withdrawn into video games. Now Strawn reached out to them, and they responded. Jared gave his father a cloth bracelet stenciled with the letters WWJD, for "What Would Jesus Do?" Strawn never takes it off.

The Atlanta police department was not as forgiving. In May 1998, it determined that Strawn had "brought discredit" on himself as a police officer, on 11 different counts. His superiors decided to fire him. Strawn opted to retire instead. He left the day before he was due to lose his job after 25 years on the force.

Strawn doesn't try to reconcile his past and his present, perhaps because he is afraid to find that traces of his old self remain. It is safer for him to credit God as the way he "got from there to here." The story of redemption that Strawn spins persuades parents who don't know where to turn that they can rely on him. Strawn was lost, just like the kids he escorts, and it is both his reward and his punishment to tell how he was found. "Working with these kids is like working a 12-step," he said before a recent transport. "Behavior is as addictive as any drugs or alcohol. I plant the seed of recovery."

But Strawn knows that if he is to be trusted to plant that seed, there is no room in his history for criminal lapses of judgment. I spent hours talking to Strawn, and he never mentioned the accusations involving his stepdaughter and niece. Instead he told me about a 15-year-old girl who was apparently discredited when she insinuated that he'd molested her during a 26-hour drive from Indianapolis to a WWASP school in Montana. Strawn said that an assistant was with him and the girl for the entire transport, and that the assistant backed Strawn up when he said he'd done nothing wrong. The school believed them. "That was God watching over me," Strawn said. Otherwise, he continued, "I would not be working in this profession. The cloud of suspicion would have been there." As for his stepdaughter, when I asked Strawn about her accusation, he said that she'd made up the charge to get him help for his alcoholism. She is now 21 and, along with Strawn's niece, works as an escort for Strawn Support Services. But she will not team up with her stepfather.

"WE'VE GOT SOMETHING DIFFERENT HERE," Strawn told the ticketing agent at the checkout counter of Delta Airlines. "We've got someone here we're escorting—not a prisoner, but he doesn't want to go with us." Louis sat with Dalton off to the side, rummaging through the overnight bag that his parents had packed for him. The agent didn't pause. "That's fine," he said with a smile.

Strawn won't board a plane with a kid who puts up too much of a fight—hat's why he ended up on that 26-hour drive. But when escorts do fly with protesting kids, airport officials rarely ask questions. Amanda Krassin was taken by plane from Washington to Oregon when she was 16. The escorts, who were from the California company Guiding Hands, asked that she be detained in an airport security area and handcuffed her on the plane. "Everyone ignored me at the airport," Krassin recalled. "I think they just thought I was a prisoner."

On the way to the gate for our flight to Atlanta, Strawn skipped a long line by flashing an auxiliary Coast Guard badge. (He's a member of the group's volunteer squad.) Dalton took Louis to the bathroom. The assistant, who is 25, is fairly new to the job. But Strawn likes to show off Dalton to clients because he attended a WWASP school in Western Samoa called Paradise Cove. The school shut down in 1998 after a State Department investigation into what it determined to be "credible allegations" of abuse, but Strawn doesn't mention that.

"I'm going to make two suggestions," he told Louis when the teen emerged from the bathroom. "First, try to have an open mind. I know it's hard to have an open mind when two ugly guys come and take you from your bedroom at night to a school that you don't want to be at. Second, you've got to be gut-level honest with yourself. The bad part of that is it's a 100 percent inside job."

The world according to Strawn is based on choices and consequences. The world according to WWASP is designed to reinforce the same principle. Students enter Casa by the Sea at the first of six levels. To advance, they have to earn points through good behavior and schoolwork. Until they reach level three, which takes an average of three months, they can communicate with the outside world only through letters to their parents, which the school monitors. After that, they can talk on the phone to their parents but no one else.

Casa costs nearly $30,000 for a year—as much as a year's tuition at Harvard—but offers no traditional academic instruction. Instead the schoolwork is self-paced; the students sit at tables with a workbook and take a test on a section when they decide they're ready. They can retake the same test as many times as necessary to achieve an 80 percent passing grade. According to the Casa parent handbook, the school does not ensure that "the student will even receive any credits" or that the teachers who monitor the study sessions will have U.S. credentials. The school does not track how many of its students go on to high school or college. "You're not going to have a teacher riding your back," Dalton told Louis. "It's all independent study. I just read the module, and did the test. I finished class in a week. That's how easy it is."

