I spent some of 2013 collecting information about ‘troubled teen’ reform homes. These are usually compounds surrounded by barbed wire, where at-risk teens are sent ostensibly for a godly education. They have always been surrounded by shocking allegations of abuse and torture.
Many of them use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. Those are the ones I’ve come across in the course of my other research, so they’re the ones I’m writing about here, but they are by no means the only ones. My emphasis on ACE is not meant to imply that they are the worst or that the others are less important. If anyone has information on the others or can share a survivor story, I will gladly post it here.
In meantime, here’s a compilation of my findings so far. I trust this will be a useful resource for people seeking to raise awareness about these places or to get justice for the survivors.
If you’ve been following my series on Christian reform homes, you’ll have noticed the name Lester Roloff popping up. It is, as Abigail McWilliam puts it, the common thread uniting reports of abuse from ‘troubled teen’ homes across America. Everything comes back to Roloff. Almost all of the homes we’ve discussed were founded by him or one of his former employees and associates, and all of them run on the model of Roloff’s original Rebekah Home.
If you haven’t been following, the reform homes have a pattern: They are single-sex boarding schools on compounds surrounded by chain-link fences topped with barbed wire. Punishments are extreme: extended periods of solitary confinement; kneeling on hard surfaces for hours, sometimes with pencils under your knees; and whippings and beatings of the cruelest kind.
And they all use Accelerated Christian Education. In return, ACE produces educational materials specifically praising the convicted felon and his reform homes.
I think I’ve already played the “if you only read one story about Christian reform homes, it should be this” card, so I won’t say it again. But, if you only read two stories about Christian reform homes, this should be the other one. Pamela Coloff’s 2001 article captures the history of the Roloff homes, as well as the contemporary situation. You’ll need to read this as background for the post I have planned for this Monday, which I think will shock even longtime readers of this blog.
It’s long, so here are some excerpts (though I do think the whole thing is worth reading). Be warned, it features descriptions of extreme punishments used on children. For space reasons I’ve edited out the stuff about how George W. Bush aided and abetted the Roloff homes on their mission, but those of you who already love Bush for the great legacy left by his presidency will find more to appreciate here. In short, Bush passed a law that allowed places like the Roloff homes to operate in Texas without state accreditation.
The Rebekah Home for Girls sits on a lonely stretch of south Texas farmland, a solitary spot where, amid the switchgrass and sagebrush and fields of cotton, young sinners are sent to get right with God. On a warm Saturday in May 1999, a sixteen-year-old named DeAnne Dawsey unexpectedly found herself at its doors. Her mother had said only that their family trip to Corpus Christi would last the day, and DeAnne had no reason to doubt her. Summer felt within reach, and DeAnne was relieved that her sophomore year of high school, which she was in danger of failing, was about to end. She was a slight girl with blue-gray eyes and dark brown hair who always wore a diamond-studded heart necklace. An inveterate flirt—”All she thought about was boys,” her mother would later lament—DeAnne never ignored an admiring glance. Normally she was too restless to stay still for long, but that morning she was in a dark mood: She and her boyfriend had quarreled the night before, and she sat brooding in the back seat of her mother’s car, lost in thought.
She was so preoccupied that she shrugged off a telling remark that her grandfather, who was traveling with them, had made after leaving Houston. Like DeAnne’s mother, he did not know much about the Rebekah Home for Girls or its history: that it was the most famous, and infamous, of the homes for troubled teenagers founded by the late evangelist Lester Roloff; or that punitive “Bible discipline” was the method used to chasten girls who had fallen from grace; or that the home had been the center of an epic, twelve-year battle between church and state—culminating in a standoff that Roloff called the Christian Alamo—in which the maverick preacher and his successors fought to avoid regulation by the State of Texas. But DeAnne’s grandfather felt guilty enough for lying to her about the purpose of the day’s trip that he turned in his seat to face her. “I’m sorry we’re doing this to you,” he said softly. “I’m so sorry.”
