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Oct 30 2012

Religious Exemptions Allow Abuse in Florida

The Tampa Bay Times has a very disturbing report about how religious exemptions allow Christian academies and homes to commit the most horrible abuse against teenagers in the name of God. They begin with the story of one young man who nearly died at the Gateway Christian Military Academy after several days of abuse, then look at the laws that allow this to go on with impunity:

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.

The Tampa Bay Times spent a year investigating more than 30 religious homes that have housed children in recent years across Florida. Some operate with a religious exemption, legally regulated by a private Christian organization instead of the state. Others lost their exemption and operate with no legal accreditation at all.

Although most drew few complaints, nearly a dozen have been hounded by allegations of abuse. A review of thousands of pages of investigative files and interviews with dozens of former residents found:

• State authorities have responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in the past decade, but homes have remained open even after the state found evidence of sex abuse and physical injury.

• The religious exemption has for decades allowed homes to avoid state restrictions on corporal punishment. Homes have pinned children to the ground for hours, confined them in seclusion for days, made them stand until they wet themselves and exercised them until they vomited.

• Children have been bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline. A few barely escaped with their lives. In addition, in two settled lawsuits, a mother said her son was forced to hike on broken feet; a father said his son was handcuffed, bound at the feet, locked away for three days and struck by other boys at the instruction of the home.

• Adults have ordered children to participate in the punishment, requiring them to act as jailors, to bully troublemakers or to chase, tackle and sit on their peers.

• Teens have been denounced as sinners, called “faggots” and “whores,” and humiliated in front of their peers for menstrual stains and suspicions of masturbation.

• Parents share the blame. Some sign away their children for a year or more without first visiting a home or checking credentials. But state officials bear some responsibility because they have not warned the public about programs they believe are abusive.

• Florida taxpayers have supported some unlicensed homes with hundreds of thousands of dollars in McKay scholarships — a government program to help special needs students pay tuition at private schools.

It’s not only time to start putting those who run these homes in jail, it’s time to start putting the parents there too.

34 comments

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  1. 1
    raven

    They begin with the story of one young man who nearly died at the Gateway Christian Military Academy after several days of abuse,..

    He was lucky.

    It’s not uncommon for kids in these “xian” Gulags to end up dead.

    They are illegal because of this in some states. Florida isn’t one of them.

    Because nothing says jesus loves you like killing a kid.

  2. 2
    Alverant

    I’m not sure how much you can blame the state. The moment they started treating these christian torture camps as a crime there will be whines of “christian oppression” from the faithful. Religious freedom (for many christians at least) seems to mean a special exemption from the law.

  3. 3
    eric

    Alverant – I frankly think the state is more to blame than some of the parents. While I’m sure a lot of the parents are complicit, there are still probably many cases where the parents’ biggest crime is being disbelieving of the stories. But the state knows exactly what is going on, and the welfare of its citizens is the state’s very reason for being. If you are not collecting taxes to keep your citizens from getting beaten by other citizens at whim, what the frak are you taking taxes for?

  4. 4
    mikey

    “It’s not only time to start putting those who run these homes in jail, it’s time to start putting the parents there too.”

    Or perhaps send them to one of the “schools.”

  5. 5
    Bronze Dog

    I suspect a lot of parents are in denial. The disbelief that results from kids telling extreme but true stories is probably one of the protective measures against scrutiny. Add in the meme that children are horrible, selfish liars by nature, and the denial potential rises. Add in tribalist/authoritarian instincts on top of that and I wouldn’t be surprised if parents end up buying wildly implausible explanations for injuries. Then add in kids who are intimidated into giving such implausible explanations out of fear of what’d happen to whistle blowers.

    It’s a horrible, tangled mess, and fundie Christianity supports a lot of those components: Everyone’s born sinful, religiosity is a quick and easy substitute for other measures of trustworthiness, and authoritarian privilege for religious leaders.

  6. 6
    Raging Bee

    Or perhaps send them to one of the “schools.”

    That sounds fair at first — but then I suspect that’s where a lot of the perps learned their trade in the first place.

    Add in the meme that children are horrible, selfish liars by nature, and the denial potential rises.

    I’m sure that’s THE major motivating factor for these parents to sign away their kids: their kids didn’t turn out to be the Heaven-sent little angels they imagined, so their attitude goes from airheaded idealism to over-the-top disappointment and disgust at the sight of a real, unsocialized human; and that’s when they give up and let someone else do most of the tedious work of child-rearing.

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    You can tell how special religious people are, by the special rights they claim for themselves.

  8. 8
    democommie

    Several people in my family have said that they would send their children to Cath-O-Lick schools because of the “discipline”. That none of them have children is telling.

    I wouldn’t send any child to a religious institution of any sort. If they want to go I would certainly allow it, but I would also let them know that sinning is not the exclusive province of GODLESS heathens like yours truly.