Students spend more time studying themselves than any other subject. They write daily reflections in response to self-help tapes and videos such as Tony Robbins's Personal Power, You Can Choose, and Price Tag of Sex. They answer questions like "What feelings/emotions did I experience today and how did I choose to respond?"

Students also attend, and eventually staff, self-help seminars. The entry-level seminar, called Discovery, encourages participants to "learn to interrupt unconscious mental and emotional cycles which tend to sabotage results." Kelly Lauritsen participated in Discovery at Casa in 2000 and said she was encouraged to hit the walls with rolled towels to release her anger. The price of tuition includes versions of these seminars for parents. Like Oprah on speed, sessions run nonstop from morning until midnight. Many parents and kids say they benefit from the self-analysis. "I didn't realize that I had so much anger inside," the 14-year-old girl whom Strawn transported in November wrote to her mother.

WWASP also pays for Strawn and his employees to attend the seminars, and Strawn has done Discovery. He enrolled in the seminar so that he could better sell parents on hiring him, but its talk-until-you're-cured approach forced him to confront buried wounds, such as his father's death a decade earlier. "God had a reason to put me there and it had nothing to do with the business," he said of the experience.

Strawn told Louis that the hardest thing about Casa would be abiding by the school's intricate system of discipline. "It's not the big rules that get you. It's all the little rules," Strawn said. Casa docks students, according to its handbook, for telling "war stories" about inappropriate experiences, for being unkind to each other, and for making "negative statements about the School, the staff, the country, or other students."

"There's a whole page of rules," said Shannon Eierman, who attended Casa last year. "That page is divided into sections of categories, into different codes, and a million subcategories. You could be there forever and the next day and learn a new rule."

Students at Casa who commit "Category 5 infractions" can be punished with an "intervention," for example, which is defined as being left alone in a room. Students say that the punishment can last for weeks, though Casa insists that the maximum penalty is three days. "I had to sit with crossed legs in a closet for three days," said Kaori Gutierrez, who left Casa in 2001. Interventions may be used to punish out-of-control behavior, drug use, and escape attempts. But they're also the way the school handles "self-inflicted injuries," which can range from cracked knuckles to self-mutilation with pens or paper clips to an attempted suicide.

At the root of this long list of punishable violations is "manipulation," which includes lying or exaggerating. Strawn repeatedly uses the word to dismiss a kid's behavior—it's the way he said Valerie Heron acted the day before her suicide. In the WWASP universe that he inhabits, manipulation is a term of art that refers to just about anything a teen does or says that the staff doesn't like.

Still, the schools' intensive monitoring has helped some students turn their lives around. Richard King of Atlanta believes that going to Tranquility Bay in 1997, when he was 17, taught him to be accountable for his actions. The experience saved him from ending up "either dead or in jail," he said. Before he went to the school, King drank, smoked pot, and battled with his parents. When he returned, he could sit down and talk to them.

CALIFORNIA IS THE ONLY STATE WITH A SEMBLANCE OF OVERSIGHT FOR ESCORTS. In response to news accounts in 1997 of a teenage boy from Oakland, Calif., who was transported against his will to Tranquility Bay, the state's legislature developed a bill to protect kids like him. The legislation would have barred escorts from using restraints that interfere with a child's "ability to see, hear, or move freely." By the time it passed, however, the bill had been amended into a toothless licensing scheme.

Nor are there federal controls. In 1923, the Supreme Court announced that parents have a "right of control" that allows them to direct their children's upbringing and education. The court has not budged from this stance since, and, for obvious reasons, it is not listening to the voices of kids who rebel against their parents' dictates. Few people want children—or, for that matter, anyone else—to have veto power over the decisions that parents make. Even the states that permit teenagers to be emancipated from their parents, allowing them to be treated legally as adults, ordinarily mandate that the parents must agree.

As many a frustrated teen knows, the legal framework means that parents get to call the shots. While teenagers can't be jailed by the state without a judge's approval, parents can confine minors against their will for reasons including their mental health. (It's harder to take away the freedom of mentally ill adults.) The Constitution has been interpreted to allow teens effectively to be imprisoned by private companies like Strawn's and private schools like Casa by the Sea—as long as their parents sign off. "If these were state schools or state police, the children would have constitutional protections," said Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, the director of the Center on Children & the Law at the University of Florida. "But because it is parents who are delegating their own authority, it has been very difficult to open the door to protection of the child."

