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A handy guide to ‘tough love’ teen reform homes

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.

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Remember the Christian Alamo

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.”

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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.

chain link fences and barbed wire surrounding New Bethany Home for Girls

The compound at New Bethany. No one got in or out without Mack Ford’s permission

Check it out in full here, or see a few choice quotations from me below. As usual, trigger warnings all round.

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