7 Apr 2011

Online survivors of boot camps for troubled teens play significant role in shutting down degrading abusive programs

TIME Magazine - April 5, 2011

Increasingly, Internet Activism Helps Shutter Abusive 'Troubled Teen' Boot Camps

By Maia Szalavitz

For the last 40 years, teens with drug problems, learning disabilities and other behavioral issues have been sent to residential facilities to endure "tough love" techniques that are widely known to include methods of outright physical and psychological abuse.

Whether labeled as boot camps, emotional-growth schools, behavior modification programs or wilderness programs, these organizations have operated without federal oversight, and state regulation of the schools ranges from lax to nonexistent. Now, however, individual critics of the programs are using the Internet to find each other and mobilize, and are bringing change.

Consider the Elan School, in Poland, Maine, which has long been known for its extreme practices. On April 1, Elan shut its doors after four decades in operation, blaming negative publicity online for recent declines in enrollment. "The school has been the target of harsh and false attacks spread over the Internet with the avowed purpose of forcing the school to close," Sharon Terry, Elan's executive director, told the Lewiston Maine Sun Journal. The paper reported:

Despite several recent investigations conducted by the Maine Department of Education that Terry said have vindicated the school, "the school has, unfortunately, been unable to survive the damage."

Elan is just the most recent in a growing list of victories for opponents of tough residential programs for troubled teens. In the last three years, some 40 other private institutions like Elan have closed, and others have been condemned by state investigations, as activism online — mostly led by survivors of such programs and their parents — has increased.

Last month, the Oregon Department of Human Services released its report on the August 2009 death of Sergey Blashchishena, a 16-year-old student at the Sagewalk wilderness program in Bend, Ore., which was run by Aspen Education, the largest chain of behavioral health centers for teenagers in the U.S. Blashchishena died of heatstroke on his first day at the program after being made to hike in 89-degree weather, carrying a backpack that exceeded the weight standard for adult infantrymen. He was not given medical aid when he began to show signs of heat exhaustion.

Online activists widely posted stories about Blashchisena's death and encouraged former program participants to send information to investigators. The state's final report substantiates findings of neglect against the program and two of its staff members.

Also in 2009, an investigation by TIME found that girls at another Aspen program in Oregon, Mount Bachelor Academy, were being forced to do lap dances and other inappropriate sexual acts as part of "therapy." A state investigation of the school would later confirm that "sexualized role play in front of staff and peers, requiring students to say derogatory phrases about themselves in front of staff and peers" and "requiring students to reenact past physical abuse in front of staff and peers" did occur, and that the practices were "punitive, humiliating, degrading and traumatizing."

In this case, again, Facebook groups, websites and email lists allowed program survivors and their parents to find one other; they uncovered information about earlier state investigations into Mount Bachelor that had been stymied by lack of access to victims, and they were able to pool new information to help current investigators see the pattern of abuse.

Both Aspen programs are now closed, and just last month the group announced the closure of five more programs as well as the consolidation of another three around the country. In a press release, Aspen blamed the economy, saying, "This transition reflects the reduced demand for therapeutic schools and programs in today's economy."

While it's certain that the economic downturn has contributed to the programs' financial troubles — tuition can cost $6,000 a month or more, over several months to years — activism online has also clearly played a significant role. The Elan School was simply the first to cite Internet activity as a direct cause of its closure.

"This movement couldn't have happened without the Internet," says Kathryn Whitehead, founder of CAFETY, the Community Alliance For the Safe and Ethical Treatment of Youth, and a former student at another abusive program that recently closed. "The Internet has been absolutely critical because survivors are spread out across the U.S. They get sent to a program and then they have to go home. When you connect to other program survivors, you recognize that this is a large-scale problem, not an individual program's problem. That has been critical in bringing people together. It's an incredibly effective organizing tool."

What's more, unlike in the heyday of troubled-teen programs, the Internet now allows the instantaneous sharing of information about the current and past goings-on at the schools; in previous eras, those details were scattered in the archives of local newspapers or government files.

When activists looked up local newspaper accounts of the Elan School from 1975, for instance, they found that psychologists who visited Elan had been quoted as saying it was "bizarre and degrading" and that "the whole concept of the program seems to be a brain-washing technique."

Elan was among the most notorious of the country's emotional-growth schools. It was there, in the late 1970s, that Michael Skakel, cousin to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., allegedly confessed to the 1975 murder of his 15-year-old neighbor in Greenwich, Conn., Martha Moxley — a crime for which Skakel remains incarcerated. Skakel's parents had enrolled the boy at Elan to treat an alcohol problem after he was arrested for drunk driving in 1978, several years after the murder.

But what is less known are the techniques commonly used to prompt such confessions at Elan — tactics that were employed at the school for decades, according to former students, often with knowledge of state authorities.

Take "the ring," for instance. In this disciplinary tactic, two students are encircled by a ring of their peers, their arms tightly meshed to prevent escape. Dozens of students and staff members congregate around the ring to spectate, packed into a bare room not much bigger than a studio apartment. At the only exit to the outdoors, which opens directly to the Maine woods, a teenage sentry is stationed. Sentries guard interior doors as well.

One of the student "boxers" inside the ring has been designated to "fight on the side of good." He's there as a representative of the school. The other has been labeled as the bad guy: he is there to accept punishment for breaking one of the school's many strict rules.

As the match gets underway, the ring of teens, typically aged 13 to 18, participates by hitting, pinching or trying to trip the bad guy; maltreating him is not only not encouraged, it's the point. Refusing to participate in jeering or bullying is suspect, and teens who stay quiet risk becoming victims themselves.

Between one-minute rounds, the victim is taunted by spectators and denied water and crowd support. Until he surrenders and accepts whatever label or rule he had rebelled against, fresh opponents are brought in to break him. When he does finally break, the damage is both physical — he's typically bruised and bloodied — and mental. Similar "rings" were also held for girls.

And that's only one example tough love, Elan style. Such accounts of torture and neglect date back to the 1970s, and many came to light as part of the sensational Skakel murder trial in 2002. Witnesses describe kids being systematically slammed against every wall of an entire dormitory. They detail grueling days of sleep deprivation, beatings and psychological humiliation. Students were consistently left in charge of other teens, and instructed to beat them if they did not comply with orders.

Based primarily on testimony from Elan classmates, who said they heard Skakel confess to killing Moxley, the Kennedy cousin was convicted. At Elan, Skakel was made to wear a sign for weeks saying "Confront Me About Why I Killed My Friend," and he is said to have confessed to the murder only after a session in the ring. Confessions gained by the police through methods similar to those used at Elan are illegal. "Basically, they tried to erase you," said one woman who attended Elan from 2002 to 2004.

Jeff Wimbelton led the online charge to close Elan. (The name is a pseudonym; for professional reasons, Wimbelton does not wish to be identified.) Now in his 20s, he attended the school in the early 2000s, having been sent there following an arrest for running away from home.

Wimbelton says he witnessed the brutality of the ring at least 20 times during the two years he was enrolled at Elan, and was himself made to fight "on the side of good."

Although the state of Maine was aware that this violent ritual was being conducted at the school, it did little more than encourage Elan to stop voluntarily. Yellow Light Breen, a spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education, told the Sun Journal in 2002 that:
...his department was aware of the "ring" treatment at Elan and that it was a "real issue" 10 to 12 years ago. "We pressed them pretty hard and they agreed not to do it," he says. "We were certainly led to believe it ceased several years" ago.
Also, he added, in the last year, the DOE has banned the use of restraints and so-called "adverses," like being hit, pinched or being subject to loud noises.

Wimbelton says that despite Elan's claims that the ring was stopped in 2000, he saw a ring session as late as 2001. Other former students corroborate his story.

In 2007, the continued use of so-called aversive therapies despite a lack of evidence of their effectiveness — and despite significant evidence of their harms — spurred me to write an op-ed piece about Elan for the New York Times. At the time, Elan was one of two out-of-state programs using punitive treatment at which New York State youth with conditions like autism, learning disabilities or behavior problems were eligible to receive state-funded treatment.

My piece prompted a state investigation. As the Sun Journal reported:

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said the agency has "investigated Elan a number of times based on reports of abuse and other deficiencies, and never found any evidence." He said that New York officials also have investigated, and never found evidence of abuse at the Poland school.

But that's not what New York State officials told me. In a letter to Elan following the investigation prompted by my Times op-ed, regulators said that Elan used "sleep deprivation," excessive isolation and restraint, and "coercive and confrontational" counseling that was conducted by untrained students, who often used foul language. They asked that these "health and safety" issues be resolved within seven days.

It's not clear why Maine's investigators failed for decades to find abuse at the school, while New York's officials saw disturbing treatment during their first visit. It could be because Maine announces its inspections in advance, while New York sends investigators to programs unannounced.

Wimbelton was inspired to act after reading media reports about the 2007 investigation of Elan and the later comments of recent graduates. One woman wrote in the comments section below my Huffington Post article about the investigation that her nephew had committed suicide after being enrolled at Elan. Another woman who had attended the school from 2005 to 2008 commented there that she was "traumatized."

"Reading that comment, it was like a fuse went off in my brain," says Wimbelton, who had assumed that Elan had reformed its ways since he had attended. "I thought, I can't believe this is still going on. I have to do something to stop it."

He waged an online war using every weapon he could think of: Facebook pages, tumblr blogs, websites and other social media. When Wimbelton posted about Elan on Reddit, the post received thousands of votes and generated enormous traffic. He encouraged others to post their stories too. People responded, posting and cross-linked their missives enough so that anti-Elan sites soon began to rise to the top of Google's search results, offering parents a very different view of the program than that on the school's own website.

Wimbelton even looked up the local media's coverage of school sports, which listed the names of Elan athletes. With a little online sleuthing, Wimbleton was able to find the names of the parents of the kids; he called them to try to warn them about what went on at the school. Upon hearing Wimbelton's story and reading the links he sent, the parents of four such children decided to withdraw their enrollment, he says.

"The fantastic thing about the Internet has been that individuals can post their own personal experiences — it's not a one-sided marketing tool," says Whitehead.

Elan insists that it has done nothing wrong, and that the 40 years worth of stories from dozens of teens has misrepresented its curriculum. Indeed, there are some former students who thank the school for its tough tactics, crediting them for saving their lives. But since there has never been a controlled study of the program's methods, it's impossible to know whether they could possibly be broadly effective.

"It's surreal," Wimbleton says of the school's closure. "There were times I thought it was a lost cause. How in God's name was that allowed to go on for so long?"

"It's fantastic news," says Whitehead. But she notes that about 400 private, unregulated programs still operate, locking down teens and using harsh, humiliating and confrontational approaches as therapy. Legislation to regulate these programs passed the House following GAO investigations and Congressional hearings in 2007 and 2008, but the bill is still awaiting introduction into the Senate and passage of new regulations appears unlikely.

This article was found at:


Teen behavior modification industry preys on fears of parents and abuses young people

The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry

When Is "Tough Love" Torture?

An Oregon School for Troubled Teens Under Scrutiny

Economy Killing Abusive Teen Programs

Trapped in a Mormon Gulag

NY legislator accepts admissions position at Family Foundation School which is under investigation for child abuse

Evangelical Christian boot camp, Shepherd's Hill Farm, accused by former inmates of child indoctrination, abuse and endangerment

Christian fundamentalist boot-camp for kids indoctrinates them to fight 'bloody' religious war

Teen Challenge--an Assemblies of God-run "kiddie boot camp" chain

Mistrial declared in boot-camp dragging case

Jewish family sues Jamaican reform school for troubled teens

UK court rules Catholic Church liable for decades of systemic abuse in Catholic-run home for troubled boys

Reclamation Ranch pastor charged with child abuse

Study shows strongest evidence yet that spanking kids does more harm than good

Corporal punishment slows the intellectual growth of children: researchers

Line between spanking and abuse difficult to determine

Controversial new study on spanking contradicts abundant research that it is counterproductive

Religion and Child Abuse

Forced into Faith: How Religion Abuses Children's Rights [book]

Six more members of Wisconsin house church to be charged for beating children according to biblical dictate

Pastor of Wisconsin house church charged for beating children with rods says he was just using biblical punishment

For fundamentalist Christian group there is No Greater Joy than biblically beating kids into religious submission

Fundamentalist parents using biblical discipline charged with murder & torture of adopted daughters

"The Spanking Room – A Child's Eye View of the Jehovah's Witnesses"

Mormon dad beat daughter over her refusal to follow his faith, court told

Harsh discipline of children is a central tenet of Twelve Tribes cult

Twelve Tribes cult members exploited by reclusive leader living lavish lifestyle, corporal punishment controls kids

Last Catholic high school in US using corporal punishment is fighting archbishop's efforts to end the abuse

European human rights body pushes UK to ban all spanking as a violation of children's rights

Child rights advocates in Philippines call on parents, guardians, and other authorities to end corporal punishment

New Zealanders vote in non-binding referendum to reinstate parental right to assault children

Result of flawed referendum will not change New Zealand law protecting children from assault by parents

Alabama allows teachers to assault students, 12 year old shows bruises and welts received for failing science test

One of Canada's oldest, most elite Anglican schools was "a place that destroyed children"

New Abu Dhabi law makes private schools liable for verbal, physical and psychological abuse of students

Teachers beating students still common in UAE despite government ban on corporal punishment in schools

20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - U.S.A. still not signed

Petition urges President Obama to ratify UN Convention on the Rights of the Child like every country except Somalia

Senator Boxer Seeks to Ratify U.N. Treaty That May Erode U.S. Rights

U.S. religious conservatives argue parents have right to beat and indoctrinate children, continue to fight children's rights treaty

Ignore the Rod: the Parental Rights Amendment Isn’t About Spanking

Parental rights: The new wedge issue

Children’s rights treaty stirs debate in U.S.

Who will raise kids: Mom, Dad or state?

New Jersey Supreme Court rules slapping teen is not child abuse, but Canadian teen died when her dad slapped her

Canadian teen who died after her father slapped her had heart surgery when she was 3, father granted bail pending trial

Canadian girl pressured to pray dies after being slapped in the face, father arrested for aggravated assault

Loophole in British law banning corporal punishment in schools exempts madrasahs where abuse is widespread

Teachers 'beat and abuse' Muslim children in British Koran classes

Israeli cult leader arrested for the extreme corporal punishment of dozens of children to make them better adults

Hare Krishna temple leader quits over beating scandal

'Violent' teacher still working at temple

Culture cited in voodoo whipping case


  1. "... unlike in the heyday of troubled-teen programs, the Internet now allows the instantaneous sharing of information about the current and past goings-on at the schools; in previous eras, those details were scattered in the archives of local newspapers or government files."

    The author of this article has identified one of the reasons I keep this archive of news articles. Even today many news items online become quickly inaccessible. I can't count the times I have clicked on a link to a news item I'm searching for only to find the link is dead and the article cannot be found on the originating site, or it is hidden behind a subscription wall.

