New Bethany. New Beginnings. Rebekah Home for Girls. Hephzibah House. Second Chance Ranch. Rachel Academy. Circle of Hope Girls Ranch. These are all places that claim to offer succor to parents of ‘troubled teens’, safe houses where they can send their kids for discipline and loving assistance to overcome whatever has made them rowdy or morose or obstinate or disobedient, all those symptoms of independence, and turn them into cheerful, cooperative, socialized citizens of community conventionality. They all rely heavily on the appeal of Christianity, and their names resonate with biblical themes…when hearing invocations of Jesus to draw children out to isolated camps ought instead to fill everyone with the same sense of dread that hearing the Jaws theme music ought to do.
Predictably, these fly-by-night camps run by Jesus freaks all turn out to be hellholes.
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.
The girls’ behavior was micromanaged down to the number of squares of toilet paper each was allowed; potential infractions ranged from making eye contact with another girl to not finishing a meal. Roxy, who suffered from urinary tract infections and menstrual complications, told me she was frequently put on redshirt, sometimes dripping blood as she stood. She was also punished with cold showers, she said, and endless sets of calisthenics after meals.
There are lots of horror stories about manipulating girls into cowed submission; but there are also plenty of boys’ schools where the lessons are taught with overt violence.
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.)
These people, cloaked in the trappings of religious faith, can carry out the most horrendous policies of naked child abuse, and local authorities often help them out: when girls escape the nightmare, police will haul them back and help handcuff them to their beds. These aren’t prisons for violent offenders; they’re supposed to be voluntary counseling centers to help unhappy children get back on track, at their parents’ request, and shouldn’t shackling children to the furniture be a sign that something is wrong? Every time these places are raided, they find evidence of screwy priorities.
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.
Would you send your kids to places run by psychotics with firearms and leg irons? I wouldn’t. There’s something seriously wrong with these dungeons.
Efforts have been made to change the situation.
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.
If you read the bill, it is a collection of fairly common sense rules to prevent child abuse and neglect: physical and mental abuse is prohibited, kids have access to a phone for emergencies, staff are required to know the state laws regarding child abuse and neglect. The bar is set very low here, and only basic, minimal, freakin’ obvious restrictions are imposed…and this would “effectively close all Christian ministries helping troubled youth”?
Then so be it. Christian ministries must be so unethical, so corrupt, so hateful, and so incompetent that perhaps we can simplify the law and just make exposing children to Christianity, period, a criminal act. I’d favor laws that prohibited churches and priests from anywhere within a mile of a school or playground, if Christians can’t even abide by the common-sense provisions of HR 911.