It's even more difficult to open that door once kids have been taken to foreign schools like Casa by the Sea that lie beyond the reach of U.S. courts. "The problem is that when Americans are in another country, they are subject to the laws of that country," said Stewart Patt, a spokesman for the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the State Department. "Whether it's a violation of American law is not going to matter to local authorities."

There is one limit on parents: They cannot harm their children. Every state allows the government to intervene if a child or teenager is at risk. The agencies charged with protecting kids get involved if someone reports that a child is being abused. Yet by the time friends and relatives learn of a teen's disappearance and think to make a report, the escort is gone. What matters is getting the kid back from the school that's holding him. It's a nearly impossible task.

A few determined do-gooders have managed it, however. In 1998, 17-year-old Justin Goen was able to call his girlfriend before being taken by escorts to Tranquility Bay. The girlfriend's parents then called the child welfare agency in Justin's hometown of Worthington, Ohio. That set a local judge named Yvette Brown in motion. She heard evidence in juvenile court about spartan conditions, sleep deprivation, and emotional abuse at the school—and ordered Justin home.

The Goens ignored Brown's order, though, and the community cheered them on. "I hope parents are horrified that a public agency can be so intrusive into family life," one reader wrote in a letter to The Columbus Dispatch. After weeks of negotiations, the parents agreed to transfer their son to a WWASP school in Utah. Justin did not thank the state for its troubles. He insisted that his most severe punishment at Tranquility Bay was being told to write two 1,000-word essays.

Jonathan Tyler Mitchell was also sprung from Tranquility Bay. Tyler (he goes by his middle name) had lost his mother when he was young and had never gotten along with his father, Bill Mitchell. In February 2002, Mitchell married his girlfriend of eight months and Tyler moved in with his brother. Mitchell soon asked Tyler to come over for dinner. When the 12-year-old arrived, there were two strangers at the table. They worked for Strawn. Later, they roused Tyler from bed and took him to Jamaica.

What had Tyler done to deserve this wake-up call? According to his father, he had been disrespectful in class, kicked a school locker, talked about suicide, and refused to go to counseling. Tyler's account was different. "I suffer a lot of beatings from my dad," he told a psychologist who evaluated him. "The future is not looking good for me."

Tyler had several relatives, however, who were not willing to leave the boy's future in his father's hands. Gini Farmer Remines, an adult cousin on his mother's side, petitioned a local juvenile court to order his return. When the judge refused, Remines appealed her decision to a circuit court.

At a hearing that followed, three former Tranquility Bay students testified on Tyler's behalf, and what they described was a Caribbean purgatory. The food, they claimed, sometimes contained pubic hair and bugs. Raw sewage spilled over into the boys' shower area and "visible layers of dirt, grime, filth, mildew on the sides of the shower stalls" led to outbreaks of scabies. Students who broke a rule against looking out the window were placed in "observation placement"—forced to lie on the floor, sometimes for weeks at a time, and allowed to sit up only for food or a punitive round of 5,000 jumping jacks.

One of the witnesses, Aaron Kravig, reported that he was at Tranquility Bay in August 2001, the month Valerie Heron died, and that he'd been forced to use a towel that had been used to clean up her remains. The unwashed towel "had a spot of blood about, somewhere about the size of a dinner plate," Kravig testified. "There was some of her hair on it. They used it to pick her head up; I'm pretty sure. I told the staff about it and nothing was done . . . . I had to dry off with that towel for about three weeks."

Mitchell visited the school with his wife after he sent Tyler there and testified that he'd seen kids playing tennis and shooting hoops. But the judge ordered Tyler home. Shortly after his return, the boys' relatives heard that Mitchell had threatened to send Tyler back. Seven of them filed for custody. Gini Remines said that Mitchell gave up and turned Tyler over to her. "Tyler doesn't talk about what happened at Tranquility Bay," Remines said recently. "All he'll say was that it was a hellhole and he might have died in it."

"THE SCHOOL IS IN MEXICO?" Louis said when he noticed the highway signs on our drive south from San Diego. "I thought it was in California."

"I said we were coming to California, not that the school was there," Strawn said. "I was spoon-feeding you until we got here."

Louis fell silent.