    News articles often contain many important details that can help survivors of abuse or warn those searching for information about a person or group. By archiving such articles here my intention is to make it as easy as possible for people to find information about abusive organizations. I know it works because people have thanked me for it, although I certainly get my share of angry comments from abusers or their apologists who hate being exposed.

  2. Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes
    Girls locked up inside fundamentalist religious compounds. Kandahar? No, Missouri.

    Mother Jones July/August 2011 Issue


    ... At both the state and federal levels, the "troubled teen" industry—religious and secular—enjoys quiet support from many politicians. (Key fundraisers for Mitt Romney's 2008 and 2012 campaigns hail from Utah's teen-home sector [16].) Local courts promote the homes as an alternative to juvenile detention, and facilities can collect a variety of state and federal grants.

    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 [17]. 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 [18] (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 [19] 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.*

    In March 2010, the House passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act [20], a bill that would have banned the use of seclusion and physical or chemical restraints by any school that benefits from federal education money. (It, too, died in the Senate.) Andy Kopsa, who covers abusive homes in her blog, Off the Record [21], noted that GOP members whose districts host tough-love schools rallied against the act. They included former Indiana Rep. Mark Souder (Hephzibah House), Alabama Rep. Robert Aderholt (Reclamation Ranch, Rachel Academy), and North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx (King Family Ministries), who testified: "This bill is not needed...The states and the localities can handle these situations. They will look after the children."

    In the absence of federal action, alumni of the teen institutions have been trying to expose the abuses. In 2008, Susan Grotte, a Hephzibah House alum, led some 60 survivors in campaigning for its closure; they wrote to newspapers and picketed outside the county courthouse in Warsaw, Indiana, near where the school is located. "We have laws to protect people from illegal incarceration," she says, "but apparently not if you're a teenage girl." In the past year, New Bethany alums staged a reunion trip to confront the Fords, and they joined with members of kindred groups such as Survivors of Institutional Abuse [22] to gather and publicize survivor stories. SIA is planning a 2012 convention [23] for adults who have been through "lockdown teen facilities."

  3. How To Create An Addict - Trauma, abuse and chronic stress increase—massively—the risk of a child turning to drugs and alcohol. Warning to fans of "tough love" treatment like Dr. Drew: try a little tenderness.

    by Maia Szalavitz The Fix

    Is addiction caused by drugs alone? Or could chronic stress in childhood—AKA trauma—play the determining factor in predicting who will lose control once they start using drugs?

    As we reckon with the consequences of 9/11 a full ten years on, the role of childhood trauma in addiction gains increasing scientific traction. Early life experience programs the brain and body for the environment it encounters: a calm, nurturing upbringing will orient a child to thrive in most conditions, while a stressful, barren one will predispose it to conditions of scarcity, anxiety and chaos. Not all stress is bad, however. Learning requires some stress, and coping with intermittent, mild doses builds the system up, like a muscle. Stress crosses into the hazard zone of trauma only when it comes in "doses" that are too large or too unpredictable or too sustained over which the person has little or no control. Paradoxically, early neglect—an absence of parenting—can be as traumatic as overt abuse.


    The type of adverse experience doesn’t make a large difference in the results, according to Felitti: what seems to matter most is the cumulative effect of multiple types of stress. For example, having been both physically abused and neglected is worse than having been physically abused alone.

    One factor does stand out, however. “I would have assumed before we looked at it that probably the most destructive problem would be incest—but interestingly it was not, it was co-equal with the others,” says Felitti. Instead, he notes, “The one with the slight edge, by 15% over the others, was chronic recurrent humiliation, what we termed as emotional abuse,” citing examples like parents calling their children stupid and worthless. (The study did not look at bullying by peers, but other studies have found that such abuse can haver similarly negative health effects.)

    Ironically, humiliation is a common theme in addiction treatment, where tough confrontation to “break” addicts remains a frequent practice, despite research showing its ineffectiveness and harmfulness. Some so-called therapeutic-community programs, for example, place people on a “hot seat,” where they are confronted about their personality flaws and other negative qualities, sometimes for hours on end. Other programs force people to wear humiliating signs or even diapers. Sexual humiliation, such as forcing men or teenage boys to wear drag or women pose as prostitutes, is not uncommon. Although mainstream programs like Phoenix House and Daytop have worked to eliminate such degrading practices, they persist in the industry, particularly—and tragically—with adolescents.

    Indeed, people traumatized as children can actually be re-traumatized by this form of treatment, exacerbating both post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction.

    read the full article at:


  4. For teen program's chief, tough love may have turned criminal

    By Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles Times
    November 13, 2011

    The surprise visit to Alberto Ruiz's house was swift. Dress quickly, he was told. You're going to boot camp. His parents, worried about his drug use and habit of skipping school, had followed a friend's advice and called Kelvin McFarland. Ruiz's behavior had earned him a spot in McFarland's Family First Growth Camp in Pasadena, a place with a reputation for breaking gang-bangers and drug addicts and turning them into law-abiding teens.

    A former Marine who likes to be called "Sgt. Mac," McFarland founded the camp two years ago and boasted that his tough-love tactics and military-strict discipline were the perfect formula for reforming gang members, taming runaways and getting through to troublemakers. Ruiz, who is now 18, credits McFarland's intervention for helping him finish school and quit drugs. But authorities say McFarland's scared-straight approach crossed the line and veered into criminal behavior earlier this year when he crossed paths with another Pasadena teen.

    Investigators allege that in May, McFarland was driving in Pasadena when he spotted a girl walking along the street during school hours. He stopped to question her, then handcuffed her, placed her in his car and told her to direct him to a relative's home. At the relative's home, he demanded money from her father to enroll the 14-year-old in his program. The girl's father mistook McFarland for a truancy officer when he flashed a badge, Pasadena police said.

    McFarland is facing trial on felony charges of kidnapping, extortion, false imprisonment and child abuse, and unlawful use of a badge, a misdemeanor. Now Pasadena police are investigating possible abuses that allegedly occurred at a rival Pasadena boot camp where McFarland once worked. The Pasadena Star-News recently published videos allegedly filmed in 2009 in which McFarland can be seen yelling at teens, forcing them to gulp down water even as they retch and vomit. In one scene, McFarland and other drill instructors appear to scream at a youngster, inches from his face, as he collapses in tears under the weight of a car tire on his shoulders. ...

    McFarland is set to stand trial Wednesday ...
    But McFarland continues to operate his program throughout Pasadena, in local parks and occasionally a small strip-mall church. In fact, it didn't take long for the boot camp to resume after McFarland got out of jail In mid-June, from the stage of Faithworks Ministries church, McFarland — freshly released on bail — thanked his cadets and their families, quoting the Bible as he spoke. For days, they had rallied on his behalf outside a Pasadena courthouse, hoping a judge would reduce his bail.

    McFarland, a deeply religious man raised by an aunt in rural Georgia, looked on quietly. Dressed in his signature military fatigues, he occasionally barked commands as the cadets stood in formation. "I don't know of a boot camp that praises the Lord as much as we do," said McFarland ...
    ...Gibbs said he fired McFarland when he discovered his criminal history and heard complaints from staff that he was using excessive force when disciplining cadets. McFarland said he only followed Gibbs' orders.

    Gibbs has also faced allegations of child abuse. In a 2010 letter from Edwin Diaz, superintendent of the Pasadena Unified School District, Gibbs was told his permit to use school district facilities for his camp had been revoked. School officials had received reports from parents that Gibbs' boot camp tactics amounted to corporal punishment. ...

    read the full article at:


  5. Where Evil Lies: Our View of the Penn State Scandal

    By Maia Szalavitz, The Fix November 14, 2011

    When I learned that Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky—the Nittany Lions’ former assistant coach charged on November 5 with 40 criminal counts of sexually abusing eight boys—had founded a program for “troubled youth” in 1977, I couldn’t have been less surprised. You see, if you want to rape, molest and sexually traumatize children—while enjoying impunity for decades and being paid to do what you love—running a program for troubled children is the way to go. Especially if the kids are "disadvantaged"—poor, involved with drugs and/or have addicted parents.

    Unfortunately, as a society, we tend to read "disadvantaged" as not only disposable but disreputable and dishonest. We give the benefit of the doubt to those “saints” who will condescend to care for orphans and “crack babies” (a term that addiction researchers now say should be no more acceptable in public discourse than the n-word), not to the children themselves.

    When Sandusky and his wife adopted six kids and took others from difficult backgrounds into foster care—thereby founding his charity, The Second Mile, as their own personal foster home—their motives were seen as pure (as is true, no doubt, for most families that make the sacrifices necessary to help these children). But this glow of altruism also allows predators access to easy prey: children whose parents have lost their battles with addiction and/or are incarcerated; many of these kids often already have difficulty distinguishing between affection and abuse—and anyway may have nowhere else to turn.

    Such children themselves are at high risk of becoming addicted to drugs—and the Second Mile, now a charity with over $9 million in assets—explicitly seeks out those who are experiencing “a divorce in the family, the death of a parent, impoverishment, a chronically ill sibling, personal health issues, familial substance abuse or neglect,” for its summer camp programs. While the charity now claims that it does background checks on staff and volunteers, it refuses to confirm that one was done on founder Sandusky, who was compensated with close to $60,000 a year for “fundraising and other services” as recently as 2007.

    Our stereotypes about drug use and “troubled youth” are a huge part of the problem. America is inundated with portrayals of these teens and children as “liars” and “manipulators” whose complaints should rarely be believed. Ironically, former addicts on the recovery bandwagon often reinforce these prejudices, claiming that active alcoholics and drug addicts are inherently untrustworthy, given to lying as though it were breathing. “When is an addict lying?” the “joke” goes: “When his lips are moving.”

    Over a decade spent covering the routine emotional, physical and sexual abuses that take place in rehabs and, even more so, in “troubled teen” programs, I’ve seen the devastating results of this stigmatizing stereotype.


    That reminds me of the things I’ve heard from teen program victims. Many of the residential programs I covered sent literature to parents explicitly warning them that their children are likely to make claims about abuse. “Don’t believe this,” they are told. “It’s simply your manipulative offspring trying to get you to bring them home so they can avoid the hard work of recovery.”

    Since most children who get into enough trouble to wind up in a “boot camp” or “troubled teen” program will already have lied to their parents in an effort to avoid getting caught, these warnings rarely raise red flags. Parents are all too ready to side with the institution. They think, “Ah yes, the program knows how to work with these difficult kids,” rather than “Oh my God, how would real abuse ever be revealed in such a place?” ...

    read the full article at:


  6. Ultra-Orthodox Jews Rally to Discuss Risks of Internet

    By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM, New York Times May 20, 2012

    It was an incongruous sight for a baseball stadium: tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, all dressed in black suits and white shirts, filing through the gates of Citi Field on Sunday, wearing not blue-and-orange Mets caps but tall, big-brim black hats.

    There was no ballgame scheduled, only a religious rally to discuss the dangers of the Internet.

    More than 40,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews were expected to attend — a sellout in a season where the average attendance at a Mets game has been barely half that. The organizers had to rent Arthur Ashe Stadium nearby, which has 20,000 seats, to accommodate all the interested ticket buyers.

    The organizers had allowed only men to buy tickets, in keeping with ultra-Orthodox tradition of separating the sexes. Viewing parties had been arranged in Orthodox neighborhoods of Brooklyn and New Jersey so that women could watch, too.

    For the attendees, many of whom said they came at the instructions of their rabbis, it was a chance to hear about a moral topic considered gravely important in their community: the potential problems that can stem from access to pornography and other explicit content on the uncensored, often incendiary Web.

    Inside the stadium, a dais was set up by the back wall of center field, where rabbis led the packed stadium in evening prayers and offered heated exhortations to avoid the “filth” that can be found on the Internet. English translations of the speeches appeared on a jumbo digital screen, beneath an enormous “Let’s Go Mets!” sign.

    Still, many attendees readily conceded that the Internet played a big role in their lives.

    Shlomo Cohen, 24, of Toronto, said he used the Internet for shopping, business and staying in touch with friends — “Everyone needs e-mail,” he said.

    Mr. Cohen said he came to Citi Field on Sunday because the rally was a good way to remind his community to keep temptation at bay.

    “Desires are out there,” Mr. Cohen said, adding that men could be particularly susceptible. “We have to learn how to control ourselves.”

    For an event billed as taking aim at the Internet, signs of the digital age seemed to pop up everywhere.

    On a No. 7 train headed toward the stadium, several men wearing the clothing of the ultra-Orthodox whipped out smartphones as soon as the subway emerged from the East River tunnel, poking at e-mail in-boxes and checking voice mail messages.

    Several opponents of the rally gathered outside the stadium, including a crowd that stood by police barricades holding signs that read, “The Internet Is Not the Problem.”

    continued in next comment...

  7. continued from previous comment:

    Many of the protesters said they shared the religious beliefs of the attendees but wanted to show support for victims of child sexual abuse, some of whom in ultra-Orthodox communities have been discouraged from calling the police and have been shunned after the crimes against them were reported.

    The rally in Citi Field on Sunday was sponsored by a rabbinical group, Ichud Hakehillos Letohar Hamachane, that is linked to a software company that sells Internet filtering software to Orthodox Jews. Those in attendance were handed fliers that advertised services like a “kosher GPS App” for iPhone and Android phones, which helps users locate synagogues and kosher restaurants.

    Nat Levy, 25, who traveled from Lakewood, N.J., to attend, said he frequently surfed the Web at a cafe, overseen by a local rabbi, that filtered out certain types of online content and monitored which Web sites he visited.

    He said he often used the Internet to deal with customers for his company. “You get to do business the same way,” he said. “I have unlimited access, but it’s done in a kosher manner.”

    Eytan Kobre, a spokesman for the event, delivered a more intense message to reporters outside the stadium. “The siren song of the Internet entices us!” he pronounced in a booming voice. “It brings out the worst of us!”

    Still, Mr. Kobre confirmed that the event would be broadcast live on the Internet, via a stream available to homes and synagogues in Orthodox communities around the New York area. He said the general public would not be able to gain access, but several unauthorized streams appeared soon after the rally began.

    The rally was also a hot topic on many Twitter feeds on Sunday evening.

    The gathering had the feel of a gigantic family reunion — or perhaps, given the single-sex attendance, the religious version of a scouts’ jamboree — but many guests had arrived with only a friend or two.

    “It may look like a community because we all look the same,” said Mr. Cohen, of Toronto. “But I don’t know almost any of the people here.”

    For some attendees, the dangers of the Internet seemed more in line with the usual complaints voiced by any New Yorker tethered to a BlackBerry or besieged with Twitter messages.

    Raphael Hess, 29, of New Jersey, pointed at his LG phone and said he found peace in simply keeping its Internet connection turned off.

    “Life is more pleasant without it sometimes,” he said with a shrug.

    Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting.


  8. Religious exemption at some Florida children's homes shields prying eyes

    By Alexandra Zayas, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer  October 28, 2012

    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.

    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 jailers, 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.

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  9. In Florida, the vast majority of children's homes are regulated and inspected by the state Department of Children and Families. But under Florida law, a home can shield itself from that oversight by claiming a religious exemption.

