28 July 2007

End of an Era

I am saddened, though not surprised, to read today that AYA Colorado, my former employer, has closed its doors for good. AYA (Alternative Youth Adventures) provided treatment services to incarcerated teens in the desert and mountains of western Colorado. The Colorado program was the newest in a family of programs that had at one time operated in Montana, Utah and Colorado simultaneously. One by one these programs have proved unsustainable, generally for financial reasons and because state regulations make it very difficult to provide wilderness therapy opportunities to wards of the state.

What makes the closure of AYA Colorado--the last of AYA's programs--most disheartening is that this action was taken in response to the tragic death of a student in the field. Caleb Jensen was 15 when he died of a bacterial staph infection in the backcountry under the supervision of AYA.

There are questions about whether a student prone to staph infections, as Caleb was, should have been placed in a wilderness setting where, among the cacti, granite and sandstone of Colorado's rugged Uncompaghre Plateau, it is very easy to pick up scratches and scrapes and difficult to keep them clean. My understanding is that a lot of finger pointing has gone on as to who placed Caleb in harm's way. Was it the state agency that recommended Caleb for AYA's program? Was it the state record keepers who didn't include all Caleb's pertinent health information in his medical file? Was it AYA, for admitting him in the first place and then, once in the field, not attending carefully enough to a condition they weren't aware of?

His death is shocking and inexcusable, regardless of whether blame can or cannot be assigned to AYA. Responsibility for every student comes down to the care facility, and in this case, regardless of whether this student should have been in the program or not, AYA finds itself ultimately responsible. An investigation is underway to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against either the field staff or the program administration.

I sincerely hope that Caleb's death is seen for the tragic accident it was. Nothing will be gained from criminal action against those involved. I do not believe this is a case where justice can be meted out, where society will be safer when those involved are brought to trial or even incarcerated. AYA is done. Public funded wilderness therapy is, by and large, a dinosaur. With all appropriate empathy for the family of Caleb Jensen, and with full acknowledgment that I can't begin to fathom their loss, I fail to see what can be gained from criminal proceedings. Similarly, while the state of Colorado has a responsibility to monitor and regulate youth programs statewide, there is little to suggest that criminal consequences for those involved will help make future conditions safer for wards of the state.