After years of frustrated attempts, of being ignored by the press, dismissed by law enforcement, and disbelieved by the adults that should have protected them, the heroic women of New Bethany have finally achieved a breakthrough. This week, Louisiana’s Times-Picayune is serialising the story of their journey back to New Bethany to report Mack Ford, New Bethany’s preacher-owner, for rape.
This story should not have been necessary. The reason it became necessary is because of negligence.
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.
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.”
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
Do it in the name of heaven,
You can justify it in the end.
—One Tin Soldier by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter
As more and more revelations come to light about the treatment of residents of the New Bethany Home for Girls and Boys in Arcadia and similar homes run by Rev. Mack Ford and wife Thelma in other localities, many serious questions remain unanswered.
- Why, for example, have the Fords and employees of the home never been charged with felony child abuse?
- How can a man (and dozens more like him scattered across the U.S.) mete out such barbaric treatment of children in the name of a Savior who’s every utterance of love, peace and forgiveness is in direct contradiction to the policies of these institutions?
- How can the doctrine of separation of church and state trump state laws enacted to protect children who are unable to protect…
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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.
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.
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.
Timothy Johnson performs work on behalf of the Riser campaign, Riser’s campaign headquarters confirmed on Monday. His son, Jonathan Johnson, Ford’s grandson, worked for about a decade as State Director for retiring 5th District Congressman Rodney Alexander at $75,000 per year and is currently a paid employee…
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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.