From ABC News April 12, 2011 by Susan Donaldson James. Difficult reading, as all the material on reform homes is, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore this.
Anne’s rebellion against her large Christian family — she was one of 10 children — began after she was gang-raped last year while jogging in her Maryland neighborhood.
“Because of that the trauma, she started spiraling in every way possible,” said her mother, Jeannie Marie, who did not want their last name made public.
Anne, now 18, said she numbed the pain with drinking and rebellion, which terrified her mother.
Desperate, Jeannie Marie turned to her church for help, learning about a Christian reform school that she says promised to “get right” her wayward daughter.
But neither was prepared for the ordeal they say Anne experienced from November to January of this year at New Beginnings Girls Academy, an Independent Fundamental Baptist boarding school in La Russell, Mo.
The school, according to its website, serves troubled teens so “through Jesus Christ, they can overcome their addictions, mend their broken relationships and get their lives on the right path.”
Instead, Anne said she was told the rape was her fault and was subjected to harsh discipline — ridiculed, restrained and deprived of proper nutrition and adequate clothing.
As punishment for misbehaving she says she was forced to wear a red shirt and stand facing a wall, sometimes for 8 to 10 hours a day with only 15-minute breaks for food. “I was so achy it hurt,” said Anne.
She said toilet paper and sanitary pads were rationed, despite Anne’s urinary problems after the rape. She also said no one offered to get her medical care.
“We thought maybe Anne would go there and hide out and pull herself together,” said Jeannie Marie. “We thought it was a safe place to go and we wouldn’t have to worry…We trusted our church.”
Anne left the school in January, but said the punitive approach left her with no self-worth and anxiety attacks so bad she cannot breathe.
I’ve recently posted a lot about Christian reform schools, but most of the ones we’ve discussed have been closed. Here’s one that’s still operating. Got seven minutes? This video from CNN will bring you up to speed.
Questions abound as more horror stories emerge from New Bethany Home for Girls and Boys in Arcadia and Longstreet
You also need to read Jo Wright’s comments. She is one of Ford’s victims; the first one is here: http://louisianavoice.com/2013/09/18/questions-abound-as-more-horror-stories-emerge-from-new-bethany-home-for-girls-and-boys-in-arcadia-and-longstreet/#comment-17354
If you only read one story on “troubled teen” Christian reform homes, Kathryn Joyce’s piece for Mother Jones is probably the most comprehensive choice. Joyce is a tireless campaigner for survivors of religious abuse, having also released books on the “Quiverfull” Christian patriarchy movement, and the evangelical adoption industry.
Check it out in full here, or see a few choice quotations from me below. As usual, trigger warnings all round.
Excerpts from a Tampa Bay Times article, by Alexandra Zayas, October 26, 2012. Read it in full, and see the Times’ video.
Trigger warning: Almost everything.
They shaved him bald that first morning in 2008, put him in an orange jumpsuit and made him exercise past dark. • Through the night, as he slept on the floor, they forced him awake for more. • The sun had not yet risen over the Christian military home when Samson Lehman collapsed for the sixth time. Still, he said, they made him run. • The screaming, the endless exercise, it was all in the name of God, a necessary step at the Gateway Christian Military Academy on the path to righteousness. • So when Samson vomited, they threw him a rag. When his urine turned red, they said that was normal. • By Day 3, the 15-year-old was on the verge of death, his dehydrated organs shutting down. • Slumped against a wall, cold and immobile, Lehman recalls men who recited Scripture calling him a wimp. And he thought: Maybe, if I die here, someone will shut this place down. • Not in Florida.
In this state, unlicensed religious homes can abuse children and go on operating for years. Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children’s homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.
Today, virtually anyone can claim a list of religious ideals, take in children and subject them to punishment and isolation that verge on torture — so long as they quote chapter and verse to justify it. Read the rest of this entry
Neil Riser campaign worker linked to defunct church girls’ home, accusations of sexual abuse by father-in-law minister
In America, there was a string of “Christian” (I use the term loosely) reform homes, where children were subjected to horrifying abuse. Some of them still exist; most of them use Accelerated Christian Education. This is the tip of the iceberg.