  9. 9
    laurentweppe

    I frankly think the state is more to blame than some of the parents. While I’m sure a lot of the parents are complicit, there are still probably many cases where the parents’ biggest crime is being disbelieving of the stories.

    Apart from using scripture instead of obsolete and disproven behavioral studies, this reminds me of the Rotenberg center scandal. And in the Rotenberg center’s case, the people in charge took advantage of desperate parents who did not know how to deal with troubled children, telling them that they could “take them back” if they did not “like the program”, creating an atmosphere of blackmail where the center could pretty much bully some parents into submission.

  10. 10
    andrewjohnston

    Thing is, the states that allow these places to operate seem unable to actually stop them. Occasionally, one will get shut down, but since they never file criminal charges against the proprietors they can just start another one under a different name. And that’s not even addressing the centers that operate outside of the borders of the U.S.

  11. 11
    Raging Bee

    I wouldn’t send any child to a religious institution of any sort.

    Another factor here is that many parents don’t have much choice: if they’re convinced (rightly or wrongly) that their public schools are crap, and they can’t afford a decent private school, then they’re left with whatever private schools are covered by their tuition tax credit. I heard somewhere (not much attention to this in the MSM, gee, I wonder why…) that tuition tax credits are enough to cover church-owned schools, but not secular private schools.

  12. 12
    Michael Heath

    eric writes:

    I frankly think the state is more to blame than some of the parents. While I’m sure a lot of the parents are complicit, there are still probably many cases where the parents’ biggest crime is being disbelieving of the stories.

    I disagree. The root cause here is parents seeking to subject their children to religious indoctrination – in direct opposition to a child’s best interests. The outcomes Ed reports here reveal some of the more repugnant symptoms of such indoctrinal efforts albeit to a relatively small population of children. But the market exists for such places because of demand for such by parents.

    We also shouldn’t ignore the fact that while this is particularly vile, conservative Christian children are abused when they’re subjected to indoctrination even at church or in their home, as are public school students who attend schools in communities where policies are influenced by conservative Christians. This systemic abuse creates the environment which helps create the market we see here.

    I think the rise of the Internet will eventually lead to children being better able to organize and better advocate for their rights. So I expect this civil rights fight to begin relatively soon. Of course conservative Christians will have a tough time demonizing children like they do females, blacks, Hispanics, gays, humanists, liberals/progressives, Muslims, and atheists; so instead they’ll make the same arguments they’ve long made on this count when liberals fought and fight on behalf if children’s rights. That’s arguing the state is tyrannical in limiting their rights to protect kids as if their kids have no rights. However if children do publically advocate for their rights, we should see some increase in conservative Christians demonizing at least those children fighting for the rights of all children.

  13. 13
    matty1

    We need to abandon, and persuade others to abandon, the idea that one person can have rights over another. Parents do not have the right to bring up their children as they see fit they have the responsibility to bring them up in the child’s best interest. Obviously at the margins there is going to be uncertainty about what that best interest is and a practical need to let those who know an individual child best decide but these cases are not at the margins. They are smack in the middle of Evil Town.

  14. 14
    ArtK
    Add in the meme that children are horrible, selfish liars by nature, and the denial potential rises.

    I’m sure that’s THE major motivating factor for these parents to sign away their kids: their kids didn’t turn out to be the Heaven-sent little angels they imagined, so their attitude goes from airheaded idealism to over-the-top disappointment and disgust at the sight of a real, unsocialized human; and that’s when they give up and let someone else do most of the tedious work of child-rearing.

    That’s a basic tenet of child-rearing in the fundie world. If you want to be scared, check out some of the posts on No Longer Quivering like:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2012/10/fear-based-parenting/

    and

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nolongerquivering/2012/10/the-myth-of-teenage-rebellion/

  15. 15
    thecalmone

    Bastards.

  16. 16
    grendelsfather

    • Children have been bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline. A few barely escaped with their lives. In addition, in two settled lawsuits, a mother said her son was forced to hike on broken feet; a father said his son was handcuffed, bound at the feet, locked away for three days and struck by other boys at the instruction of the home.

    … and you shall know them by their love.

  17. 17
    andrew

    “When men believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”

    –Jacob Bronowski

  18. 18
    jakc

    “Gateway Christian Military Academy”

    I don’t know how you can be a Christian and be in the military. I always assumed all those Christians at the Air Force Academy wanted to be pilots.

  19. 19
    eric

    The root cause here is parents seeking to subject their children to religious indoctrination – in direct opposition to a child’s best interests. The outcomes Ed reports here reveal some of the more repugnant symptoms of such indoctrinal efforts albeit to a relatively small population of children. But the market exists for such places because of demand for such by parents.

