August, 19 2017

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Referral agency's connection to boot camp angers parents

Several parents who sent their TROUBLED TEENS to Thayer Learning Center in northwest Missouri were referred to the school by what they thought was an independent agency.

In fact, the Parent Help referral service is operated by the same people who run Thayer, a military-style boot camp where a 15-year-old California boy recently died. The death triggered a state investigation and prompted former students and employees to come forward with allegations of physical and emotional abuse of students.

The connection between the two businesses, less than 15 miles apart, angered several parents who spoke recently with The Kansas City Star. They said the relationship was never disclosed during conversations with Parent Help employees.

�I was very emotional and desperate in a way,� said Vicki Young of Ohio, who sent her son to Thayer in July 2003. �And I thought this was a parent HELP group.

�I didn't have any hint they were related.�

A leading business ethicist said the relationship between the two businesses is clearly a conflict of interest, while a child welfare agency official said such a connection is not uncommon, but should have been disclosed.

Three former employees of Parent Help told The Star they were coached to send as many children as possible to Thayer. Two of those former employees said they never disclosed to callers that husband and wife John and Willa Bundy ran both businesses, and one of them said a fellow staff member said not to mention it.

The Bundys � who opened Thayer Learning Center Boot Camp and BOARDING SCHOOL in Kidder, Mo., in 2002 � have offices at the Parent Help building in Gallatin, Mo., according to former Parent Help employees.

The Bundys declined to take questions from The Star, referring inquiries to their attorney, Ed Proctor. Proctor didn't respond to several messages left with his office.

But Wally Kerr, sales manager at Parent Help, said Thayer is one of about 15 facilities nationwide that Parent Help represents. The Parent Help Web site last week listed eight in addition to two Thayer programs. Kerr said no greater emphasis is placed on sending kids to Thayer than to other schools.

�We try to get the best program possible for (the children),� he said in a telephone interview.

When asked whether Parent Help employees disclose the connection between Parent Help and Thayer to parents, Kerr said they only refer them to Thayer's Web site. The disclosure, Kerr said, �comes through having them look at the Web site.�

Separate Web sites for Thayer and for Parent Help include an identical section describing the Bundys as the owner of each. Each site briefly mentions the Bundys' connection to the other business.

Some of the parents contacted by The Star, however, either don't remember being sent to Thayer's Web site or never saw the mention of Parent Help.

�We're proud of the fact that the Bundys have established a school and that they've established a parent help operation,� Kerr said. �There's nothing to hide here.�

One parent said she called the Missouri attorney general's office to complain that there wasn't full disclosure but was told to put her complaint in writing. Scott Holste, a spokesman for that office, said the Consumer Protection Division hadn't received any formal, written complaints about Parent Help. His office would look into any complaints lodged, he said.

Thayer, located about 50 miles north of Kansas City, houses about 100 teens.

At the request of the Caldwell County sheriff's office, the Missouri Department of Social Services is investigating the November death of Thayer student Roberto Reyes to determine if abuse or neglect was involved. Gus Kolilis, deputy director of the department's legal division, said an investigative team has interviewed �numerous� people.

�We're not leaving anything unturned,� he said.

No charges have been filed in connection with Reyes' death. Caldwell County Prosecutor Jason Kanoy said he was awaiting results from the state investigation, which could come as early as this week, before deciding whether his office would take any action. After Reyes' death, a panel of county and state officials charged with reviewing child deaths said earlier medical treatment �may have prevented this fatality.� The Jackson County medical examiner's office said the probable cause of death was a spider or insect bite.

The review by county and state officials � coupled with police reports and allegations made by former students and employees � painted a disturbing picture of life at Thayer.

A Dec. 19 story in The Star cited police reports and interviews with seven former Thayer employees and students that alleged physical and emotional abuse of students, such as one being forced to eat her own vomit, medical neglect and another student being forced to sit in a tub of urine.

In a written response to The Star in December, Thayer officials called the allegations �ludicrous and false.�

Since the story was published, at least two children have been removed from Thayer by their parents.

Now some parents are raising questions about the manner in which their children wound up at Thayer in the first place.

Parent Help hot line

Some former Parent Help employees said they were reluctant to publicly discuss their experience there because they fear legal retribution from John and Willa Bundy.

Thayer Learning Center has filed at least one lawsuit against former Thayer employees, alleging defamation and other things.

But conversations with three former Parent Help employees, as well as relatives of six children who have been at the school, offered insight into the placement process.

Several parents said they found the Parent Help hot line number on the Internet. John Bundy is listed on an online site that registers Web domains as the administrative contact for several sites, such as www.troubledteen.com and www.teenprogram.info. Neither of those sites clearly identifies their connection with the Bundys or Thayer Learning Center, but both sites mention Thayer as a �featured school.�

Both of those sites, and others, encourage parents to call the same 800 number. One parent said she called the number, then never went back to the Internet to do further research.