Originally posted on Louisiana Voice:
Two men with ties to a defunct church-operated home for girls and boys in Bienville Parish—and to the Baptist minister and accused sexual predator who ran the facility—currently are actively involved in the congressional campaign of State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia), LouisianaVoice has learned.
Timothy Johnson of Choudrant in Lincoln Parish, who was fired earlier this year as a vice president at Louisiana College after leading an unsuccessful coup against President Joe Aguillard, is married to the daughter of Rev. Mack Ford who ran New Bethany Home for Girls and Boys south of Arcadia in Bienville Parish for several decades.
There’s a trend I’ve long noticed on this blog: Articles which involve creationism and/or fundamentalists being hiliarious get a lot of hits. Posts about child abuse get nothing by comparison. This blog is about to take a turn that may lose me some readers. I can understand this. Some of you read this blog for entertainment; these posts will not be entertaining. They will, however, be extremely important. There is now strong evidence that children have been abused in “Christian” reform homes for decades. Despite this, the victims’ voices have barely been heard. The perpetrators have rarely seen any kind of justice, and the public is largely oblivious. I have a platform on this blog, and I am determined to help give these victims a voice.
It will take a lot of posts to alert you to the scale of the problem. To begin with, these will mostly be reposts and links to existing material online. You may not have time to read them all, or you may find them too distressing; virtually all of it needs to come with a trigger warning. I don’t expect you to read every word (even I haven’t managed that); I just want you to see enough to recognise the patterns and themes in victims’ testimonies, the way multiple independent witnesses corroborate each other.
Most of the material has been written from the standpoint of deep sympathy for the victims. As a result, sometimes the evidence provided is not as rigorous as it might need to be to stand up in court, or even to go on Wikipedia without a  tag. This is a problem, and when I have time I hope to provide more concrete evidence. I understand the victims are in possession of this type of evidence, in the form of court documents and school records. Some are in the process of giving witness statements to local sheriff’s departments. They deserve justice, and I want to help them get it. In the meantime, you will see that the sheer quantity of evidence means that, although we can’t always be sure of the details of what happened, it is beyond reasonable doubt that these homes are abusive. This abuse is not peripheral, or just by a few bad apples. It is endemic.
I became aware of these schools because so many of them use Accelerated Christian Education. ACE’s relationship to these schools is interesting and complex, but, as we’ll see later, ACE specifically praises them in at least one of its own PACEs.
Please stay with me on this. I might post more typical, fun creationist stuff in between to keep you all on side.
You may remember Cat Givens’ story about her time in one of these schools. This is an indicator of what’s to come:
Off to a girls’ home in Louisiana for me! New Bethany Home for Wayward Girls. I was to be there for a year.
Surely, this would save my soul and make me a compliant teenager. At this girls’ home, the same type of hellfire and brimstone attitude prevailed. I was not allowed to wear pants, as that was a sin. I could not listen to any music besides gospel, as that was a sin. I could not talk about my past, as I had no past. I had to be called by my first and middle name because I was to become a new person.
There was an evangelical preacher who ran the place, Rev. Mac Ford. He and his wife, Thelma founded the home, and they took in rebellious teens from all over the country and also took in the unwanted girls who would just be abandoned there. We were all to comply with every rule or get whipped with a belt. That was the easy punishment. If a girl acted out, often she would be forced, after lights out, to stand in the hallway on her tip toes with eggs or tomatoes under her heels. If she slipped and squished one, she’d get a whipping or get hit with the switch. Runaways from the home were usually caught and then, after a sound whipping with the belt from Bro. Mac, she’d be handcuffed to her bed and a ‘trusted girl” would have the key. All meals were served her at her bed, and only was she uncuffed for bathroom and shower breaks. Once Bro Mac determined she had repented, she was off the cuffs.