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.”
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
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.
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