By JONNY BONNER
SALT LAKE CITY (CN) - Hundreds of parents claim a group of boarding schools tortured their children: locked them in dog cages, forced them to lie in feces and eat vomit, masturbated them and denied the troubled teens any religion "except for the Mormon faith."
The Utah-based World Wide Association Of Specialty Programs and Schools and its owners - Robert Lichfield, Brent Facer and Ken Kay - went to great lengths to hide the "torture," which began in the mid-1990s and continued for a decade, the 357 plaintiffs claim in Salt Lake County Court.
The plaintiffs say that 59 schools and owners tied to the company "jointly promoted, advertised, and marketed defendants' residential boarding schools as a place where children with problems could get an education while receiving instruction and direction in behavior modification for emotional growth and personal development."
But they say the children were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the schools including, Cross Creek Center for Boys, Brightway Adolescent Hospital and Red Rock Springs. They say the abuses inflicted upon some children for years "could be accurately described as torture."
According to the complaint, students were locked in boxes, cages and basements at the schools, denied medical and dental care, and forced "to carry heavy bags of sand around their necks or logs throughout the day over many days."
They were sexually abused, "which included forced sexual relations and acts of fondling and masturbation performed on them," according to the 119-page complaint.
Students were "forced to eat their own vomit ... bound and tied by hands and/or feet ... chained and locked in dog cages ... forced to lie in, or wear, urine and feces ... forced to sleep on cold concrete floors, boxspring, or plywood," and put to forced labor, the complaint states.
Children were "kicked, beaten, thrown and slammed to the ground ... forced to eat raw or rotten food ... poked and prodded with various objects while being strip searched ... denied any religious affiliation, except for the Mormon faith ... [and] threatened [with] severe punishment, including death, if they told anyone of their abuses and poor living conditions," according to the complaint.
Their mail was confiscated, and personal visits and telephone calls were forbidden or discouraged, the parents say.
"At all times relevant, defendants did not disclose to the parents the physical, emotional, mental, and/or sexual abuse to which their children were subjected at their facilities and conspired, even to this day, to prevent them from discovering such abuse," the complaint states.
The defendant company still operates residential centers in Utah, South Carolina and Costa Rica, but has faced school shutdowns in Mexico, Jamaica and Samoa amid child abuse investigations, according to the complaint. It says that more than 2,100 students were enrolled in its schools in 2003.
The plaintiffs filed a similar lawsuit in Federal Court in 2006, which U.S. District Court Judge Clark Waddoups dismissed in August for lack of jurisdiction.The parents seek punitive damages for fraud, gross negligence, false imprisonment, assault and battery, and breach of contract, and a protective order to prevent spoliation of evidence.
They are represented by Windle Turley of Dallas, Texas and James McConkie II with Parker & McConkie of Salt Lake