Ten minutes later, Strawn drove past a sign that looked like a middle-school art project, with "Mexico" written in green, red, and white. It was now nearly noon. A Mexican flag flapped over a ramshackle collection of buildings, and a film of dust and grit seemed to cloud the bright blue day. Like a tour guide on autopilot, Strawn kept up a running commentary about the sights while his passenger stewed in the back seat. "That's a serious fence," Strawn said, pointing to a 14-foot-high barrier of sheet metal topped with electrical wires which marked the border. "The school is just north of a town called Ensenada. That's your primary cruise destination."

On the dashboard of the Buick LeSabre he had rented for this leg of the journey, Strawn had installed a portable GPS system that Susan had given him for Christmas. But it wasn't working. About a mile past the Mexican border, Strawn missed the Scenic Road exit to Ensenada and drove through Tijuana instead. We passed palm trees and squat bushes with fire-red flowers. Strawn braked at a stop sign that read "Alto," muttering to himself as he tried to find his way back to the highway.

We were back on course and heading through a purple and yellow tollbooth by the time Louis spoke.

"What's the name of the school I'm going to?" he asked as the ocean crashed against the shore near the passenger side of the car.

"Casa. Casa by the Sea," Strawn answered, and hummed the lyrics "down by the sea," from the song "Under the Boardwalk."

"Mi casa es su casa," Dalton ad-libbed.

Strawn told Louis that the Casa grounds used to house a resort. "The nice thing about resorts," he mused, "they usually have walls around them. They keep you from getting involved with the nuts around here, and keep them from you."

A huge half-finished bust of Jesus loomed on a mountain outside the car. Dalton began reminiscing about his time at Paradise Cove. He mentioned that he used to hunt for octopus in the ocean. Strawn pointed to the beach and said that students at Casa hung out there. Louis asked why it was empty.

Strawn answered by changing the subject. "You ought to get there about lunchtime," he said with determined cheer. "And I can tell you, those chubby Mexican women can do a number on some Mexican food."

When a trip is winding down and a kid has been scared into compliance, there is a moment when Strawn likes to wax philosophical. He cribs liberally from Stephen Covey, the author of the bestselling business guide Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He begins with a question: "Have you heard of counting from one to ten if you're mad? Did that ever make sense to you?" Whatever the teen's answer, Strawn says that it didn't make sense to him—until he came across Covey's idea that there is a "space" between stimulus and reaction. To Strawn, that space is the difference between lashing out and maintaining control. "I've learned to spend time in that space when I get mad," Strawn told Louis. "And in the last seven years, I haven't slapped one person upside the head."

The talk works best when Strawn has something tangible to move to—like the letters that parents often give him for their children. The kids used to tear up the letters. But they haven't since Strawn started telling them to spend more time in Covey's "space" before doing anything rash.

The Boussards hadn't written their son a letter, so Strawn did his best on his own to bring Louis around to their way of seeing things. He told the boy not to be angry with his folks. "It's absolutely a sign of love for them to take the chance on what they believe will be the best for you," said Strawn. "When you grow up and have your own family—you have to excuse me—I hope you have the balls to do what your parents are doing for you."

The off-white stucco walls and red shutters of Casa came into view, and a Mexican guard opened a red iron gate. A line of teenagers wearing khaki pants and navy blue jackets walked across the courtyard in single file. A few girls carried baskets full of laundry. The smell of fried chicken wafted through the air. A man in a white turtleneck pointed to Louis and said to Strawn, "This is the kid?" The man directed Louis to grab his bag.

Strawn handed a woman Louis's paperwork—his birth certificate, passport, and the contract with Casa that his parents had signed. When Louis turned and walked away with the man in the white turtleneck, Strawn didn't say goodbye. Then I asked if it was time for us to go and he rushed to catch up with the boy and gave him a hug. Louis looked taken aback by the embrace and there was a moment of awkwardness. Then he hugged back, hard. Strawn collects those hugs. They help him believe that he is saving, not savaging, the kids he steals away with in the night.

When we were back in the car, Strawn put on his sunglasses and lit a cigar, as he likes to do at the end of a trip. He leaned forward in anticipation of the next stops along his journey—a Cuban cigar shop in Tijuana and then a Mexican restaurant in San Diego. He blew out a ring of smoke, and it was as if Louis had never been with us.

Nadya Labi is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.

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