�Why would I?� the parent asked. �Parent Help said so many wonderful things about Thayer.�

The 800 number is answered by employees at the office in Gallatin, in a building that has no obvious signs identifying Parent Help. Kerr said the business, which has about six employees, gets from 50 to 150 calls a day and additional inquiries via e-mail.

The employees who answer calls to the 800 number are not counselors, two of the former employees said, but salesmen who get commission for placing students at Thayer or other facilities. They ask the parents, many of whom are distraught about their child's behavior, various questions about the child and tell them they'll find the facility that best fits him or her.

According to the former employees, though, the Parent Help representative recommends Thayer, where costs can exceed $50,000 a year, to as many parents as possible.

�If you called and your kid was over 12, I was sending you to Thayer,� said one former employee who did not want to be identified.

Matthew Turley, who said he worked for Parent Help from July to October 2004, said: �You would try to put the kid into Thayer, or suggest that one over any other one.�

Turley said he never felt awkward pushing Thayer.

�To me, it never felt like I was trying to keep something under wraps,� he said. �I just felt that Thayer was one of the better ones � from what I heard.�

Besides, both he and Kerr said, not every child is sent to Thayer. There are some children � those younger than 13 and older than 17, for example � that Thayer typically won't take.

So some kids are sent to places such as Bonneville Canyon in Maine.

�They have been very good to us,� Michelle Tibbetts, who works in admissions for Bonneville Canyon, said of her organization's relationship with Parent Help. Tibbetts said she was unaware of the connection between Thayer and Parent Help.

Kerr said employees aren't coached to send kids to Thayer but �to get them into the correct program.�

�We don't follow a script,� he said.

As far as the connection between Parent Help and Thayer, Turley said that unless asked specifically, �we would never tell (the parents) that.�

That infuriates W. Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College near Boston.

�I've heard of a lot of conflicts of interest, but this is way over the top,� he said. �To say the least, it's clearly unethical � especially when you're dealing with children, children who obviously need HELP.�

Joe Healy, director of residential services for the Child Welfare League of America, based in Washington, D.C., said it's not uncommon for agencies to operate a referral CENTER and a placement facility.

�For those that do, it would be typical that it's clear to everybody that they do both and that the referral might be to one of their own PROGRAMS,� Healy said. �It would seem to me, ethically, that you would disclose that.�

Angry families

All Young wanted to do was help her son, now 18.

Her teenage son had become defiant, and Young wanted a military-type school for him, a structured and regimented environment that also had an educational component.

Young scoured the Internet, eventually finding the Parent Help Web site, which states: �We help parents with TROUBLED TEENS.� She filled out a questionnaire and waited for a phone call, which she believed would be from an independent referral service.

The person who returned her call recommended Thayer.

�He said he had actually been to that facility to see what it was all about and that he was very impressed,� Young remembers. �He said there were several programs, but specifically recommended Thayer Learning Center.�

Based on the recommendation, Young and her husband drove their son from Ohio to Thayer in July 2003.

The grandmother of a different child also didn't realize there was a connection between Thayer and Parent Help. Jacqueline Payne, a Texas resident, desperately wanted to HELP her granddaughter. She found the Parent Help hot line number on the Internet and said she spoke with a Parent Help employee at least five or six times.

Not once did the connection between Thayer and Parent Help come up.

�I was real specific about what I wanted,� Payne said. �He just said, �It sounds like Thayer is the school you want.' He really talked them up and said the owner, Willa Bundy, had a lot of experience with kids. It sounded like the perfect match.

�There was never, ever any indication that they weren't an independent company. There was a curtain of dishonesty there.�

Payne's granddaughter was at Thayer for less than four months in 2003.

Parent Help Inc. was registered in Utah in February 1998. John Bundy, 47, is listed as the registered agent in Utah secretary of state filings. Thayer Learning Center LLC was registered in Missouri in August 2002, and lists Willa Bundy, 43, as the registered agent.

Ricky Parker wishes he knew about the connection between the two facilities before he sent his son to Thayer in November 2003. The Parent Help representative he spoke with pushed Thayer �the whole way,� he said.

�I thought I was talking to an organization that would HELP me choose, out of maybe several schools, where to send my child,� said Parker, who removed his son in January 2004. �It was like, �Hey, man, I worked there for a time. They really know what they're doing. They're very caring.'

�I thought they were advising me.�

His thoughts now?

�I'm out about $20,000,� he said.

Related Articles:
Florida Troubled Teen Program 1/19/05
Empty Drill Academy Puts Wicomico $2 Million in the Hole 1/19/05
Violent boy needs more than 'quick fix' 1/13/05
Board will review safe schools program 1/12/05
Life Center Puts Young Adults On Right Path 1/12/05
Teen who killed friend sent to youth detention facility 1/7/05
Needs of troubled girls get new attention 1/4/05
Boot camp director convicted of manslaughter in teen's death 1/4/05
Overall drug use by teenagers declines 12/30/04
New program to offer challenging, life-changing experiences 12/29/04


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