    Instead of state-trained child safety workers, these homes are regulated by the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a private, nonprofit group run almost entirely by the same people who run the homes.

    FACCCA executive director Buddy Morrow said his organization condemns extended isolation, humiliation and the shackling of children. He also said the association aggressively monitors homes for abusive practices, but he refused to provide copies of inspection reports and other documentation.

    In response to the Times investigation, he expects his board will strengthen restrictions on corporal punishment, limit seclusion and ban shackling.

    Morrow would not talk about specific homes, but he said his association has revoked or refused to renew accreditation for at least three homes since 2005. Some continued to operate — without a state license or a religious exemption — the Times found.

    At least four religious homes are accepting children without any legally recognized credentials. Foster children in state care have been illegally placed in at least two of those homes, the Timesdiscovered.

    In response, DCF officials have launched a statewide review to identify rogue children's homes and any state-dependent children who have been placed in them.

    More must be done, says Robert Friedman, a psychologist and professor emeritus with the University of South Florida's Department of Child and Family Studies. Friedman founded an advocacy group to stop abuse in residential facilities and has given congressional testimony on the topic.

    "For us not to be able to regulate these programs," he said, "for us not to be able to provide the oversight of these programs that's needed is just shameful.

    "We don't know even the scope of the problem, and we allow these youngsters behind these closed doors."

    Religious homes

    For years the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies has listed its primary address as 2603 SW Brim St., a three-bedroom house in Lake City.

    The agency's two full-time employees and two part-timers must process new applications and fan out across the state to monitor and investigate more than 20 Christian child care facilities.

    Every year, association officials say, they check on the nearly 700 girls and boys whose parents have placed them in the homes. Many parents come to the homes in desperation, hoping religion or strict discipline can get their child off drugs or correct severe emotional problems.

    "They've been through state-supported or state programs. None of the programs have worked for them," said Doug Smith, a former board member who runs Safe Harbor Maritime Academy with his wife. "And for some of these children, this is a last resort."

    Parents who can afford it pay tuition that can reach $20,000 a year or more. Some must take out loans, dip into college funds, or accept scholarships provided by the homes. In addition, the state has paid more than $600,000 in McKay money to parents for use at FACCCA-accredited homes.

    In Florida alone, unlicensed religious homes collected at least $13 million in 2010, according to available IRS filings.

    Most of the homes pay a small portion of that income for membership in the Christian association. Those members get to vote on whether new programs will be granted a religious exemption.

    Association leaders say they spend months vetting new homes. They visit multiple times and review a home's policies. They also are required by law to run a criminal background check on all employees. The head of the home must have at least a high school diploma and a few years' experience running a home.

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  10. There is no litmus test to determine whether a home is truly guided by religion. Morrow said FACCCA officials use their own judgment to determine that during inspections.

    In the end, the association has a reason to stringently monitor its homes, officials said.

    "We are here to help kids and our reputation of not helping kids hurts us all," Smith said. "So we're pretty reluctant to take someone that we're not really confident in. If we get a home that gets a black eye, we all get a black eye."

    A pattern of abuse

    The Department of Children and Families takes complaints made against unlicensed religious homes when someone calls Florida's child abuse hotline. And it sends workers to investigate potential abuse and neglect.

    But in the nearly 30 years since Florida began allowing religious exemptions, state officials have never tallied up how much abuse was occurring at the homes they stopped regulating.

    The Times, in the first effort of its kind, requested public records noting abuse complaints for homes currently or formerly accredited by FACCCA. It also reviewed emergency dispatch records, police reports and court records.

    The records show authorities have been called to the homes hundreds of times over the past decade for everything from runaways to suicide threats to child abuse allegations.

    DCF alone has conducted at least 165 investigations into the mistreatment of children.

    Its investigators found evidence to support allegations in more than a third of those cases — 63 incidents at 17 homes with a list of offenses that include physical injury, medical neglect, environmental hazards, threatened harm, bizarre punishment, inadequate supervision, mental injury, asphyxiation and sexual abuse.

    Among the cases DCF "verified:" a 16-year-old girl in Orlando pressured to perform oral sex on a counselor she considered a father figure; a 15-year-old boy in Punta Gorda forced to lie facedown in the dirt for three hours as a 220-pound counselor lay on top of him; and a 16-year-old boy in Port St. Lucie, shackled for 12 days and berated by staff with racial slurs.

    Extreme discipline

    The most troubled programs are easy to see.
    Of the 30 facilities reviewed by the Times, half had never been investigated by the state for abuse or neglect, and others had only a few, unsubstantiated allegations.

    Seven facilities account for two-thirds of abuse hotline complaints over the past decade. Among them: Gateway Christian Military Academy, Camp Tracey near Jacksonville, Anderson Academy in Vero Beach, Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie and Lighthouse of Northwest Florida in Jay.

    Several others, including New Beginnings Girls Academy, have few hotline complaints but show up in Internet message boards and "survivor" groups.

    Jamie Lee Schmude said she was 16 when her parents sent her to New Beginnings to stop her drinking and pot smoking.

    She recounts extreme punishments, including being forced to stand in one place so long she urinated on herself.

    One day in 2003, she'd had enough. When she was made to stand at a wall for a deed she doesn't remember, she gave up and sat.

    She said girls were ordered to take her to the preacher, who made them pin her to the ground as his wife unhooked a thin plastic rod from the blinds.

    The wife started swinging.

    "It didn't matter where she hit me," Schmude recalled. "I had bruises all over my butt and my lower back and my upper legs."

    Two others told the Times they were forced to witness it all, made to hold her down as she wailed on the filthy floor, then made to sing once it was over: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …

    Officials with New Beginnings Girls Academy did not respond to a phone call, emails or a letter sent by the Times. The home, which left Florida voluntarily in 2007, was last investigated in 2006 on allegations of sexual abuse. State officials found no evidence to support the claim, records show.

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  11. On the other side of the state, 16-year-old Cody Livingston found himself at Camp Tracey, a fundamentalist Baptist reform program on the rural outskirts of Jacksonville.

    When Livingston got caught smoking cigarettes, they made him eat one. When he cursed, they made him swallow two spoonfuls of citrus-scented liquid soap, he said. "If I didn't do it, then I didn't get to eat that night."

    But that paled in comparison to what he says happened when he got caught engaging in sexual activity with other boys in 2008.

    They told him his mother didn't want him. They shaved his head. They made him carry two 5-gallon buckets of dirt everywhere he went, and at night, run laps around the dorm with a tire tied to his waist. They let him speak to no one but staff, and only if he was spoken to first, and they made him sleep on the floor of a mudroom for a week or more, giving him a bucket to use as a toilet.

    "We got sprayed down with a water hose for our shower," Livingston said. "They made it very clear that we were not human; we were subhuman pieces of trash."

    Officials at Camp Tracey declined to speak with a Times reporter.

    Opening the gate

    Florida became a magnet for unlicensed religious homes in the mid 1980s, when a small group of preachers teamed up with a powerful Florida legislator and a lobbyist to successfully press for a law that exempted them from state control.
    Now, the homes answer to FACCCA instead of state regulators.

    By law, FACCCA standards of child care must be in "substantial compliance" with the state's. But the state has not made sure the association's rules keep up with current standards.

    DCF officials could find no evidence of an agency review of FACCCA rules since 1984. They asked the Christian association for a copy of its corporal punishment guidelines only after the Times began asking questions earlier this year.

    David Wilkins, DCF's top administrator, said it is not the state's responsibility to review the association's standards unless they change.

    "I don't believe the statute tells us we ought to be going out and regulating them," Wilkins said. "They provide us their standards, and we review those. Quite frankly, it hasn't been reviewed in years."

    Held side-by-side in 2012, there are significant differences between the rule books.

    The state requires a doctor's order to shackle children. FACCCA does not.

    The state bans spanking and severely limits the time children can be held in isolation. FACCCA does not.

    State-licensed facilities cannot punish children by withholding communication with parents and must guarantee kids access to an abuse hotline.
    FACCCA officials say children can report abuse, but former students said they had no way. They can be denied access to a phone for any reason.
    Experts say this is a recipe for trouble.

    Jack Levine, who has a master's degree in child and family development and for 25 years served as president of a statewide network of advocates called Voices for Florida's Children, opposed the exemption back in 1984.

    He still does.

    "The great fertile ground for abuse and neglect is isolation," Levine said. "If you are isolated and don't have an avenue to express what you know, what you see, that promises further problems."

    In 1984, mainstream religious organizations, including Catholic Community Services, Southern Baptist Child Care Executives and others across the state, lined up to try to stop the exemption from becoming law. They echoed concerns from child advocates who predicted it would open the door to extremists.

    "Any weirdo, any charlatan who has been kicked out of some other state could come into Florida and say, 'I'm a religious facility and I don't want to be licensed,' " Hugh Forsyth, director of a licensed girls' program in St. Petersburg, predicted to the Times in 1984.

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  12. "They just decide they're going to have a child care facility and away they go. There's nothing to stop them."

    Ordained by God

    New Beginnings was the kind of children's home FACCCA was created to regulate. Its founder was Lester Roloff, a Baptist radio preacher among the first to use religion as a shield against the licensing of a reform home.

    The subject of repeated abuse allegations over several decades, the program left Texas for good in 2001 when that state's Legislature decided religious homes were no longer exempt from licensing.

    It settled in a Panhandle city called Pace and remained there until 2007.

    At New Beginnings, teenage girls got a heavy dose of strict Christianity. They were forbidden to wear pants or hear news of the outside world or even make eye contact with crowds when they toured churches in the summer.
    Brittany Campbell arrived at the home in 2001.

    Her sister enrolled her, Campbell said, after the 15-year-old smoked pot for the first time and began dating girls.
    She recalls Pastor Bill McNamara's introduction during the first sermon.

    "He just looked right at me from the platform, ran at me, and all these girls jumped out of the way," Campbell remembers. "And he jumps, like, onto the pew in front of me and then bent down at his waist and told me I was a 'faggot.' 'God's not going to bless a bunch of faggots.' "

    The Times interviewed nine women who attended the home in Florida from 2001 to 2007.
    They say their menstrual-stained underwear was waved around to chastise them for being unclean and recall being timed when they went to the bathroom and rationed squares of toilet paper based on what they disclosed they needed to do.

    They remember being awakened in the night, as the preacher stormed into their dorm, screaming that the room stank and he could "smell masturbation."

    "Every time he said it, I would just cringe," recalls Anni Leigh Smith, now 26.

    Reporting abuse? Unlikely, former residents said.

    New Beginnings, like many other unlicensed homes, monitored all phone conversations.

    Several former New Beginnings residents said they were scared to speak out and were intimidated by adults at the home about talking to investigators.

    Campbell said she witnessed the whipping of Jamie Schmude. She said before DCF came asking questions, she was coached by the stout, fiery McNamara.

    "He would play that sort of thing from a classic cult angle," Campbell said. "Related them (investigators) to Satan. … 'These people don't know what we do here. The world doesn't support God's way' …

    "We were under his authority, as ordained by God."

    Today, the women have a 130-member Facebook group called "Proactive Survivors of New Beginnings Girls Academy." In recent years, there has been online talk about the new children's home that moved in after New Beginnings left Florida for Missouri.

    Newer Beginnings

    Marvelous Grace Girls Academy now sits at the end of that long, clay driveway in Pace.

    It is hard to tell where New Beginnings ends and Marvelous Grace begins.

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  13. The property has not been sold since its days under Pastor McNamara. It is still owned by a corporation that lists McNamara as an officer.

    And though the girls of New Beginnings recall moving to Missouri in 2007, back in Florida, police reports continued to call the home by the same name for years.

    The home's website in 2009 called Steven Blankenship executive director for "New Beginnings Girls Academy." On that site, Blankenship — now director at Marvelous Grace — said he found God "after years of living as a Satanist and a Witch."

    Another defunct site, truth4teens.org, showed photos of Blankenship preaching during radio broadcasts and revivals and listed his name under blog entries. The site called hatred "a family value."

    It also showed what the site called a brain scan of a man hospitalized for voices in his head.

    The image contained a horned shape that the site suggested was the face of Satan caught by modern medical equipment. "It has been validated as authentic!" the site declared.

    Marvelous Grace has no state license and is not accredited by FACCCA. DCF investigated an abuse allegation in 2010, finding no evidence.

    Blankenship declined to be interviewed. In an email, he wrote: "Please do not call, email, text, send letter, or show up on Marvelous Grace Girls Academy's property."

    He told the Times he will be accredited by January 2013.

    Desperate for help

    Not everyone calls the children who pass through an unlicensed home "survivors." Many see the homes as saviors, when all else has failed.

    Parents from across the country gathered one recent Friday on a remote Panhandle property, the home of Gateway Christian Military Academy, also known as Teen Challenge, in Bonifay.

    Dozens sat in folding chairs outside the children's home and applauded their sons, once drug-addicted and defiant, as they marched in camouflage and recited in perfect unison this passage from Hebrews:

    Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves.

    A handful of rule-breakers were not allowed to participate. They stood off to the side in faded orange jumpsuits.

    The jumpsuits, some missing buttons and held together by duct tape, are also worn by new recruits in the first days when drill instructors get in their faces and make them exercise; it's what Samson Lehman had on when he was made to run until he almost died.

    Parents assembled for the monthly visit know this place is tough. That's why they chose it.
    Sabrina and Lane Stromsnes, registered nurses from Plant City, almost lost their 13-year-old son to a progression of drugs that culminated in crack.

    The parents thought they had covered their bases. They drug tested their son, took him to a counselor, even sat behind him in school.

    The decision to send him away became clear the night they found him running through the woods, nearly naked and out of his mind. They believe if they hadn't taken him to Gateway, he would be dead.

    Now, they see their son healthy. They know he can't sneak out like he used to. He is sober, alive.

    "I just hugged my son," the father said. "I kissed him. I told him I loved him. And I know that next May, I'll get him back."

    During a nighttime service, as Christian rock played, boys overcome by emotion fell to their knees and cried. Drill instructors hugged them, held them and whispered prayers into their ears.

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  14. Despite such tender moments, instructors' rough tactics have brought DCF investigators into the Panhandle group home 24 times in its 14-year history, with allegations of bizarre punishment, beatings, physical injury and medical neglect.

    DCF had verified such claims in five cases and found credible evidence of similar mistreatment in three others by 2008, when a woman dropped off a 15-year-old son she suspected had been drinking.

    On the verge of death

    Samson Lehman was a straight-A student enrolled in honors Algebra and English. He had no juvenile record, and his guidance counselor thought his friends were the "cream of the crop."

    He said he was caught off-guard when men in camouflage patted him down, called him a mom beater and a drug addict and began a marathon of exercise that ended only when his body gave out.
    Clammy. Pale. Changing colors. That's how staff members described Lehman's appearance more than 24 hours before they drove him to the hospital, a Holmes County sheriff's report shows.

    Four other boys watched him vomit repeatedly. Boys watched him fall during seemingly endless laps inside the barracks, and they watched staff restrain him.

