ST. LOUIS – Within what's known as the secure transport industry, it's called “gooning.” Brawny men show up under the cover of darkness and force a teenager into a vehicle, taking them against their will to a boarding school, foster home or treatment center.
The process is typically initiated by parents at wit's end over what to do with a child they perceive as troubled. For the kids, it's the traumatic first leg of a journey to an unheard-of place, perhaps hundreds of miles away from home.
Teens who resist are often told, “We can do this the easy way or the hard way.” They might be restrained with handcuffs or zip ties. They could be blindfolded or hooded. Though a secure transport company operator was indicted last month, criminal charges are rare because the little-known industry is virtually unregulated. In fact, the indictment was for violating a restraining order, not for the transport itself.
“Some of these stories are almost out of a Charles Dickens novel," said Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who is pushing for federal regulation of the secure transport industry.
Thousands of American teenagers end up annually in some form of congregate care facility or program aimed at dealing 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 teens. In Utah, wilderness programs use a back-to-nature approach to try and help young people turn around their lives. Other kids end up in foster homes or treatment centers.
In many cases, the children don't want to leave home and won't go along with their parents. That's where secure transport companies come in.
At a cost often reaching thousands of dollars, parents hire one of the many companies specializing in transporting children to congregate care. Many have websites touting their approaches.
“My goal to your child is to start this transition with 100% honesty and integrity,” Julio Sandoval of Safe, Sound, Secure Youth Ministries in Missouri posts on his site. “I am not of the ideology of necessarily making your child happy. Happiness will eventually arise when he finds himself growing as a young man and not a 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 said workers for 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 allegedly remained restrained for the entire 27-hour ride. Sandoval and the mother are accused of violating the boy’s restraining order against her.
Sandoval was formerly a dean at Agape and now works at another Christian boarding school in Missouri, in addition to operating the transport company. Phone and email messages left with his company and Sandoval's lawyer weren't returned.
The secure transport industry is regulated in just one state — Oregon. That law, implemented in 2021, prohibits the use of hoods, blindfolds and handcuffs, among other things.
Other states may follow suit. Utah state Sen. Mike McKell, a Republican, and Missouri state Rep. Keri Ingle, a Democrat, plan to introduce legislation next session regulating the secure transport industry their states. But advocates say that because so many children are picked up in one state and taken to another, federal legislation is vital.
Currently, there are no federal laws regulating the transportation companies.
“You have a host of jurisdictional issues," McKell said. "You pick up a kid in California and he ends up in Missouri. If there is a problem or abuse, where does jurisdiction lie? This is an issue that squarely deals with interstate commerce. I do think we need a federal solution.”
Khanna is formulating the “Accountability for Congregate Care Act,” which would provide protections at youth facilities such as prohibiting solitary confinement and the use of chemical or physical restraints. His proposal also would provide for regulation of transport companies.
“I think people didn’t realize the kind of trauma and abuse that was going on," Khanna said. "There was a sense they’re going to be sent to be reformed, they’re going to get tough love.
"But they didn’t realize there was actually emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse taking place and they didn’t realize the trauma of kids being tricked to going there. What we end up doing is just creating more trauma for these kids.”
David Patterson was one of those kids.
He was a high-achieving high school freshman — honor roll student, a pole vaulter on the track team. He said his parents became alarmed because he got drunk and smoked marijuana on Halloween, and because he told them he was gay.
On Father’s Day 2002, two men showed up at the Pattersons' California home around 4 a.m. and rousted him out of bed. They displayed the handcuffs they’d use if he didn’t get into a taxi, which took the trio to the airport for the flight to Missouri. Within hours, Patterson was at Agape, where he spent about a year.
Patterson, now 35, said the trauma of being taken to the school stuck with him for a decade. “When I would see yellow cabs I would have panic attacks and episodes,” he said.
The process is expensive. One company lists fees on its website showing that prices range up to $2,895 plus airfare for two agents and the child; or $300 to $5,000 for kids who are driven to a facility, depending on the distance and other factors.
A data analysis earlier this year by American Public Media, The Salt Lake Tribune and KUER public radio in Salt Lake City found that Utah receives far more troubled teens than any other state. The analysis of the period from 2015 though 2020 showed about one-third of teens who crossed state lines for a youth treatment facility ended up in Utah. Virginia, Texas, Missouri and Iowa had the next-highest numbers.
Adding to concerns about the secure transport companies are accusations about some of the places the kids are taken.
At Agape, serving about 60 teenage boys, the school's former doctor was charged last year with multiple counts of sexual abuse of children, and five staff members are charged with abuse. The Missouri Attorney General's office asked a judge this month to shut down Agape, and Missouri Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo asked the U.S. 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, closed amid an investigation in 2020. The husband-and-wife co-founders were charged with 99 abuse counts last year, including sexual abuse.
The allegations of wrongdoing at Agape and Circle of Hope led Ingle to sponsor a measure signed into law last year that requires more rigorous oversight in Missouri.
Now, Ingle said she'll seek stricter regulations on companies transporting the kids against their will.
“It seems like something that’s so dramatic — minors being taken in the middle of the night and whisked away to a facility. But this is something that has been happening in this state for decades now,” Ingle said.