    Sure the market exists. But undoubtedly some parents are in the market for a regular school with an extra hour of bible study and a school prayer over the intercom, nothing more. You know, the same basic curriculum taught in many public schools in Britain and Australia. Do you consider that abusive? Do you consider it comparable to the types of academies Ed mentioned above?

    In any event, we’re quibbling. I fully agree with Ed about how these abusive schools are a result of the state granting religious exceptions they shouldn’t. I agree many of the parents who send their kids to such abusive schools are complicit (though not all). My point was that the state is ultimately responsible for the results of allowing these exceptions.

  20. 20
    ricko

    “But undoubtedly some parents are in the market for a regular school with an extra hour of bible study and a school prayer over the intercom, nothing more. You know, the same basic curriculum taught in many public schools in Britain and Australia. Do you consider that abusive?”

    Yes, I consider that abusive.

    You don’t?

    The extra hour of “bible study” and the “school prayer over the intercom”, plus the additional evolutionary discussion, which isn’t a discussion; and the same for any other bit of “science” they mis-teach…

    Yeh, that sounds very abusive to me. And it did to my son, now 19, and it’s why he NEVER went near a Catholic School or a church.

  21. 21
    matty1
    “But undoubtedly some parents are in the market for a regular school with an extra hour of bible study and a school prayer over the intercom, nothing more. You know, the same basic curriculum taught in many public schools in Britain and Australia. Do you consider that abusive?”

    Yes, I consider that abusive.

    You don’t?

    The extra hour of “bible study” and the “school prayer over the intercom”, plus the additional evolutionary discussion, which isn’t a discussion; and the same for any other bit of “science” they mis-teach…

    If the comparison is to state schools in Britain then it is flat out untrue to suggest there is some ‘additional evolutionary discussion’ that promotes religion. Mainstream biology is on the national curriculum and at least when I went through this had no religious element and no big disconnect between what was taught at school and what I learnt at university. Maybe Sheffield University was teaching creationism cunningly disguised as discussions about genetics and palaeontology without a hint of ‘gaps’ or ‘weakenesses’.

    OK that rant out the way I actually had a more important point. It is true the religious education has a negative effect on children but if we stretch the word abuse to cover that and cases like the boy forced to walk on broken feet we rob it of meaning and leave ourselves without the language to explain the difference.

    There is a category that most people call abuse that means at least ‘doing things to children so bad that the adults should go to jail’. If you extend that name to cover cases that do not merit jail time (and no a prayer over the intercom doesn’t) you make the case against religiously motivated abuse less clear and invite misunderstanding about your goals.

    Stopping children being beaten or worse is very important. Getting religious education and compulsory prayer out of schools is also a worth goal but the two are not the same and should not be confused.

  22. 22
    joe_k

    The OED’s relevant definition of abuse:
    “Physical or mental maltreatment; the inflicting of physical or emotional harm or damage.”
    I hardly think that what in the UK is laughably called ‘religious education’ fits this definition; forcing a child to walk on broken bones most certainly does. If eric’s assertion that some religious schools in the US have the same curricula as UK schools, I fully agree with matty1 that suggesting that they teach evolution to be false is utter rubbish. Doubtless, some schools in the US DO teach evolution to be false, but even that isn’t abuse: I don’t think that you can argue that it inflicts emotional harm; and calling it such is merely trivialising actual abuse.

  23. 23
    Michael Heath

    matty1 writes (on a theme I started):

    It is true the religious education has a negative effect on children but if we stretch the word abuse to cover that and cases like the boy forced to walk on broken feet we rob it of meaning and leave ourselves without the language to explain the difference.

    There is a category that most people call abuse that means at least ‘doing things to children so bad that the adults should go to jail’. If you extend that name to cover cases that do not merit jail time (and no a prayer over the intercom doesn’t) you make the case against religiously motivated abuse less clear and invite misunderstanding about your goals.

    You mutated what I wrote and then knocked down your strawman. I wasn’t referring to religious education, but instead religious indoctrination which is exactly why I used the word “indoctrination” and not “education”. The two words have very different meanings.

    We don’t see hardly any religious education in U.S. public schools except in non-red state* localities’ AP classes. I happen to support teaching religion in the public schools, by insuring its relevancy in history and sociology classes along with overtly teaching comparative religion. We do see religious indoctrination in our homes, churches, and many church-run schools. We also encounter a suppression of education in our public schools because that education fully taught falsifies tens of millions of Americans’ religious beliefs. This is abuse because such indoctrination suppresses the development of children and limits both their educative opportunities beyond high school and their career opportunities. Far more children are harmed by these abusive actions than the few who are physically abused at the types of schools Ed reports about here.

    *I don’t refer only to red states, but areas which are predominately conservative, like my own northern Michigan; in spite of the fact Michigan overall is more blue than red.