    Counselors offered him ibuprofen, which his doctor would later say can cause kidney damage in a dehydrated person. Then they waited an entire day before driving him to the hospital, a sheriff's report shows.

    Emergency room tests showed Lehman's organs were shutting down. He was airlifted to an intensive care unit at Children's Hospital in Alabama, where his doctor described a "race for time."
    "Waste products had accumulated to a dangerous extent," nephrologist Dr. Frank Tenney wrote in a letter to DCF that Lehman gave the Times.

    "Left untreated, his heart would certainly have stopped in a short time."

    DCF investigated and listed the case as
    "verified medical neglect," finding a "preponderance of credible evidence." But the State Attorney's Office in Holmes County did not pursue charges.

    Pastor David Rutledge, director of the children's home, says Lehman's illness was the result of a young man arriving with mineral deficiencies. He points out the home now employs a registered nurse, has a doctor on its board and requires all incoming residents to pass a metabolic panel. He said boys are no longer forced to endure such long stretches of intense exercise.

    Lehman is now 20 and majoring in engineering at the University of Florida.

    He endured months of dialysis. Years of nightmares.

    "The whole time, the thought is running through me, like, I don't deserve this, this sucks," Lehman said.

    "You can't do anything as a child to protect yourself."

    Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

  15. Military-style children's home still open despite troubling complaints

    By Alexandra Zayas, Tampa Bay TimesStaff Writer
    October 29, 2012


    Anyone can run a program that houses troubled children in Florida. • Even Alan Weierman. • In the past decade, state officials have investigated an unlicensed military program run by the self-titled “colonel” 24 times and found evidence that kids were punched, kicked, slammed into hard objects and choked to unconsciousness. • They know about a boy who left Weierman’s home in 2004 on the verge of kidney failure. • And another boy who was shackled for 12 days in 2008 and called a “black monkey.” • They say Weierman, a Christian minister, has repeatedly crossed the line of abuse in his three decades running religious group homes in this state. Regulators have tried to shut him down. • The state license to operate his children’s home lasted only two years.

    Eight years ago, he lost a religious exemption that had allowed him to keep his reform home open without government oversight.

    So now he operates without any state-recognized accreditation at all.

    He has even had to answer allegations of sexual abuse and of failing to report abuse alleged by a girl at his facility.

    The facility staff engage in discipline that is harmful, DCF officials wrote in a report four years ago.

    The risk to children is high.

    Yet his home is still open and caring for a dozen boys.

    Still collecting $28,600 per child from parents.

    Still punishing kids in ways that trouble the state.

    Easy to abuse

    The story of Southeastern Military Academy exposes an ugly truth about Florida — you can get a license to open a group home, torment children for years and face few repercussions, so long as you are not convicted of a crime.

    The Department of Children and Families can storm into licensed homes, order changes and remove children. But the department’s ultimate weapon — revoking a home’s license — is virtually meaningless.

    Lose your state license and you can apply for a religious exemption. Lose that and you can register as a “boarding school.”

    Each time, the process starts over. New regulators with different rules come to visit.

    Each step down the regulatory ladder relaxes the standards required of a children’s home.

    Or you can start out as a “boarding school” and skip the hassles of licensing and government oversight altogether.

    State-licensed facilities are inspected by DCF; religious exempt homes are reviewed by a private, nonprofit agency with headquarters in Lake City.

    No one in Florida monitors boarding schools, which are allowed three years to apply for accreditation by one of five organizations listed in statute. Those organizations focus largely on academics.

    DCF investigators respond to abuse allegations at all children’s homes. But for years they did not routinely verify whether those facilities had their required credentials. DCF officials said that’s because state abuse investigators didn’t understand the “intricacies of the law.”

    “That is not the duty of the DCF investigator,” DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said in April. “If anyone had any concerns that these homes were running illegally, they would have to report that to DCF and our licensing staff or legal team would investigate.”

    In response to the Times’ investigation, DCF is now making sure abuse investigators check a facility’s credentials.

    But for years while DCF waited for the general public to make a complaint, homes fell through the cracks.

    Southeastern Military Academy, which the state once took to court because it had no accreditation, has been operating without state-recognized oversight for years.

    When asked about the academy earlier this year, a DCF spokesperson questioned whether the home remained open, hearing that the site “looked abandoned,” with a “For Sale” sign outside.

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  16. The ‘colonel’

    Southeastern Military Academy abuts Florida’s Turnpike on an unfenced property in Port St. Lucie where anyone can see boys sweat in a sand pit, counting exercises for a man in fatigues.

    That man, 50-year-old Alan Weierman, is big and tall and wears his graying hair high and tight; “snow on top,” he calls the style.

    Smiling, drinking coffee in his combat boots, he has been up for five hours when he greets visitors at 9 a.m. on a recent Wednesday. He hands them a business card emblazoned with a U.S. Army logo and the title “colonel.”

    Weierman is not affiliated with any branch of the military. Nor has he ever been close to the rank of colonel. He says he tried to join the Army more than three decades ago but was dismissed after six weeks because he was allergic to bees.

    “I’m not sorry where I’m at today,” he said. “It all comes around to where you still get to serve. Training young men is like being in the military. It’s like training soldiers all over again — kids with no respect for parents, no respect for police, or themselves.”

    Weierman says he instills that respect in the dozen boys in his care.

    He takes in “recruits” as young as 11, strips them of individuality, dictates rules and nitpicks for infractions. When they break and lose control, he says, he builds them back up.

    His program is not about “breaking down” kids or creating “robots,” he says. It’s about shaping behavior that will last. He says the “mind, body and soul” approach includes daily spiritual devotions, Sunday worship and accommodations for boys of other religions.

    “It doesn’t matter to me why he’s here. It doesn’t matter to me even what he thinks about being here,” Weierman said. “He understands there is compliance. He must understand there are rules.”

    Weierman’s program is built around discipline that would never be allowed at a state licensed home.

    Parents sign a contract allowing corporal punishment and giving up the right to sue, even if their child dies.

    Weierman says he hasn’t had to shackle a boy in years, but reserves the right to do it when a boy presents a threat or tries to run away.

    While the home has been accused by state child protection workers of abusive treatment, nothing has been proved to rise to criminal child abuse.

    Still, even Weierman concedes there have been problems.

    He stopped showing the war film Full Metal Jacket after he caught boys having “blanket parties,” mimicking a scene in the movie where a recruit is gang-beaten with bars of soap, wrapped in towels.

    Over the years, child abuse investigators have found dozens of children with minor injuries and classified the cases as maltreatment stemming from out-of-control disciplinary efforts.

    Moving to Florida

    Weierman scoffs at the idea that the harsh discipline doled out at his group home amounts to child abuse. He says he knows real abuse.

    “My dad shot me when I was 13 years old, trying to kill me,” he said. “I was ripped out of bed many nights and beaten bloody, simply because I failed to close a gate or shut a door.”

    He grew up hard in Ohio in the 1970s. By 17, he said, he had racked up criminal charges, including armed robbery. A judge told him to choose between the military or jail.

    Around that time, he met William Brink, a preacher who had an Ohio group home and ministered to delinquent youths. Brink invited Weierman to live at the religious home.

    He showed up with long hair and a leather vest.

    “I was just 12 ways of bad.”

    But Weierman quickly gained Brink’s trust and at 19, he married the preacher’s daughter. They worked together at the children’s home in the early 1980s, when Ohio regulators required the home to stop using corporal punishment.

    In 1984, Florida legislators passed a law that would allow religious homes to use corporal punishment if they could justify it with Scripture.

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  17. Weierman’s father-in-law was among the first to apply. In 1985, he opened Victory Children’s Home, a home for abused and abandoned children in Fort Pierce.

    His son-in-law would soon work there.

    But not before leaving behind an allegation in Ohio.

    In 1986, a 16-year-old girl told police she had had sex with Weierman more than 30 times. The girl passed a lie-detector test and had kept a calendar of the sexual encounters, the local police chief told the Akron Beacon Journal at the time.

    Weierman denied the allegations. And prosecutors declined to press charges, saying there wasn’t enough evidence.

    Still, Brink and his home took criticism. After learning of the girl’s allegations months before the police, group home officials conducted their own investigation. They deemed the allegations false and never reported them to police.

    Three years later, Weierman would find himself in a similar position. He investigated sex abuse claims against his new home’s director without informing police.

    Police later arrested Weierman and accused him of tampering with a witness and failure to report child abuse. Although the charges were dropped, Weierman now says he should have called police as soon as he heard the girl’s allegation.

    A few years later, his father-in-law was convicted in Ohio of sexual abuse involving a 14-year-old resident he took in as his daughter and a 16-year-old he made his wife.

    Brink went to prison.

    Weierman remained in charge of the Florida home, now split from the Ohio pastor.

    A state license

    Through the 1990s, Weierman would continue to have problems. State abuse investigators were called to his campus at least four times, finding evidence once that Victory Children’s Home was using excessive corporal punishment.

    At the end of the decade, despite years of complaints, DCF granted Weierman a state license to run a foster home in Florida. The license meant more stringent rules and more state inspections, but it allowed Weierman’s home to accept children seized from parents by child protection workers.

    Both sides soon had regrets.

    In 2000 alone, DCF records show six child abuse allegations: a boy thrown by a staff member, one dragged and beaten by a peer then refused medical treatment, a boy abandoned in the parking lot of another youth shelter, and kids being hit with a belt and slammed against walls and the ground.

    Reports show DCF investigators found credible evidence in four of the cases, including those involving asphyxiation and beatings.

    Weierman denies all abuse allegations.

    “If I said to you, ‘If you don’t straighten up, I’m going to kick the snot out of you,’ is that threatened harm? I don’t know,” he said. “Child abuse requires intent to commit harm. You have to intend to commit the harm.”

    Weierman said he regrets getting a state license, saying the state’s requirement that his children have access to an abuse hotline led to a spate of false reports.

    “If you’re a licensed facility, you have to make a phone available to any child,” Weierman said. “At times, I had eight investigators here at a time?…

    “Children can lie.”

    By the end of 2000, DCF had had enough.

    On the day the agency was scheduled to present evidence to a judge to revoke Weierman’s license, he surrendered it.

    But that wasn’t the end.

    A second chance

    When a group home that calls itself Christian can’t or won’t get a license, when it is chased out of another state for refusing oversight, or, like Weierman’s, when it fails to meet government standards, Florida provides a fallback:

    FACCCA accreditation.

    Florida is among a handful of states that legally recognize a religious exemption when it comes to licensing children’s homes.

    By law, exempted facilities must register with the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a nonprofit group that accredits homes. The association has long allowed homes to strike children with paddles, so long as they justify it with the Bible and pray with the child afterward.

    continued in next comment...

  18. Weierman surrendered his home’s state license on Feb. 12, 2001. The following month, DCF got a letter saying FACCCA had accredited his home.

    Under FACCCA, Weierman was able to shut down direct access to the state’s child abuse hotline, which was created to dispatch authorities any time allegations are reported.

    Longtime child advocate Jack Levine, who opposed the religious exemption when it was voted into law in 1984, says such safeguards exist for a reason. To complain that kids lie is just a way of avoiding scrutiny, he said.

    “It’s so easy to find an excuse for doing the wrong thing,” he said. “You can blame the child. You can blame the system. You can sit around and make excuses for any kind of malfeasance, but that doesn’t make it right.”

    Weierman’s home was accredited by FACCCA for three years. The complaints kept coming.

    2002: The facility has been locking kids up in chains to keep them from running.

    2002: Many of the children have current bruises or have had bruises in the past.

    2003: Alan Weierman grabbed a child by the neck and slammed him against the wall with force.

    2004: A staff member punched (a child) in the mouth and kneed him in the chest... As a result, his mouth was bleeding.

    Investigating these cases, DCF found credible evidence of beatings, inappropriate or excessive restraints, bruises or welts and physical injury.

    Michele Muccigrosso sued Weierman’s corporation, saying her 12-year-old son, Dillon, was made to hike on broken feet.

    “Our insurance company settled,” Weierman said. “That’s the learning curve. ... We marched them a lot, younger guys, 10, 11, 12 years old. Plates are still growing in their feet. We cut back the marching.”

    Muccigrosso said the home disregarded a doctor’s order that her son not hike.

    “He was in a wheelchair for five months.”

    FACCCA cut ties with Weierman in June 2004. Its executive director later told police it was because the religious home had become a boot camp.

    FACCCA officials have declined to provide the Times records of inspections, complaints or investigations at any of the homes it has accredited. They said they do not accredit boot camps because they are “not appropriate.”

    The last rung

    After failing under two separate forms of oversight in less than four years, Weierman was not shut down.

    Instead, he took advantage of a loophole in state law that allows children’s homes to skirt oversight by calling themselves “boarding schools.”

    Department of Education officials keep a list of boarding schools, but do not police them. They do not inspect the campuses or establish discipline standards for the schools.

    A state law passed in 2006 says boarding schools must be accredited by one of five scholastic organizations.

    But those groups focus on academics. And no one has been checking to make sure the schools meet the requirement.

    Weierman’s program has not been accredited under the boarding school rules since it registered as one, under the name Victory Forge, in 2004.

    With the new name, came new complaints.

    In July 2004, Weierman says, a boy left on the verge of kidney failure after being forced to endure what the colonel called an “extreme” amount of exercise.

    Weierman said the boy’s kidneys were not functioning correctly and staff at the home made it worse by forcing him to drink a quart of water an hour.

    “The more we did that, the more damage was caused by doing that,” Weierman said. “There was no way we could know.”

    Weierman said a detective gave him “accolades” for catching the damage on time.

    DCF made a “verified” finding of medical neglect.

    Then, on April 6, 2008, Port St. Lucie police officers came upon the aftermath of a capture.

    A runaway sat shirtless on a bench outside a middle school, cuffed at the hands, shackled at the ankles, surrounded by Weierman’s staff and the boys who had taken him down. He bore a 5-inch red mark on his neck.

    “Please take me to jail,” 16-year-old Lochane Smith told the officers. “I don’t want to go back.”

    continued in next comment...

  19. When an officer questioned the home’s authority to shackle the student, Weierman cursed and yelled, police reports show. “If you had a black kid like that,” he told police, “you would put him in handcuffs also.”

    The police took Smith to the station, where they got his story.

    He said he had been shackled for 12 days, chained at the wrists even as he slept on his top bunk and released only to shower.

    Employees had punched him, choked him, thrown him against the walls.

    He ran when he got a chance, vaulting over the fence, darting across the highway.

    The home sent a search party, including boys.

    He told police a recruit named Tango ran toward him yelling “I’m going to get you, black boy,” then tackling him and choking him, until an employee told Tango, “You better stop, the police are coming.”

    DCF interviewed the 15 other boys at the facility and determined all had been in some way mistreated — bruised, bloodied, choked, shackled, subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    One had been called an “Iraqi” and a “rag head.”

    Smith had been called a “black monkey.”

    Soon after the incident, DCF called parents to take their boys home.

