Horror stories from tough-love teen homes
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.
Once you’ve looked at this, along with the previous things I’ve posted, you’ll get the picture on fundamentalist reform homes.
Check it out in full here, or see a few choice quotations from me below. As usual, trigger warnings all round.
New Beginnings describes itself as a character-building facility for “troubled teens,” and what Jeannie Marie heard in church that day was that this might be a place for her daughter to heal. While jogging earlier that year, the 17-year-old (whom I’ll call Roxy) had been pulled into a vehicle and assaulted by a group of men. Since then, she had begun acting up at home, as well as sneaking out and drinking. Two weeks after seeing the girls in church, Jeannie Marie and her husband left Roxy in McNamara’s care with the promise that she would receive counseling twice a week and stay at New Beginnings no longer than two months. “It sounded like a discipleship program,” Jeannie Marie recalls. “A safe place where a daughter can go to have time alone to find God and her direction.”
Instead, Roxy found herself on the receiving end of brutal punishments. A soft-spoken young woman, blonde and blue-eyed with a bright smile, Roxy confided to me that she found it easier to discuss her ordeal with a stranger than with the people closest to her. She told me how, in her first weeks at the academy’s Missouri compound—a summer-camp setup in remote La Russell, population 145—she and other girls snuck letters to their parents between the pages of hymnals in a local church they attended, along with entreaties to congregants to mail them. When another girl snitched, Roxy said, McNamara locked some girls in makeshift isolation cells, tiled closets without furniture or windows. Roxy got “the redshirt treatment”: For a solid week, 10 hours a day, she had to stand facing a wall, with breaks only for worship or twice-daily bathroom trips.
She was monitored day and night by two “buddies,” girls who’d been there awhile and knew the drill. They accompanied her to the shower and toilet, and introduced her to a life of communal isolation and rigid discipline. Girls were not allowed to converse except from 6 to 9 p.m. each Friday. They were not allowed contact with their families during their first month, or with anyone else for six months. By that time, Roxy said, most girls are “broken,” having been told that their families have abandoned them, and that the world outside is a sinful, dangerous place where girls who leave are murdered or raped.
New Beginnings and numerous other Christian reform schools trace their lineages to Texas radio evangelist Lester Roloff, who founded the Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi back in 1967, employing disciplinary tactics that were adopted by dozens of imitators. He also pioneered girls’ singing groups as a way to promote Rebekah Home—the “Honeybee Quartet” was featured in his daily revivalist radio broadcasts. But back at the hive, Roloff’s wards were often subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where his sermons played in an endless loop. They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. “Better a pink bottom than a black soul,” Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing after he was prosecuted by the state of Texas on behalf of 16 Rebekah girls. (The attorney general responded that he was more concerned with bottoms “that were blue, black, and bloody.”) Later that year, a former student testified that a whipping at Rebekah Home left inch-high welts on her body.
THIS PAST FEBRUARY, parents at Amelia Academy, a Virginia Christian day school with no IFB affiliation, made an unpleasant discovery: One of the teachers had been accused by former students at the New Bethany Home for Boys and Girls—a Roloff-inspired facility in Louisiana—of participating in physical punishments decades earlier. After a heated school-board meeting where parents demanded an investigation, Amelia headmaster George Martin went online to solicit stories from New Bethany alumni. (A criminal background check came back clean, and the teacher, who denied abusing any children, remains at Amelia.)
One of the students Martin contacted was Teresa Frye, now a 43-year-old mother of four. She told me of her upbringing in North Carolina, where an IFB preacher named Mack Ford occasionally visited her church. He would arrive with a school bus full of teenagers from his girls’ home in Arcadia, a Louisiana town of 2,700. They made a striking presentation—young women in white blouses or dresses, with lovely voices, singing and offering dramatic testimonies. They spoke of living as prostitutes and drug addicts before finding salvation at New Bethany, where they now rode horses and studied the Bible. Churchgoers emptied their wallets, pouring out “love offerings” to sustain Ford’s mission.