  24. 24
    matty1

    You mutated what I wrote and then knocked down your strawman. I wasn’t referring to religious education, but instead religious indoctrination which is exactly why I used the word “indoctrination” and not “education”. The two words have very different meanings.

    I was not in fact talking about the distinction between education and indoctrination. I can accept that indoctrination is a bad thing for children but lots of things are bad for children, too little exercise, too much sugar, parents who don’t read with their children at home, lack of supervision, excessive supervision etc.

    My argument is that using one word ‘abuse’ to cover everything people can do that harms children leaves us less equipped to identify those cases where the harm justifies intervention.

  25. 25
    No Light

    We don’t see hardly any religious education in U.S. public schools

    So you do see it then?

  26. 26
    Michael Heath

    matty1 writes:

    My argument is that using one word ‘abuse’ to cover everything people can do that harms children leaves us less equipped to identify those cases where the harm justifies intervention.

    You knocked down ‘abuse’ by referring to education when the topic was instead indoctrination. And yes, I’ve observed kids who were also abused by parents who don’t develop their children in other ways where those methods are also legal.

    So is a grossly obese seven year-old significantly due to how his parents feed him a type of parental abuse? I think that’s a self-evident yes. This kid will most likely struggle his entire life because of his parents’ performance; he or she will not flourish in a way they could have if their parents had done even a minimally good job.

  27. 27
    Michael Heath

    No light writes:

    So you do see it then?

    Mostly not, which I already noted earlier. Sheesh. For example, I’ve only observed world history adequately incorporating religion into the curriculum of an AP class and not the history classes non-AP students take. No public schools in my area have a comparative religion class. We do not teach how and why religious adherents deny reality, i.e., the psychology of religiosity.

  28. 28
    matty1

    I think we may have a language issue here. When I say abuse I mean ‘doing something to child that would justify removing that child to state care and prosecuting the adult’.

    You want the word abuse to cover both illegal and legal harm. I think this reduces our ability to talk about what should and shouldn’t be illegal. If over feeding your 7 year old and locking him in the cellar for two days are both abuse then what is our argument for treating the parents more severely in the second case?

    Also because most peoples use of abuse is closer to mine than yours it plays into the hands of the paranoid who see criticism of religious child abuse as an attempt to ban religion.

  29. 29
    No Light

    Michael – you said:

    We don’t hardly see any

    It’s a double-negative. Do you mean that you “Hardly see any [creationism in schools]“?

  30. 30
    netamigo

    Such reports are nothing new. Reports have circulated for years of abuses in Roman Catholic run institutions.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_sexual_abuse_scandal_in_Ireland

  31. 31
    eric

    joe_k @22:

    If eric’s assertion that some religious schools in the US have the same curricula as UK schools, I fully agree with matty1 that suggesting that they teach evolution to be false is utter rubbish

    IMO the US religious schools tend to be more variable. Which is consistent with the fact that they are “wholly private.” So, some will be as I described (perfectly normal + a bit of bible), some will be, effectively, internment camps.

    In contrast, under the old* British system (shared by Australia), you had schools in the regular, state-run system including some Christianity in the curriculum. Because these schools are/were at least partially state regulated, that Christianity tended to be of the bland and nonconfrontational, nonevangelical variety. Not even the teachers took it very seriously, and nobody would think of letting religion influnce the science curriculum.

    Re: ricko and Michael Heath’s responses to Matty1, I basically agree with Matty. I’d agree that light religious indoctrination is a bad thing, but I probably wouldn’t call it abuse simply because using that word for a very wide range of bad activities is going to diminish it.

    *I say old merely because my personal experience with the system ended in the early 80s. I don’t mean to imply that there is a new system in place now, only that I’m not sure my description applies to British and Australian schools of 2012.

  32. 32
    uncephalized

    @No Light your grammar pedantry is noted, but misinformed. Double negatives do not make a positive in the vernacular of this or most other human languages. English is, I believe, in the minority of languages that don’t in fact require a double negative for purposes of agreement. I assume you understood with no difficulty what Michael Heath clearly intended to convey, which in itself largely defeats your lame objection.

  33. 33
    flex

    From the OP,

    Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children’s homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.

    Somehow this was the sentence which caught my eye.

    If state oversight (which usually looks for health and safety issues), hampers their religious practices, then something is wrong with their religious practices. When the state tells you that how you run an operation hurts people, the answer is not to remove state oversight but change the damn operation. This goes doubly when children are involved.

    You don’t need to blame the parents for sending their children to abusive schools. You don’t need to try to remove children from abusive schools. You need to stop the abuse.

    State oversight should be restored.

  34. 34
    Bronze Dog

    Of course conservative Christians will have a tough time demonizing children like they do females, blacks, Hispanics, gays, humanists, liberals/progressives, Muslims, and atheists;

    I certainly seem to remember them demonizing kids back when I was a kid, though not as overtly.

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