    Police spoke to those same boys, who reported they saw Smith being pushed, dragged and “tossed around.” But the police determined none of his injuries rose to child abuse.

    St. Lucie County Assistant State Attorney Jeff Hendriks wrote a letter saying no charges would be filed, in part, because parents had consented to corporal punishment.

    In an interview from the jail where he landed years later on robbery charges, Smith, now 21, said the abuse was worse than that police report suggests.

    He said staff slammed his head into the walls on the first day because he cried and pushed his face in the sand.

    Smith said he was made to stand all day and allowed to urinate on himself.

    “Some boot camps help people,” he said, “but Victory Forge made me worse.

    “Look how I ended up.

    “I pray nothing like what happened to me happens to someone else.”

    ‘Good faith effort’

    In 2009, DCF tried to force Weierman to submit to oversight or shut down for good.

    By then, he was calling his home Southeastern Military Academy and had registered it as a boarding school.

    DCF sued, saying the registration and name changes were “evidence of his intent to circumvent and subvert” statute. The lawsuit summarized a history that included 35 prior child abuse allegations.

    The staff at this facility, DCF wrote, continues to cross the line between acceptable discipline and abuse.

    DCF attorneys argued that Weierman had no license or accreditation. Under state law, he should be considered a rogue foster home and be barred from accepting children.

    But in a March 2011 order, St. Lucie Circuit Judge Dan L. Vaughn found that Weierman was making a “good faith effort” to get accredited and denied DCF’s request for an injunction.

    A year later, Weierman is still trying to get accredited. He has applied with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits public and private schools. The process takes a couple of years. Weierman says his home is up for review in March.

    “I’m hoping and I’m praying they don’t look at the politics of it,” he said.

    Still in business

    For now, Southeastern Military Academy continues its daily routine.

    Weierman still doesn’t have a problem threatening to beat a kid into a “bloody mud puddle.”

    He needs to let them know he’s in charge.

    When they threaten to fight him, he threatens them back — “I’m going to hurt you,” “I’m going to send you to the hospital,” “With my dying breath, I’m going to take you with me.”

    “It’s all bull,” he said. “It’s all just a facade.”

    But that facade is how Weierman molds his rebellious young boys.

    continued in next comment...

  20. At the academy, every action is scrutinized. A wrinkle in a bedsheet, a boot misplaced by 2 inches — all are worthy of punishment, because, to Weierman, all indicate something inside the boy is still defiant. Throughout the day, recruits get lists of orders they must follow. But instructors switch up orders to cause confusion and create a reason to dole out punishment.

    Any excuse is good enough. If a student asks permission to do something that’s already on his to-do list, he is punished.

    Twenty-five push-ups here, 150 side-straddle hops there. Boys spend many hours in the “pit.”

    They can also can get swats and lose family visits.

    Michaela Mattox turned to Weierman to deal with the 14-year-old son she couldn’t control. He was defiant, running away, smoking marijuana.

    She left him at the academy five months ago without touring the home and now has regrets. She doesn’t even know the names of the “captains” on the phone.

    She has read about other boys’ allegations online.

    And when she speaks to her son on the phone, with staff listening, he cries so hard, she can barely understand what he says.

    Your son may complain to you about unbearable pain, crying that it’s too hard, says parent literature. DON’T BE FOOLED!

    Among the most feared punishments is being sentenced to bowls of “stuff.”

    Boys on “stuff” must down soggy bowls of vegetables, swimming in vinegar and designed not to go down easy.

    They get “stuff” every meal, every day until they complete their sentence. Some go more than a week with nothing else to eat. If they don’t finish a bowl, it gets served up at the next meal.

    Forcing kids to eat “stuff” may sound like juvenile hazing, but state child safety regulators have labeled it “bizarre punishment.”

    Weierman doesn’t buy it.

    “It’s mind over matter,” Weierman recently told a few boys, who had 15 minutes to shovel the peas and corn into their mouths.

    “It’s just vegetables.”

    They lifted their bowls to drink the acidic dregs.

    One gagged.

    Another vomited.

    Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

    Critical moments in Alan Weierman's career
    1984 Florida creates religious exemption
    for group homes.

    1985 "Colonel" Alan Weierman's father-in-law opens Victory Children's Home, a religious
    children's home in Florida.

    1986 A 16-year-old girl says she had a sexual
    relationship with Weierman when he was working at a children's home in Ohio. No charges filed.

    1989 Weierman is aware but does not report
    a girl's sex abuse allegations against another staff member at his Florida group home. Charges of tampering with a witness and failure to report abuse are later dropped.

    1992 Weierman and his wife change the name of the home to Treasure Coast Victory Children's Home when his father-in-law is accused of sexual abuse. They incorporate the home in Florida.

    Feb. 2001 After operating under DCF oversight for about two years, and dealing with an increase in abuse allegations and findings, the home surrenders its state license. A month later, it is operating with religious accreditation under FACCCA.

    June 2004 The home loses its religious accreditation. Weierman changes the name of the home and registers as a "boarding school."

    April 8, 2008 A boy claims he was shackled at the home for 12 days straight and berated
    with racial slurs.

    2009 State officials seek a judge's order to
    shut down the home, arguing it is not legally accredited. A judge later refuses.


  21. Abuses in the Troubled Teen Industry

    International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) and Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth (CAFETY) are cosponsors of a one-day conference that will bring experts together with individuals harmed in teen treatment programs.

    WHEN: Saturday, April 20, 2013—10:00 AM – 5:30 PM

    WHERE: Comfort Inn, Pentagon City, 2480 South Glebe Rd., Bldg. 2, Arlington,
    VA, US, 22206. Phone: (703) 682–5500 Fax: (703) 682-5505 Exit 7B
    (Glebe Rd.), I-395. Free parking.

    Some teen treatment programs have used psychological control techniques commonly associated with manipulative, high-demand groups, often called “cults.” Sometimes such techniques have contributed to the psychological, physical, or sexual abuse of teens that the programs were supposed to help.

    The conference will include the following talks, followed by discussion:

    --Overview of the Cultic Influences in the Troubled Teen Industry (William Goldberg)

    --Clips from Surviving Straight Inc., a Documentary (Kelly Matthews)

    --The Great Drug War (Arnold Trebach)

    --Survivor Interviews: Surviving Straight Inc., a Documentary

    --Personal Story (Sunny Linkfield and Ethel Linkfield)

    --Cultic Practices in Residential Care and Applicable Human-Rights Conventions (Katherine Whitehead)

    --How Do We Really Help Troubled Teens? What Science Tells Us (Steve Eichel)

    --Overcoming and Healing After the Abuse (William Goldberg)

    --Healing Through Advocacy (Kathy Moya)

    Space is limited, so please REGISTER ASAP. The registration fee is $30, payable to ICSA.

    To Register Online: http://icsahome.com/infoserv_respond/event_conferences_workshops.asp

    Mail: ICSA Box 2265, Bonita Springs, FL 34133 E-mail:
    mail@icsamail.com Fax: 305-393-8193

    More information at http://icsahome.com/pdf/fax_mail_spev_dc.pdf

  22. Troubled Teen Industry: Saving children from institutionalized abuse and torture

    ABOUT THIS SITE http://troubledteenindustry.com/

    What is the Troubled Teen Industry?

    The troubled teen industry has varying formats and varying claims as to what they can accomplish, but all have the same tendency to separate children and parents, limiting contact between a child and their family. Many also limit contact with the outside world. This lack of contact enables programs/facilities to be more abusive due to the lack of scrutiny. There is a lack of concern that someone will catch them, or find out they've done something wrong. Why? Because if your kid is there, then everyone assumes they must be bad; they must be a liar; they must be difficult; they must not be trustworthy. If they are complaining, it must be because they are manipulative liars. They're being disciplined and they don't like it. Discipline is NOT what we're against, it is the line that has been crossed from discipline to abuse and torture that has caused us to stand up and take action.

    "Breaking" the children is a common theme, but it is a harmful tactic that ultimately, has devastating results for the individual, later in life. Some of us know this from personal experience. Some of the tactics used are fear, brainwashing, repetitiveness of menial tasks. Other tactics are more severe, harder labor, standing/sitting in stress positions, physical punishments that go beyond swats with a paddle and into violence. Some of this meted out by other teenagers.

    "Indoctrination/Brainwashing" is the next step. Repetition of the programs beliefs and standards, without regard to the child involved and without regard to the example they themselves set on a daily basis. They will tell your child he is not good enough to survive in the regular world until they believe or behave the way the program says they should. They may tell you and your child that they will end up insane, dead, in jail or on drugs without their 'help'.

    You may believe the driving force behind these programs and facilities is to help your child. It's not. Money is. If you don't believe me, tell them your insurance isn't going to cover the tuition any longer and you've gone bankrupt. See how fast little Susie or Johnny is redeposited into your life.

    We are dedicated to preventing others from experiencing the same traumas we have been through. Our goal is to bring awareness to the troubled teen industry and hold the abusers accountable for their actions.

    If you're considering sending your child away, take a week and read Help at Any Cost, by Maia Szalavitz first. http://www.helpatanycost.com/ You owe it to your child.

    Also see: http://www.reddit.com/r/troubledteens The "Troubled Teen" Torture Industry — A Primer for Newcomers

    If you are a teen or parent who is troubled or in crisis, message the mods. We will help you find alternatives to prison camps. Are you a survivor? Are you a parent that has been fooled by the troubled teen industry? Have an idea how to save children from institutionalized child abuse? Share your stories and ideas here. What can you do to help? Send a message to your legislators that you want federal regulation! Share this primer about the Troubled Teen Industry across all of your social networks. Awareness is key! We believe...

    Tenet 1. Families with 'troubled teens' often have other issues that need to be fixed. Any therapy that excuses parents and blames the child may be a fraud.

    Tenet 2. Any program referring to 'troubled teens' may be a fraud. Why?

    Tenet 3. Any program that rushes you into making a placement decision, may be a fraud.

    Tenet 4. Any program that tries to get you to ignore the financial impact of a troubled teen facility may be a fraud.

    Tenet 5. Any troubled teen program that advises you to ignore your child's complaints about abuse or injury because your child is trying to 'manipulate' you, is a potentially abusive program.

  23. Safe Teen Schools http://www.safeteenschools.org/

    Safe Teen Schools is a informational service ran by a former student of a "Tough Love" boarding school. Our goal is to make sure the children enrolled in these types of facilities are being properly cared for. Such as but not limited to education, nutrition, medical treatment and mental health treatment. Are you getting what you are paying for?

    As a parent, you worry about your child. Which is why you are looking for schools to help them. We are here to help show you the signs of manipulation and abuse that takes place in these facilities so you do not get scammed and your child does not get abused.

    Parents, what is better than information coming from a person who has been in your child's shoes? Someone who has seen how abuse in these types of facilities can ultimately damage a child.

    We ask these questions so you may ask yourself. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us. If you are a concerned parent or member of the public and would like to get involved in making sure child abuse stops in boarding schools please feel free to contact us and we will let you know what you can do to help!

    If you are unhappy with your child's stay at a facility and have some questions, or know children have been abused at a facility please contact us so we can expose them. Thank you.

    To contact Safe Teen Schools call (517) 974 9140 email lillian@safeteenschools.org or go to http://www.safeteenschools.org/

  24. Students Recall Special Schools Run Like Jails

    By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS, New York Times July 23, 2013

    After Alexander Chomakhidze and his family moved to the United States from Greece a few years ago, he became so despondent he started skipping school and even tried to kill himself. Worried, his parents sent him to Horizon Academy, a Utah boarding school that promised therapy.

    But Mr. Chomakhidze, now 18, said that instead of getting help he was roughed up and taunted by staff members, who held him down and cut off his long hair when he arrived. Later, after he slit his wrists, he said he was disciplined but received no mental health counseling.

    “They didn’t help,” said Mr. Chomakhidze, who will be a college freshman this fall. “No one talked to me about it. They just punished me.”

    During the past 15 years, a network of Utah-based “tough love” boarding schools for troubled youths has closed nearly two dozen programs amid claims of child abuse, which the schools have denied. But Horizon Academy and at least half a dozen other schools with business or family ties to those who ran the network are still operating, and others with those ties are newly opened. And once again, former students, parents and former staff members say that children at some of the schools, Mr. Chomakhidze among them, have been routinely mistreated.

    School officials have denied Mr. Chomakhidze’s claims. But interviews and e-mail exchanges with more than 30 former students, parents, current and former staff members, and owners of the schools reveal a rigid system of discipline at the facilities, which are typically locked compounds, often in remote areas. Everyday activities like speaking, using the bathroom, walking freely between rooms, taking showers and talking to parents are limited by the staff.

    Robert B. Lichfield, the founder of the network, the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools, said in an e-mailed statement that he no longer owns any of the schools and that he was unaware of children being harmed. He said that for more than a decade he has supplied only business and educational services to the programs.

    “Allegations against schools I did not own or manage, I can’t answer,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t abuse or mistreat students, nor did I encourage or direct someone else to do so. I provided business services that were non-supervision, care, or treatment services to schools that were independently owned and operated.”

    Behavior modification programs for troubled teenagers have thrived as state and federal laws allow private boarding schools far greater leeway in how they treat children than is permitted in public school systems, which generally prohibit physical punishment, the isolation of children and other severe discipline methods.

    In fact, there are no federal laws governing schools like those built on the World Wide model. A 2011 Congressional bill that would have banned physical abuse and the withholding of food at such schools died in committee after it was opposed by lawmakers reluctant to impose new federal standards on a matter often regulated by states.

    Instead, states oversee the facilities variously as camps, boarding schools or residential treatment facilities, and state regulators often hesitate to step in because the programs exist in an ill-defined area of the law. For example, private boarding schools are not regularly inspected and are not required to be licensed or accredited, according to the federal Department of Education.

    In a case that is not directly related to World Wide, children at a number of privately operated facilities in Florida recently said they had been abused in programs with little governmental control because the schools are regulated as religious institutions.

    ‘Manipulative’ Students

    continued below

  25. Mr. Lichfield said that accusations of mistreatment by troubled adolescents are common in the business. “All schools working with disturbed teens have a few students who are angry and manipulative, with long histories of lying and dishonesty, who will make allegations,” he wrote. “Find one school for me that does not. The schools we provided services for had such volume that even a very small percentage of students who make such allegations start to add up, but every school has about the same percentage of students who didn’t like being there and are willing to make such allegations.”

    Mr. Lichfield’s lawyer, J. Ralph Atkin, said that parents of the nearly 20,000 children who have attended World Wide schools during the past 20 years had a satisfaction rate of 96 percent, and that the schools’ employees had been required by law to report signs of mistreatment. Mr. Atkin himself owned a World Wide program in the Czech Republic during the 1990s. It was investigated by Czech authorities after accusations of child abuse and was later closed; World Wide said no children had been mistreated there.

    A lawsuit on behalf of more than 350 former students and their parents in a Utah state district court claims that World Wide’s programs provide little education or mental health help, and that staff members engage in outright assault. “In many instances,” the suit says, “the abuse could be accurately described as torture of children.”