Interviews with a half-dozen former students indicate that most of the girls were merely “rebellious” teens—like Frye, who at age 14 began resisting her strict Baptist parents. In 1982, they sent her to New Bethany, and her 10-year-old sister followed soon after. The girls found themselves at a remote compound bordered by a rural highway and ringed with barbed wire. There was no horseback riding. Their studies consisted of memorizing Scripture (mistakes were punishable by paddling) and a rote Christian curriculum. Discipline ranged from belt whippings to being forced to scrub pots with undiluted bleach or—in the years after Frye attended—wearing painfully high heels for weeks on end, or running in place while being struck from behind with a wooden paddle, according to alumni.
Then there was the “big sister treatment”—established students, directed by staff, inflicting punishments on the newbies. “It was basically like in the military, where they do a ‘blanket party,’ throwing a blanket over your head, and your teammates beat the crap out of you to make you get back in line,” says Lenee Rider, a New Bethany alum whose father, an IFB pastor, frequently hosted Ford’s touring chorus during his training.
Rider recalled one new girl she was assigned to supervise: Angela was a firebrand who’d arrived at New Bethany straight out of a mental institution and became such a target of staff and “big sister” discipline that she twice attempted suicide. First she jumped through the glass of a second-story window. Later, she slashed her wrists. Rider found her in the bathroom, surrounded by shards of broken mirror. After a housemother bandaged Angela’s arms, Rider said, she heard the girl being beaten down the hall. When Rider tried to apologize, Angela asked why she hadn’t just let her die.
In 2000, Rider created a New Bethany “survivor” forum comprising as many as 400 former residents and staff. Among them was Cat Givens, an Ohio radio technician who stayed at New Bethany in 1974 and became so shell-shocked by the routine of punishment and submission—and the spectacle of runaways being returned by the police and handcuffed to their beds—that she lost her will to resist. “After a while, I was so brainwashed I didn’t even want to run,” she told me. “I figured this was God’s plan.”
[Mack] FORD OPERATED A SEPARATE New Bethany home for boys in Longstreet, Louisiana. Clark Word, now 44, was sent there when he was about 15. On his second day, he recalls, he watched administrator Larry Rapier punch a boy of 10 or so in the mouth for wetting his pants on the bus to Sunday worship. Violence was the norm, Word says, and students were expected to enforce discipline. In one memorable 1982 incident, a student named Guy disappeared from the school after he was badly beaten with golf clubs by other students, leaving Guy’s terror-stricken friends to wonder whether the staff had finished him off. (Rapier’s ex-wife Dee told me she sent Guy to recover at her mother’s Texas home before returning him to his parents.)
Officers raided the compound and discovered Doug Word bound, in his underwear, on the floor of a dark and padlocked isolation cell. King and his assistant were charged with kidnapping, unlawful neglect, and conspiracy. They pled no contest to false-imprisonment charges and received suspended sentences and probation. “I took that case personally,” recalls Emory Rush, the now-retired sheriff’s chief deputy who led the raid. “I abhorred the fact that they would do children like they were doing them.”
The raid grabbed headlines, but the school reopened again, this time merging with Ford’s New Bethany girls’ school in Arcadia. Over the next two decades, both the girls’ and boys’ branches would close and reopen several times more—swelling at times to hundreds of students.
Authorities and watchdog groups are familiar with the patterns—the state-hopping, the frequent openings and closings—but “people forget,” says Deputy Rush. Indeed, Olin [Olen] King (who through his wife declined to comment for this article) now runs a North Carolina home for preteen boys under the names King Family Ministries and Second Chance Ranch. New Bethany alumni alerted local authorities to King’s past and his new location. But Maj. Durward Bennett, the former chief deputy of the local sheriff’s department, told me they didn’t see fit to investigate King’s new home because, Bennett erroneously insisted, King was never convicted, and North Carolina has never deemed him unfit to operate a home.
The operators of shady homes do seem to have a knack for avoiding major prosecution. Just last year, prosecutors in Blount County, Alabama, charged Jack Patterson—a Roloff protégé and founder of a boys’ home called Reclamation Ranch—with aggravated child abuse. Then-prosecutor Tommy Rountree said deputies raided the ranch after an escapee alerted them to beatings, isolation cells, and armed staffers who would “go hunting for runaways.”
The raid uncovered handguns and rifles, leg irons, and handcuffs; 11 boys were taken into state custody. But because deputies neglected to seize Patterson’s computer, which the escapee claimed contained files of videotaped beatings, Patterson was able to plead his felony charges down to a “verbal harassment” misdemeanor carrying a $500 fine. He now runs a home for adult men on the Reclamation Ranch property and a girls’ home called Rachel Academy in neighboring Walker County—and is in the process, he says, of opening new homes in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.
