Rules looked for “gooning” and took care of concerned children during investigations in Missouri

ST. LOUIS (AP) — In the so-called security transportation industry, this is called “gooning.” Under cover of darkness, burly men show up and force a teenager into a vehicle, taking him against his will to a boarding school, nursing home or treatment center.

The process is typically initiated by parents who do not know what to do with a child they find troubling. For the children, it is the traumatic first leg of a journey to an unfamiliar place, perhaps hundreds of miles from home.

Teenagers who resist are often told, “We can do this the easy way or we can do this the hard way.” They can be restrained with handcuffs or zip ties. They could be blindfolded or hooded. Although a safe transport operator was indicted last month, criminal charges are rare as the little-known industry is virtually unregulated. In fact, the charge was for violating a restraining order, not for the transportation itself.

“Some of these stories are almost straight out of a Charles Dickens novel,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who is pushing for federal regulation of the safe transportation industry.

Thousands of American teenagers annually end up in some type of foster care facility or program designed to deal with issues ranging from behavioral problems to drug or alcohol abuse and crime.

In Missouri alone, more than 100 Christian boarding schools promise hope for wayward teenagers. In Utah, wilderness programs are taking a back-to-nature approach to help young people transform their lives. Other children end up in foster homes or treatment centers.

In many cases the children do not want to leave the house and do not go with their parents. This is where safe transport companies come into play.

For costs that often reach thousands of dollars, parents hire one of the many companies that specialize in transporting children to community care. Many have websites promoting their approaches.

“My goal for your child is to begin this transition with 100% honesty and integrity,” posts Julio Sandoval of Safe, Sound, Secure Youth Ministries in Missouri on his website. “I am not of the ideology of necessarily making your child happy. Happiness will eventually come when he finds that he is growing up as a young man and poses no threat to himself and society.”

Sandoval, 41, and the mother of a California teenager, were indicted by a federal grand jury in August. The indictment states that workers from Sandoval’s company handcuffed the teenager at a store in Fresno, California, and drove him to the Agape Boarding School in Stockton, Missouri. The boy reportedly remained restrained throughout the 27-hour drive. Sandoval and the mother are accused of violating the boy’s restraining order against them.

Sandoval was a former dean at Agape and now works at another Christian boarding school in Missouri in addition to running the transportation company. Telephone and email messages left with his company and Sandoval’s attorney went unanswered.

The safe transportation industry is only regulated in one state – Oregon. This law, which was implemented in 2021, prohibits the use of hoods, blindfolds and handcuffs, among other things.

Other states could follow suit. Utah State Senator Mike McKell, a Republican, and Missouri State Assemblyman Keri Ingle, a Democrat, plan to introduce legislation regulating the safe transportation industry in their states in the next session. But advocates say that because so many children are being picked up in one state and taken to another, federal laws are crucial.

There are currently no federal laws regulating carriers.

“They have a variety of jurisdictional issues,” McKell said. “You pick up a kid in California and they end up in Missouri. If there is a problem or abuse, where is the jurisdiction? This is an issue that deals directly with interstate trade. I think we need a federal solution.”

Khanna drafts the Accountability for Congregate Care Act, which would provide protections in juvenile facilities, such as prohibiting solitary confinement and the use of chemical or physical restraints. His proposal would also regulate transport companies.

“I think people didn’t recognize the type of trauma and abuse,” Khanna said. “There was a feeling that if they are sent to be re-educated, they will get tough love.

“But they didn’t know that emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse was actually happening, and they didn’t realize the trauma of children being tricked into going there. What we end up doing is just creating more trauma for these children. ”

David Patterson was one of those kids.

He was a successful high school freshman—honor roll student, pole vaulter on the track and field team. He said his parents were concerned because he got drunk and smoked marijuana on Halloween and told them he was gay.

On Father’s Day 2002, at around 4 a.m., two men showed up at the Patterson’s home in California and yanked him out of bed. They showed the handcuffs they would use if he didn’t get into a cab that took the trio to the airport for the flight to Missouri. Within hours Patterson was in Agape, where he spent about a year.

Patterson, now 35, said the trauma of being taken to school stayed with him for a decade. “If I saw yellow cabs, I would have panic attacks and episodes,” he said.

The procedure is expensive. One company lists fees on its website, which shows prices for two agents and the child are up to $2,895 plus airfare. or $300 to $5,000 for children driven to a facility, depending on distance and other factors.

Data analysis conducted earlier this year by American Public Media, The Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake City public radio KUER found that Utah hosts far more troubled teens than any other state. Analysis of the period from 2015 to 2020 found that about a third of teens who crossed state lines for a youth treatment facility ended up in Utah. Virginia, Texas, Missouri and Iowa had the second highest numbers.

Adding to concerns about safe transport companies are allegations about some of the places the children are being taken to.

At Agape, which cares for about 60 teenage boys, the former school doctor was accused last year of multiple child sexual abuse and five staff members face charges of abuse. The Missouri Attorney General’s office this month asked a judge to shut down Agape, and Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo asked the US Attorney in Kansas City to do the same. So far the school remains open.

In nearby Humansville, Missouri, Circle of Hope, a Christian boarding school for girls, was closed during a 2020 investigation. The couple’s co-founders were charged with 99 counts of abuse last year, including sexual abuse.

The allegations of misconduct at Agape and Circle of Hope prompted Ingle to sponsor a measure signed last year that requires tighter monitoring in Missouri.

Now, Ingle said she will seek stricter regulations on companies that transport the children against their will.

“There seems to be something so dramatic – minors being picked up in the middle of the night and taken to a facility. But that’s been happening in this state for decades,” Ingle said. Rules looked for “gooning” and took care of concerned children during investigations in Missouri

Sarah Y. Kim

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