    In May, a lawsuit against a World Wide-related company was resolved for $3 million without the company admitting liability — nine years after a 16-year-old girl hanged herself in a bathroom stall at a facility in Montana called Spring Creek Lodge Academy, which has since closed. Before her suicide, the girl had been punished by being forced to carry a bucket of rocks, according to depositions by the school’s owners and staff.

    Owners of the facilities that are currently open say their programs have no connection to World Wide, and turned down requests to visit. But in interviews, former students, parents and staff members — many of them, like Mr. Chomakhidze, not part of a lawsuit against World Wide — described them as spartan places.

    Daily life is highly structured, with limited free time. Students, who are required to wear uniforms, generally perform schoolwork at their own pace for about five hours a day, though many students and parents say the curriculum is far less rigorous than that of local public schools. While some of the programs have gyms, usually only those who have earned enough points for good behavior can use them. Former students say those points can be rescinded quickly after months of hard work.

    Violating rules often leads to being placed in isolation, or being “restrained” — held on the floor for as long as an hour by staff members, who students say twist their limbs in painful positions until they stop resisting. Other punishments at World Wide programs have included pepper spraying, handcuffing, being forced into dog cages and being made to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions for hours, according to former students and claims in lawsuits.

    Complaining or crying invited further punishment, the former students said, and children who intentionally injured themselves, including attempting suicide, were punished with demerits and extra work, according to former students and a school handbook. The programs’ contracts require parents to release the schools from legal liability.

    The schools are typically surrounded by fences or walls to thwart runaways. As an additional deterrent, those who have insufficient accumulated points are required to wear flip flops, even in winter, because, staff members have told them, they make it harder to run.

    continued below

  26. Even if a student does escape, however, the schools’ isolated locations make hiding difficult, and former students said escapees were usually quickly recaptured. On a recent trip to one of the programs, Seneca Ranch, in Donalds, S.C., which is set amid pastures and woods on 500 acres, there was little along a stretch of rural highway.

    World Wide once had behavior modification schools in at least 11 states, as well as countries including Costa Rica and Mexico. In recent years, hit by the recession and accusations of abuse, Mr. Lichfield has divested ownership of the schools, which he once likened to McDonald’s franchises. But the programs’ structure and the disciplinary philosophy he helped conceive continue to be the template at most if not all of the schools.

    Mr. Lichfield, an entrepreneur who has an interest in dozens of Utah, Arizona and Nevada businesses, has along with members of his family raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for political candidates nationally over the years, and was a fund-raiser for the 2008 presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

    World Wide lawyers say Mr. Lichfield’s original company has largely dissolved, and exists in name only. But World Wide was reregistered with the state of Utah in March, according to business records.

    The Money Flow

    Mr. Lichfield, family members and business partners have financial interests in a layer of secondary companies through a web of limited liability companies, consulting arrangements and property ownership that Mr. Lichfield has acknowledged in depositions — while also saying he does not fully understand the links himself. These entities oversee the marketing, business and educational services for many of the schools, and have received up to one-third of the programs’ gross revenues, according to business records and court depositions.

    One former owner of two World Wide schools, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still does business with Mr. Lichfield, said that even after Mr. Lichfield transferred ownership of a school to him, Mr. Lichfield continued to treat him as an employee, including dictating contractual terms.

    “He controlled the money flow,” he said.

    According to business filings and Mr. Lichfield’s court testimony, the schools and programs that have ties to Mr. Lichfield and his associates are Horizon Academy, Cross Creek Programs and Old West Academy in Utah; Seneca Ranch in South Carolina; Midwest Academy in Iowa; Red River Academy in Louisiana; and Pillars of Hope in Costa Rica. Annual tuition ranges from about $36,000 to $60,000. Most of the schools denied an affiliation with World Wide.

    An example of the complex financial bond between Mr. Lichfield and the schools is illustrated in Red River Academy in Lecompte, a small Louisiana town.

    The company that owns the school’s property, Octwell L.L.C., shares an address in LaVerkin, Utah — population 5,000 — with World Wide, of which Mr. Lichfield is listed in records as a trustee and part owner. Business filings show Mr. Lichfield is also a manager at Octwell. Further, Red River Outsources L.L.C., which has provided business services to Red River Academy, is owned in part by Mr. Lichfield and is based at the same LaVerkin address as World Wide and Octwell — 50 South State Street.

    Still, Brent Hall, Red River’s owner, said he was not aware of any connection with World Wide or Mr. Lichfield. “Any association that I ever had with World Wide ended nearly a decade ago when I left my employment at Cross Creek Manor as a therapist,” Mr. Hall wrote in an e-mail.

    Many of the hundreds of adolescents in the schools are sent by parents who say they can no longer cope with their problems, including Asperger’s syndrome, depression and drug use. Many have been sexually or physically abused.

    continued below

  27. Some former students and their parents, while acknowledging the tough rules at the schools, say the programs’ emphasis on discipline and order helped steer children from serious antisocial behavior. “I don’t think my son would have graduated from high school,” said Jeff Cardwell, 52, an Illinois man who sent his 16-year-old son to Midwest Academy in 2012. “He probably would have ended up in some legal trouble.”

    But other parents, students and former staff members say the programs’ harsh culture has had dire consequences, including at least one other suicide, in 2001, when a 17-year-old girl jumped from a balcony at Tranquility Bay, a facility in Jamaica that is now closed as well.

    World Wide schools in Samoa, Mexico and Costa Rica, in addition to the Czech Republic program, have closed after concerns were raised about mistreated children. World Wide says that while the school in Mexico was closed by the Mexican authorities, the other three programs were closed voluntarily. World Wide denies that any children in the Mexican program or the others were abused.

    Tackled by Staff Members

    Ken Stettler, director of licensing for Utah’s Department of Human Services, said he had received numerous complaints about World Wide programs over the years, and had temporarily closed one of its facilities after finding evidence of child abuse.

    He said that while World Wide’s claims about high satisfaction rates among parents may be true, the company’s reasoning was flawed because it discounted the experiences of children who have been mistreated.

    “Do you want to have a milkshake with a half teaspoon of dog poop in it? Would you still drink the milkshake?” he said. “There probably is a small percentage who had a bad experience, but why did they have a bad experience?”

    Mr. Chomakhidze was at Horizon Academy for seven months in 2011 before his mother pulled him out. He said that on one occasion — after he was sent to an isolation room — he began to cry and was tackled by two staff members who twisted his arms behind his back for about 10 minutes.

    Mr. Chomakhidze also said staff members and students bullied him because he is gay — and even though he had a history of suicide attempts, he said one staff member encouraged him to kill himself. “They said I was a girl,” he said. “They said I was crazy.”

    When he slit his wrists, he lost his accumulated points for good behavior, which are necessary to finish the program. The school has denied mistreating Mr. Chomakhidze, but acknowledged a policy of taking away students’ points after a suicide attempt.

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  28. John, who requested that his last name not be used, was 16 when he was sent to Horizon last year. He said he had been restrained by staff members several times during his five-month stay, and that he became so distressed that he refused to eat for nearly three weeks, losing 15 pounds off his thin frame.

    “When I stopped eating, they put me in a room for a few days,” he said, referring to a small isolation room used to punish students. He said his pants and jacket were taken away, leaving him with only his T-shirt and underwear in a room so cold he shivered. Horizon denied that the room was cold or that his clothes were removed.

    Taylor Smith, who recently sent her 17-year-old daughter to Horizon, said she had wanted her child to receive therapy for depression. But Ms. Smith said it was only after she had enrolled her daughter that she was told there were no licensed therapists on staff. “I sent her there because it was supposed to be a residential treatment center,” she said. She took her daughter home after nine days.

    Like some other managers at schools based on the World Wide model, Jade Robinson, Horizon’s director, has moved frequently among programs, including Casa by the Sea, which was shut by the Mexican authorities in 2004.

    Another school run by Mr. Robinson, Bell Academy, in Terra Bella, Calif., was closed in 2003 after state officials found it operating without a proper license, according to California Department of Social Services records.

    Several former students at schools operated by Mr. Robinson, a former amateur boxer, said in interviews — some dating back to the 1990s — that he had physically harmed them while disciplining them, and that they remained psychologically damaged.

    Mr. Robinson declined a request for an interview and to respond to most written questions. But he wrote in an e-mail: “My intent and action for years have always been pure to help teens and their family. It is unfortunate that there are a few past students that are unhappy that want to tarnish my reputation for their revenge.”

    He added that he had “always followed the state regulations in all areas and especially on restraints.”

    One former student, Matt Hoyler, was 16 when his parents sent him to Casa by the Sea for smoking marijuana and being disobedient.

    Mr. Hoyler, now 30, said that after violating a rule prohibiting passing gas without permission, staff members had hogtied him with duct tape and rope and left him in that position for 8 to 12 hours.

    While bound, Mr. Hoyler said, Mr. Robinson climbed atop him and pressed a knee into his spine while applying extreme pressure with an elbow to the back of his neck. Mr. Hoyler said that Mr. Robinson, who denied harming Mr. Hoyler, had physically hurt him in three or four similar incidents during his 11-month stay.

    “It was terrifying,” said Mr. Hoyler, who said he still has nightmares about the episodes.


  29. A handy guide to tough love teen reform homes

    by Jonny Scaramanga, Leaving Fundamentalism January 27, 2014

    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.

    There is more information online about troubled teen reform homes than I thought. These repugnant centres of abuse and torture have actually received a reasonable amount of coverage. In a sense, that’s a good thing, but it’s also worrying, because this huge amount of coverage hasn’t made much difference. These places still exist, and in some US states they can do so with no meaningful regulation. Some Americans think this is a good thing, thanks to some poisonous definition of liberty which includes “the freedom to abuse children in secret”. Because of statutes of limitations, in some cases victims of these places no longer have the possibility of seeking justice. So while abusers have no regulation whatsoever, their victims are restricted by the state.

    So here’s a guide to some of the main culprits: Who they are, where they are, and what they’ve been accused of doing. Be warned, the list includes all kinds of vile abuse, cruel and unusual punishment, and rape. You’ll also see they almost all use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum. And why not? It’s so beautifully conducive to abuse, by simultaneously promoting total obedience to authority and unquestioning acceptance.

    This is a work in progress. If you know of other homes or other allegations, please add them in the comments or by email.

    go to the following link to read tthe rest of this guide and the numerous links embedded in it:


  30. Synanons Sober Utopia: How A Drug Rehab Program Became A Violent Cult

    by MATT NOVAK, Gizmodo Australia APRIL 20, 2014

    In 1970, George Lucas needed dozens of actors with shaved heads for his sci-fi dystopian movie THX 1138. He had trouble filling the roles at first, since so few actresses wanted to cut their locks, but Lucas eventually found the extras he needed in a strange utopian community where everyone worshipped sobriety and expressed solidarity by shaving their heads. It was called Synanon, and over the course of three decades it would become one of the weirdest and most vindictive cults of the 20th century.

    “Today is the first day of the rest of your life…”

    Charles E. Dederich spent the better part of two decades wandering the country as a barely functional drunk. A sales exec from Ohio, Dederich moved to Southern California after his first divorce, and in 1956 gave Alcoholics Anonymous a good faith effort at the insistence of his second wife. She chose to leave him anyway, but the program really resonated with Dederich, who quickly became a sober evangelist for everything AA stood for. Dederich was only dismayed by one fact: AA didn’t accept other kinds of substance abusers to their meetings.

    Narcotics Anonymous was founded in Los Angeles in 1953, but by the late 1950s (when Dederich was sobering up) the organisation was still very disorganized, and NA groups rarely met. So in 1958 Dederich decided to form his own group that, unlike AA, embraced all kinds of addicts. He first called his group the Tender Loving Care club, but soon after renamed it Synanon.

    Dederich is credited with a lot of positive innovations early on in his career as a drug rehab guru. He focused on a marginalized group that most institutions wanted nothing to do with. He was said to have coined the phrase “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” He was stern with the people around him, but he believed this tough love was necessary to achieve and maintain sobriety.

    But Dederich made it quite clear early on that treating addicts was merely a byproduct of his larger mission. He wanted to create an experimental society that would transform the world. Over the years, the organisation grew — it built businesses and started schools — and its goal was no less than a utopian revolution. Synanon was a new way of living, as important to its members as any of the world’s major religions.

    “This is the kind of revolution that moved the world from Judaism to Catholicism to Protestantism to Synanism,” Dederich would insist. “This is a total revolution game.”

    But as one might anticipate given that kind of rhetoric, a dark side emerged. Not with one single act, but with many small changes that would enable the organisation to evolve into something much more dangerous. What was once a small drug rehab facility in sunny Santa Monica would become a violent, abusive and well-funded cult with satellites throughout California and beyond.

    The Game Begins

    “He was the first person I have ever met that was able to somehow able to cut through the nonsense,” one early Synanite said in a film referring to Charles Dederich. “He struck a chord.”

    That chord was one of supposed honestly, with Dederich’s brash and booming voice dominating whatever room he entered. And that booming voice made him a worthy opponent in a brutal form of therapy created by the man himself. It was called The Game.

    The Game was most important method of treatment at Synanon. When it came to getting addicts clean, the program rejected any form of pharmaceuticals or tapering of drugs. Everyone went cold turkey, and junkies were left on a couch to writhe and vomit for a few days while they went through withdrawal.

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  31. The Game was the medicine administered later, a kind of group therapy invented by Dederich where people sat in a circle to express (and often shout) their frustrations at each other. The confrontational approach was a way to hash out everything that bothered you about others in your group. It was supposed to help you learn about yourself as well. While playing the Game, your frustrations didn’t even need to be true. Lying was just one of many strategies in The Game, which could last anywhere from one to 48 hours.

    As Rod Janzen notes in his book about Synanon (a book, it should be noted, that’s bizarrely sympathetic to the cult and its methods), Dederich’s writings suggested that the Game start with a question like “The most boring person in this circle is ____?” or “What really pissed you off most this week?”

    On its face, many found The Game to be positive and a constructive (if admittedly unconventional) way to deal with issues within the group. But it would lay the groundwork for the abuse that was to come.

    Meeting the Neighbours

    Many of Synanon’s neighbours in Santa Monica weren’t terribly excited to have a drug rehab facility in their neighbourhood. The Synanon members faced harassment early on, some of it unjustified and rooted in racism and fear of addicts, some of it seemingly more deserved. In 1961, Dederich spent just under a month in jail for zoning violations and operating a hospital without a licence. In this case, he was guilty on both counts.

    Those events and persecutions only served to make the Synanites more cohesive as a group, and elevated Dederich to martyr status, suffering unjust incarceration for his beliefs. It also didn’t lead anywhere; at this point, the group was firmly committed to non-violence. But it wouldn’t be until much later that Synanon would take its revenge. Soon, that would change.

    That Hollywood Scene

    In the early 1960s, the Synanon house became quite the fashionable hang-out for Hollywood’s more cerebral celebrities. Guest speakers in 1963 alone included Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, legendary sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, and the original host of the Tonight Show, Steve Allen. Other visitors included Leonard Nimoy, Jane Fonda, Charlton Heston, and Milton Berle, among dozens of other curious stars. Synanon had some pretty cool parties, thanks to the fact that so many jazz musicians were around trying to kick their habit.