Congress has tried, and so far failed, to rein in the schools. In 2007, a spate of deaths at teen residential programs prompted a nationwide investigation by the Government Accountability Office. Its findings—which detailed the use of extended stress positions, days of seclusion, strenuous labor, denial of bathroom access, and deaths—came out in a series of dramatic congressional hearings over two years. The result was House Resolution 911 (PDF), which proposed giving residents access to child-abuse hotlines and creating a national database of programs that would document reports of abuse and keep tabs on abusive staff members.
Hephzibah House’s Ron Williams and Reclamation Ranch’s Jack Patterson urged supporters to fight the bill. In an open letter, Williams argued that it would “effectively close all Christian ministries helping troubled youth because of its onerous provisions.” They were joined by a group called the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, which opposed HR 911 on the grounds that states—despite all evidence to the contrary—are best situated to oversee the homes. The bill passed in the House, but stalled in a Senate committee.*
In March 2010, the House passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act, a bill that would have banned the use of seclusion and physical or chemical restraints by any school that benefits from federal education money. (It, too, died in the Senate.) Andy Kopsa, who covers abusive homes in her blog, Off the Record, noted that GOP members whose districts host tough-love schools rallied against the act. They included former Indiana Rep. Mark Souder (Hephzibah House), Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt (Reclamation Ranch, Rachel Academy), and North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx (King Family Ministries), who testified: “This bill is not needed…The states and the localities can handle these situations. They will look after the children.”
In the absence of federal action, alumni of the teen institutions have been trying to expose the abuses. In 2008, Susan Grotte, a Hephzibah House alum, led some 60 survivors in campaigning for its closure; they wrote to newspapers and picketed outside the county courthouse in Warsaw, Indiana, near where the school is located. “We have laws to protect people from illegal incarceration,” she says, “but apparently not if you’re a teenage girl.” In the past year, New Bethany alums staged a reunion trip to confront the Fords, and they joined with members of kindred groups such as Survivors of Institutional Abuse to gather and publicize survivor stories. SIA is planning a 2012 convention for adults who have been through “lockdown teen facilities.”
If you were a victim of abuse in Louisiana when you were younger than 18, you should know that the statute of limitations has been raised to thirty years. Even if you were abused and the statute of limitations has passed, I encourage you to contact survivor groups and share your story. Combining your voices will help justice to be done. Please contact me if you’d like to share your experience in one of these teen homes on this blog.
Posted on October 4, 2013, in Accelerated Christian Education, Atheism, Christianity, Education, Faith Schools, Fundamentalism and tagged Christian reform homes, IFB, Lester Roloff, Mack Ford, Mother Jones, New Beginnings, New Bethany, Rebekah Home for Girls, troubled teen reform, troubled teens. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.
When I was younger, my mother threatened me and my sister with these camps. She never pretended they were anything other than Christian prisons for girls, and it breaks my heart that there are still kids being tormented at these hellish places.
Thanks for shining a light, Jonny!
This is just awful. I am somewhat familiar with the names. Lester Roloff is looked at as a god by my family. They believe what he did for the “wayward, rebellious girls” was the greatest thing ever. Also I was in a service that was preached by Ron Williams. It was shortly after I left the IFB. I was visiting my dad and of course you go to church on Sunday when you are with him. Ron Williams knew about me and what went on with my leaving the IFB. The whole sermon was about how girls should live with their dad until the day they die. Also he said that if a girl is sexually abused that is her fault. She did something to deserve that. It was sick. At the end of the service, he went to go shake my hand. I turned and walked the other way. Can’t stand him at all.
Wow. This is amazing. I’ve had people three people mention now that they know or have met key players in the troubled teens industry. Sounds awful. I’m glad you escaped Debby.
I wasn’t in the home. My friend was. But I knew the man who ran it because my dad was an IFB pastor.
I’m embarrassed and ashamed that my country doesn’t do a better job in protecting children. I am a convert to Catholicism, which is still reeling from the priest sex abuse scandal. We can and must do a better job in looking out for the welfare of children everywhere.
Reblogged this on The Iniquitous: Church Crimes.