Inside the Push to Regulate 'Gooning'

It's the practice of taking kids against their will to a boarding school or treatment center
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 27, 2022 6:19 PM CDT
Inside the Push to Regulate 'Gooning'
This December, 2020, shows Agape Boarding School in Stockton, Mo. The speaker of the Missouri House is urging the U.S. attorney in Kansas City to shut down Agape Boarding School, accusing the Christian school of “what amounts to organized crime against children.”   (Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star via AP)

Within what's known as the secure transport industry, it's called "gooning," and the AP takes a long look at the practice and burgeoning efforts to finally regulate it. What gooning consists of: 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. The secure transport industry is regulated in just one state, Oregon, which has since 2021 prohibited the use of hoods, blindfolds, and handcuffs, among other things.

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 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.

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"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. (Read the full story for much more.)

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