    But it wasn’t just the Hollywood elite and L.A. musicians lining up to get a peek at the exciting things happening in Santa Monica. Others who couldn’t resist poking their heads in for a look at the program included counterculture drug aficionado Tim Leary, futurist Buckminster Fuller, and labour activist Cesar Chavez.

    Politicians also came knocking. Senator Thomas Dodd from Connecticut claimed in 1962 that, “There is indeed a miracle on the beach at Santa Monica.” Jerry Brown Jr., the current governor of California, even visited Synanon while with his father in the mid-60s. Synanon was widely held up as a tremendously successful program by countless politicians well into the early 1970s. No wonder, given the kinds of numbers Synanon was reporting.

    Dederich’s organisation insisted recovery rates were anywhere form 80 to 100 per cent, though those figures were never confirmed by outside sources for obvious reasons. It simply wasn’t true. Some observers claim that fewer than 70 people in Synanon’s entire existence — of the thousands who sought treatment — could reasonably have been claimed as rehabilitated, though it’s probably somewhere in between these extremes.

    It’s especially tough to judge rehabilitation rates when a program’s founder eventually comes to claim there’s no such thing as rehabilitation, and that staying within the organisation is the only true path.

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  32. Growth Curve

    Starting in 1965, Synanon started buying up land in Marin County, California. It would eventually have three sites in the county, comprising just over 3,300 acres in total, making it the largest private property owner in the county.

    That year it also reached a high-watermark of public awareness: It got the Hollywood movie treatment. The film starred Edmund O’Brien as Dederich, and was even filmed on location in Santa Monica with the full cooperation of the Synanon organisation.

    In 1967, Synanon also purchased a palatial new building in Santa Monica called Club Casa del Mar. First built as a hotel in 1926 and then used by the US Army during World War II, the building sat on a gorgeous spot on the beach. Now a hotel again, you’d never know its bizarre history if you walked inside.

    At the same time, Dederich himself abandoned Santa Monica, moving north to his Tomales Bay site. By the mid-1970s, his organisation had acquired over 2,000 acres in Tulare County.

    One reason for the Synanon’s rapid expansion? The organisation was fast attracting non-addicts into the fold. Aside from the bevy of celebrities that would make appearances, locals who had never been considered addicts (squares, as Synanon called them) also wanted in. They were reluctantly allowed, and by 1967 Synanon broadened its mission to include “research into the causes of alienation and delinquency.”

    Synanon’s ranks were swelling. After starting in 1958 with just 40 junkies in a rundown building, it now boasted 823 members and some incredibly expensive digs to boot.

    Circling the Wagons

    By 1968, a new type of Synanon membership was established: the Lifestyler. Members of this group were allowed to have jobs outside of Synanon and live outside of the Synanon community, provided they gave most of their income to the organisation. This new kind of member allowed Synanon to fill its coffers with outside money that it had otherwise been reluctant to receive. After all, the organisation was leaving a lot of cash on the table by declining government-funded grants. Why? Those grants stipulated that there be some kind of independent examination and verification of success rates through drug tests and the like. These were flatly rejected.

    This experiment with Lifestylers wouldn’t last long, however, as this type of member was often accused of not being committed enough to the cause. Most Lifestylers washed out of the program, though some joined the ranks fully, leaving their homes behind as a show of true commitment.

    By 1968, the group was becoming even more isolationist, with Dederich declaring that it would no longer graduate any of their members. This meant that no addict who kicked their addiction would be allowed to “graduate” to a life outside of Synanon. What little pretense the group had about helping addicts rejoin the outside world had been dropped. Synanon was now the only place to be, a narrowly focused utopian experiment that was ready to swallow you whole.

    After the massive expansion into all parts of California, not to mention satellite offices in places as far out as Detroit, the business side of the organisation was growing tremendously. In 1968, Synanon was bringing in roughly $US1.2 million from its various businesses, including gas stations and a manufacturer of branded promotional items. By 1976 it was grossing $US8.7 million, with estimated assets of over $US30 million.

    Raising Kids

    Children inside the Synanon cult were raised communally. This was a common practice romanticized by utopian communities of the 19th and 20th century (including in Upton Sinclair’s failed Helicon Home Colony), though Synanon took it a step further than most.

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  33. Parents had highly restricted access to their children after they reached the age of about 6-9 months. By the end of the 1960s, adult members might only see their kids once a week, even if they wanted to see them more often. The policies dictating how often a given member could see their children became more and more restrictive throughout the 1960s, and by 1972 Dederich had proposed that the children from every California branch be moved to a single site in Marin County. This was quite obviously a way for Dederich to better control his followers. But for many people, it was the final straw. According to Janzen, between 200 and 300 people left the organisation after this new policy was proposed.

    “Dederich and others displayed a good-riddance attitude,” Janzen writes in The Rise and Fall of Synanon. “Those who left lacked commitment to Synanon’s new utopian vision, they said.” The choice was clear: Your family, or that of Synanon.

    LSD and Do As I Say

    Synanon was a completely drug-free environment, save for aspirin, caffeine and nicotine. But there was another drug that Dederich didn’t consider harmful. In fact, he credited this drug with expanding his mind and allowing him to create the Synanon program in the first place. That drug was LSD.

    Early on, Dederich’s experience with LSD at UCLA, under the supervision of doctors, was written about with the kind of mythical terminology that you’d expect of a charismatic leader. In 1961, one admirer profiling the group explained that Dederich was not affected by the LSD as some commoners might be:

    Chuck was an atypical patient in that he experienced no regression, no sensory enhancement or hallucinations. During the active period of LSD intoxication, his normal traits appeared merely in a sort of caricature. One phrase that came into his mind impressed him: “It doesn’t matter, but, at the same time it matters exquisitely.” He would go to his room and give way to tears for an hour or more every day. Even with the seeming grief, there was euphoria.

    He was seemingly stronger than powerful hallucinogens. And yet he would credit them with inspiring him to start Synanon. Sometimes his philosophy was do as I say, not as I do. Other times, it was explicitly, do exactly as I do.

    In 1970, Dederich decided that he should quit smoking for health reasons. Once a safe-haven for nicotine, with centres filled with smoke, Synanon banned smoking for everybody. This top-down control over the lives of Synanites was common, and would ultimately contribute to its violent transition. Dederich would act on impulse, rationalize his behaviour, and then claim that had been the plan all along.

    A pivotal moment occurred in 1973 when a woman was speaking disrespectfully of Dederich’s wife Betty during a session of the Game. This, of course, was part of the Game, but for whatever reason, this time Dederich took it very personally.

    Dederich grabbed a can of soda and poured it on the woman. At first, he apologized, but he almost immediately recanted his apology and rationalized his behaviour as justified. “I gave the woman a lesson in manners,” he explained.

    Finding Religion

    In 1974, Synanon moved to become recognised as a religion. The organisation was running up against troubles with the IRS and had realised, much like other self-help cults of the 20th century, that being recognised as a religion could help it maintain tax-exempt status.

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  34. After abandoning drug treatment as its sole mission in the 1960s, Synanon could no longer claim to be simply a non-profit organisation. And its substantial for-profit businesses weren’t helping its case. Becoming a full-fledged religion was the best way to protect its massive holdings from the tax man.

    It didn’t work, though. The IRS never officially officially recognised Synanon as a religion, though it would be at least another decade before it finally stripped the company of its tax-exempt status.

    Death and Embracing Violence

    At same time it was claiming its religious rights, Synanon stepped up its use of violence within its ranks. Suspected “spies” were severely beaten. Teenagers sent to Synanon to help cure juvenile delinquency were regularly physically abused for insubordination. Everyone in the group started shaving their heads. Things were gradually, but steadily, getting worse inside the sober cult of Synanon.

    Dederich was also becoming less interested in having any children around, telling many members that if they wanted to have kids they probably shouldn’t be a part of Synanon. “I understand it’s more like crapping a football than anything else,” Dederich would say about childbirth in 1976.

    By January of 1977, Dederich’s distaste for children turned into an official policy. Men were pressured to get vasectomies, and women were shamed into getting abortions. These policies instigated another wave of defections, though Dederich’s increasingly inward focus caused him not to care. As Rod Janzen notes in his book about Synanon, one member told Dederich, “I’ll give you my life, Chuck, but not my balls.” Notably, Dederich didn’t get a vasectomy himself. Those that stayed, completely beaten and indoctrinated, didn’t seem to care that Dederich had become a tyrant who couldn’t even pretend that he held himself to the same standard as other Synanites.

    Chuck Dederich’s wife Betty died of lung cancer on April 19, 1977. After that, all bets were off. Betty, a strong woman in her own right, seemed to dial back some of Chuck’s weirder megalomaniacal tendencies. After her death, nothing could temper his darker desires to control people.

    By October of that year, only a few months after the death of his wife, Dederich’s policies became even more extreme and controlling. He declared that married Synanites should split up and find new partners. He started by breaking up his own daughter’s marriage. About 600 couples were divorced by the following year.

    At the same time that Synanon was becoming increasingly militant and strange, it was enjoying substantial support from American businesses as a charitable organisation. As Richard Ofshe notes in his 1980 paper The Social Development of the Synanon Cult, there were 20,000 businesses and organisations giving to or interacting with Synanon by the late 1970s, “including one out of five corporations in the Fortune 500 who were listed either as donating or as doing business with the organisation.”

    By the late 1970s, Synanon was going from bad to worse in some terrifying ways. The group’s reported purchase of over $US200,000 in firearms in 1978 raised plenty of eyebrows. If you were on the fence about Synanon’s classification as a cult before, you certainly had fewer doubts now.

    In 1978, ex-Synanite Phil Ritter would try to extract his young daughter from the organisation and nearly paid with his life. Ritter’s wife was still in the organisation, and had moved with their child to Synanon’s Detroit facility. Ritter sought legal action against the cult and in response, the church sent two men to beat him senseless in his own driveway. He wound up in a coma for a week.

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  35. Bad Press

    During the 1970s Synanon attracted a fair amount of attention from the media, though unlike the positive press it was getting in the 1960s for its drug rehab “successes,” the coverage was overwhelmingly negative.

    Major news networks had started slowly reporting on the organisation, but much of the legwork that went into exposing Synanon as a violent cult was done by a tiny newspaper with a circulation of only about 1,700.The Point Reyes Light in Marin County was dogged in its pursuit of the Synanon story, which involved child abuse, wrongful imprisonment, assault and misappropriation of funds. Despite being constantly threatened for libel action, the paper didn’t back down. The Light even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for its reporting on the organisation, something virtually unheard of for a paper of that size.

    Members of Synanon didn’t take kindly to the criticism. The group lashed out at anyone who dared question their organisation; after an expose by NBC in 1978, members sent hundreds of ominous letters to NBC executives, threatening physical harm.

    Syanon also spent the 1970s suing anybody who wrote a critical article or aired a negative TV segment about it. In 1972 it sued Hearst Corporation over a San Francisco Examiner article that described the cult as the “racket of the century.” When it was finally revealed to the broader public just what a financial and emotional scam Synanon had become, this was no longer considered hyperbole.

    The Rattlesnake

    The most famous incidence of the organisation’s violence — and the one that Americans old enough to remember may recall — was a planned attack by Synanon on a Los Angeles lawyer. It’s remembered largely due to the bizarre choice of weapon: a rattlesnake.

    Attorney Paul Morantz had successfully represented a young woman who had been held against her will by the cult. Morantz came home on October 10, 1978 to his house in the Pacific Palisades and opened his mailbox, only to be immediately bitten by a rattlesnake. The people who had placed the snake there had removed its rattle so as to keep it quiet. Morantz rushed outside yelling to his neighbours for help.

    Thankfully they were able to call an ambulance in time, saving his life after quick and extensive treatment with anti-venom. Two men — 20-year-old Lance Kenton and 28-year-old Joseph Musico — were charged with attempted murder, along with Dederich for conspiring to commit it.

    Dederich’s obsession with recording audio came back to haunt him, as the police produced tapes of him talking about violence and specifically mentioning Morantz’s address in the Pacific Palisades. All three plead no contest and Dederich entered into a plea deal that included probation, though he didn’t see jail time. The other part of the plea: Dederich would have to step down as head of Synanon.

    It should be noted that I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI for Dederich’s file but was told that he had none.

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  36. The Dwindling Game

    Synanon’s reach was relatively limited, and yet everyone that came in contact with the organisation left with battle scars. The cult hobbled along throughout the 1980s, badly damaged from their wars in both the press and the courtroom. Who wanted to be associated with the rattlesnake cult?

    Synanon was formally stripped of its tax-exempt status in 1991 and completely disbanded shortly after that. Charles E. Dederich died in Visalia, California in 1997.

    Relative to other cults of the second half of the 20th century, Synanon wasn’t the worst. But if you stuck around with Synanon in the 1970s, you would have felt right at home in some of the most notorious cults of the 1970s and 80s.

    Synanon started with what looked like the best of intentions. And the organisation still has defenders today. But no matter what the initial goals of this strange community and its heavy-handed leader, there’s no denying what it had become: a dangerous cult ultimately tossed on the scrap heap of failed utopias.

    Whether dangerous or benign, the utopian impulse is almost always about control. We strive for perfection with small actions, working toward some greater change in our lives; our own slice of heaven. We blind ourselves to the dark undercurrents of our carefully controlled little worlds.

    That’s what happened at Synanon. Members ignored the greater sins for the smaller ones. As members became more and more invested in the utopian project’s minutiae, it became harder and harder to escape. Ultimately, Synanon collapsed under its own utopian hubris — a tyrant’s ant farm masquerading as a grand experiment with the good life. And for some of the bruised and battered left in Synanon’s wake, its undoing came none too soon.

    Images: Top two photos inside the Synanon organisation come from the March 9, 1962 issue of Life magazine; Synanon’s Santa Monica headquarters circa 1970 via Synanon.org; 1965 movie poster for Synanon via the Movie Poster Database; Screenshot from the 1971 film THX 1138; Richard Grotsley holding a snake in the October 13, 1978 edition of the Hutchinson News in Kansas; Two Synanites Bonnie Cunningham and Ellen Delgado look over the hair they and other women at a Synanon community in Santa Monica shaved off in February 1975 via Associated Press; Charles Dederich in 1979 via the Associated Press; 1978 CBS News screenshot of Connie Chung reporting on Synanon via YouTube; Kids playing the Game circa 1977 via Synanon.org; 2014 photo of the Hotel Casa Del Mar by Matt Novak

    Sources: The Rise and Fall of Synanon by Rod Janzen; Synanon: A Therapeutic Life Style by Curt G. Batiste and Lewis Yablonsky (1971); The Anticriminal Society: Synanon by Lewis Yablonsky (1962); Synanon: Toward Building a Humanistic Organisation by Steven Simon (1978); The Social Development of the Synanon Cult: The Managerial Strategy of Organizational Transformation by Richard Ofshe (1980); Social Structure and Social Control in Synanon by Richard Ofshe and others (1974); Child Rearing and Education in the Synanon School by Edward Gould (1975); Synanon House — A Consideration of its Implications for American Correction by David Sternberg (1963); The Phenomenon of Self-perpetuation in Synanon-Type Drug Treatment Programs by Donald Scott and Harold L. Goldberg (1973)


  37. Kiddie Boot Camp Accused of Abuse

    A group of parents is suing a boot camp-style private school, along with the state of Wisconsin, over the alleged abuse of children in its care.

    by Brandy Zadrozny, The Daily Beast June 24, 2015

    A group of parents is suing a boot camp-style private school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, claiming the teachers there abused seven children without their knowledge in the name of turning their young lives around.

    Their complaint, filed this week in Milwaukee county circuit court, alleges seven elementary and middle school students enrolled at Right Step—a school program for some 200, mostly low-income students—were the victims of the organization’s structure and disciplinary system, one meant to instill self-control into students who have previously failed in a traditional school setting.

    According to the complaint, in the 2014 fall semester, these students were: pushed, kicked, and punched; threatened and called derogatory names; forced to stay in smoke-filled rooms until they passed out; and exercised to exhaustion with limited food and water. The complaint goes on to list specific mistreatments by instructors. Instructors allegedly urinated on a student’s clothes, held a student on the ground by placing a foot on his back, forced a student to drink a beverage that the instructor had spit in, and regularly flipped them from their beds in the middle of the night. One student was made to lie in his vomit for half an hour, according to the complaint.

    “[These children] were taken to a boot camp in central Wisconsin and physically abused and humiliated. Their parents had no idea that physical abuse and humiliation was part of the school’s program. They felt deceived by the school and were upset that they enrolled their kids in the school, thereby subjecting them to this abuse,” said Aaron DeKosky, the lawyer representing the three parents in their civil suit.

    Calls by The Daily Beast to the school were returned by Right Step’s Rebecca Fitch—a named defendant in the suit. She said one of the defendants, Randy R. Martus, hadn’t worked with Right Step for three or four years, but wasn’t familiar with the current case and couldn’t comment on the allegations. Fitch said a similar sounding case had been brought against the school last year.

    Since its founding in 2006, Right Step Inc. has marketed itself as a lifeline to what its founders call Milwaukee’s “lost youth.” Its mission as advertised on theirwebsite, has been “to develop the minds, bodies, and spirits of the community's most challenging youth, through discipline, and motivation toward positive outcomes.”

    "Our kids have been weapon-carrying, drug-using habitual truants," Right Step’s director of education, Rebecca Fitch, told the Journal Sentinel in 2008.

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  38. The boot camp and school are part of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program administered by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, and a large majority of students there utilize government subsidies to attend.

    As such, the parents are also suing the state of Wisconsin and its education arm, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, arguing the extensive voucher program there uses public and taxpayer dollars to fund private, mostly religious and sometimes—as in this instance, critics say—unregulated schools, effectively turning the majority of the private institution public.

    “The state does not require that schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program provide parents of prospective students with information on the school’s academic achievements or punishment practices,” DeKosky said.

    Despite the advertised achievements of Right Step cadets, numerous studies of juvenile boot camps have found the “scared straight” model to be ineffective and claim the highly-structured routine and intense physical labor often results in a temporary obedience. Children often leave these programs more hostile and distrusting of authority figures than when they entered and most reoffended in short order—at similar rates to juveniles in traditional correctional institutions. These studies however are mostly for camps where juvenile offenders go to be reformed and then return to their normal lives. Right Step and other boot camps that also operate as schools and have students for years may have better success rates.

    A promotional video for the school shows students—known as cadets—running military drills in the yard as well as receiving instruction in a classroom. Several members of the student body—90 percent of whom are at least three grades behind, according to a drill sergeant quoted in the video—offer testimonials of how the tough love of Right Step kept them off the streets, away from gangs and criminal activity.

    Along with low graduation rates and test scores and high truancy rates, Milwaukee’s public school system boasts one of the largest black-white achievement gap in the country.

    Furthermore, the area consistently ranks on the country’s most dangerous citieslists and at least 28 city children have been shot there this year.

    In light of those abysmal statistics, there’s no denying Milwaukee children—particularly the poor, black children Right Step primarily enrolls—are in need of quality educational alternatives. Whether Right Step is saving or harming the children entrusted to its care will be for the courts to decide.

    see the links embedded in this article at:


  39. Life and Death in a Troubled Teen Boot Camp

    A tragic accident exposes the dangers of an out-of-control billion-dollar industry

    BY JESSE HYDE, Rolling Stone November 12, 2015

    In the darkness of early morning, 16-year-old Bruce Staeger lay splayed across his mattress, sleeping soundly for once. Most nights, he would smoke a blunt and crash, but not this one.
    Lately, his mother had been watching him closely. She and Bruce's stepdad had even installed a motion detector on the porch of their doublewide trailer to keep him from sneaking out at night. Around 4:30 a.m., his bedroom light suddenly flipped on. Bruce rolled over, blocking his eyes from the glare to find his mom sitting on the edge of the bed. "Bruce, do you remember what I told you a few days ago?" She said softly. "I would never make a decision that would hurt you."

    Over her shoulder, two men in cowboy hats and Wranglers hovered near his bedroom doorway. Other kids, he would later learn, freaked out in this moment. They yelled, they swore, they swung wildly at the two strangers. But Bruce did none of this. He quietly got dressed as instructed. "You're going away with these men," his mom told him. "This is for your own good."

    The cowboys nudged him out into the cold morning air and loaded his things into the bed of a pick up. They headed west, towards the Black Range, a rugged and remote stretch of mountains in southern New Mexico. After a few hours of driving, one of the men put a black pillowcase over Bruce's head so he wouldn't know where they were going. The truck lurched and heaved as the paved road turned dirt. Eventually, Bruce would come this way again and see it all—the dry creek beds and narrow slot canyons, the craggy ridgelines and low-lying mesas that glowed red in the sun—but for now, his head hooded in darkness, he could see nothing.

    Bruce had been getting into trouble ever since his dad left six years earlier. A skinny kid with sloping shoulders, braces and a mild case of acne, he rarely went to school, spending his days smoking pot and skateboarding instead. A few months earlier, he had run away and holed up with some meth junkies. When he finally returned home, his mom said she didn't know what else to do for him. Apparently, this was her answer.

    Finally, they arrived at their destination: a camp known as Lockwood, a satellite location of Tierra Blanca Ranch, which for almost 20 years had reformed troubled youth. The camp's owner and director, a man named Scott Chandler, emerged from the truck, bowlegged with a slight hitch in his step. He lifted the hood from Bruce's head. "Hey guys," Chandler called out. "Come meet the new kid!"

    It took Bruce a minute to gain his bearings. He was in the mountains, above 5,000 feet, standing in a clearing surrounded by towering strands of pine. A thin plume of smoke rose from a cooking fire and two industrial grade Army tents loomed in the distance. Down by the creek, he could hear voices, high and reedy.

    Slowly, a dozen boys emerged, hard and lean, with haunted eyes. Their clothing was soiled and stained, their fingernails rimmed with dirt. The ones wearing orange, Bruce would soon learn, were trouble. The worst cases didn't approach at all; they were firewalled, which usually meant they couldn't speak to anyone except staff. Each looked Bruce dead in the eye and shook his hand firmly — something in their manner, though, both cocksure and skittish, unsettled him.

    Bruce had no idea the terrors and torment that awaited him at Tierra Blanca, some of the worst of it at the hands of the boys who now surrounded him. And he could never have imagined the decision to send him here would result in his death.

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  40. A working cattle ranch spanning 30,000 acres in one of the most isolated regions of the country, Tierra Blanca promised to take unruly teenagers—drug users, drop outs, kids in and out of the court system—and reform them through "sound Biblical principles," exercise, hard work and discipline. The program operates on the fringes of what's known as the troubled teen industry, a booming business that generates as much as $1.2 billion a year and takes in 10,000 to 14,000 kids and teenagers at any given time. For around $100 a day, or the rough equivalent of prep school tuition, you could send your teen to Tierra Blanca to become the sort of raw-boned young man who answered "yes, sir" and didn't complain when asked to do the dishes.

    When Bruce arrived in October of 2011, he had little idea how the camp functioned, what it would take to leave, or how long he'd be there. "There was no program, there was no handbook, there wasn't anything," says Nathan Bailey, who was at the ranch with Bruce. "As you became more trusted, more things were explained to you by the other guys. The only way you learned about the place was just a trickle of information."

    The aim of the program, several boys told me, was to break you down so what Chandler called "real change" could begin. Each day began early, typically at 7 a.m., with breakfast and Bible study or reading about historical leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Tuesdays and Fridays a retired elementary school teacher known as Miss Allie came to the ranch and handed out assignments from teachers in the nearby town of Deming. Every other day, the 15 or so kids at the camp were put to work on the ranch, clearing land, chopping the firewood that Chandler sold in town, or building miles of fence to keep cattle from wandering off. To soften up the rocky ground for fence posts, the biggest kids ran the digger, an unwieldy contraption with sharp metal spikes, or they just used "ghetto dynamite," bullet cartridges stuffed with gunpowder, to blow the rock apart.

    "That's what we did every day, shit like that," says Gunnar Hatton, who was at Tierra Blanca with Bruce. "And then they'd say, ‘Everyone put your tools down, it's time to run up and down the mountain, 10 fucking times with a 20 pound rock in your hands.' And then it was back to work. That's all we did, run and work."

    Exercises varied from grueling long distance runs to charging up a hill with a truck tire hoisted above their heads, a drill Chandler called "Halos." In between, boys were made to do up-downs, scissor kicks, push-ups and wall sits until their legs burned and their lungs were on fire. "The bigger you were and the stronger you were and the more you liked fucking up the little guys, the more powerful you were," says Hatton. Bruce tried to keep up, but he was out of shape. When he couldn't do exercises, staff encouraged the other boys to "help" him, which was code for either dragging him or "just a punch to the gut," another camper later told police.

    If Bruce did what staff asked, and didn't give them any trouble, he could earn three points a day. Once he earned 60 points he could call home. Staff favorites who had accumulated enough points for good behavior were given "privileged status," which meant they could also go home for a visit, rent a movie (as long as it wasn't R-rated) or play on the Deming football team. Those who broke the rules or tried to run away were taken to a special closet full of orange clothing, assigned an outfit, and in some cases made to sleep, work and eat shackled and cuffed. (Chandler says this has only happened a "handful" of times when a boy was a danger to himself or others.)

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  41. I talked to several boys who said they spent weeks in shackles, and one showed me scars on his ankles and wrists from times the cuffs and shackles cut into his skin until he bled. "Sometimes kids would step on your shackles just to fuck with you," he tells me. "I learned how to sleep with them on, do the dishes with them on, everything."

    To cope, some boys made a crude form of hooch out of canned fruit, bread and sugar, and tattooed themselves using ballpoint-pen ink and cactus needles. Others tried to run away. A boy named Jordan Almanza tried twice, once stealing a hacksaw to cut off his handcuffs and shackles, but every time Chandler and his staff hunted him down. "There was no way out," Hatton says. "You could either run and fucking die of dehydration, or just end it yourself."

    At first, Bruce was so timid the other boys had to look at his homework packet from Miss Allie to figure out his name. "He was hard to read," recalls Bruce's fellow camper, Nathan Bailey. "At times he would just stare off. He could go from being completely stoic, like nothing was getting to him, and then he'd just break down."

    As the months passed, though, Bruce began to open up. Laying in his tent at night, careful to make sure staff weren't listening, he talked about his ex girlfriends, the metal band he fronted back home and how much he missed his mom. "This shit really sucks," Bruce often said. "But I deserve it."

    In the spring of 2012, Chandler took Bruce and a group of other boys three hours east into the Sacramento Mountains to build fence line and turn rugged terrain into a hunting camp for wealthy clients. Most of the boys, including Bruce, were in orange for breaking camp rules. Because they were in such a remote location, roughly 100 miles from ranch headquarters, there was limited electricity; much of the food was canned — "way past the expiration date," Hatton says — and stored in a horse trailer with a leaky roof. Another camper later told police that "rain would get in the pancake mix and it would mold, but it was the only food that was there so you just cooked it and fried the crap out of it and just ate it." (Chandler denies this. "I ate everything the boys ate and 90 percent of the time there were leftovers, which we fed to the dogs," he says. "They got plenty to eat.")

    One night, after a week of work, the boys were loading up to return to Tierra Blanca headquarters when Chandler realized his wallet was missing. After hours of searching, he became convinced one of the kids stole it. One by one, he and another staffer took them under a tarp beside the horse trailer, and strip-searched them. When the wallet still didn't turn up, he gathered them around his truck. "One of you stole my wallet," he said. "And this is your one chance to come forward and admit you did it." No one said anything.

    The next morning, Chandler told the boys they'd stay at the camp until the wallet turned up. Suspicions quickly fell upon Bruce; he'd been one of the last ones in the truck with Chandler before the wallet went missing. But Bruce insisted he didn't have it.

    Chandler slowly upped daily exercise to extreme levels and cut rations down to just rice, canned beans and tortillas. To turn the boys against Bruce, the staff sat him in a lawn chair, gave him water and forced him to watch the other boys do "Halos" up and down a steep rocky slope. When that didn't elicit a confession, Chandler and his staff started waking the boys up in the middle of the night to run. (Chandler says this only happened twice.) "We were already starving, and really the only thing we had left was sleep," Hatton says. "When he took that from us, it felt like we were losing our minds."

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  42. The other boys tried to figure out why Bruce wouldn't reveal the location of the wallet. Some of them guessed it was a final stand against Chandler, to show he wouldn't break. But others began to wonder if he'd stolen it at all. At some point, Bruce reportedly told Chandler that he had taken the wallet and burned it. Either way, after a few weeks, several boys say that Chandler subtly suggested how to end the ordeal. As Hatton later told police, "He wanted Bruce beaten."

    Hatton says the beatings started off once or twice a week, but eventually escalated to every day. A group of four or five boys, usually the biggest, would take Bruce away from the camp and start interrogating him. "We'd tell him, ‘You know what's about to happen,'" Hatton recalls. "And then we'd beat the shit out of him."

    Several boys say they'd beat Bruce in plain sight of ranch staff, something Chandler denies. The camp consisted of a cluster of tents near the mobile campers where Chandler and the staff slept. "They'd either just go in their trailers while it was happening or sit there right outside their trailers eating," says one of the boys who participated in the beatings. "They never once intervened."

    When beatings alone didn't work, the boys grew more inventive. They hung Bruce from the horse trailer from his handcuffs; lassoed him and dragged him across the dirt; and put him in a sleeping bag stuffed with cow shit and kneeled on his chest. The worst of it, one boy told me, was the day they hogtied him to a pole by his cuffs and shackles and paraded him around camp like a pig on a stick, while other boys beat him.

    Eventually the boys decided the only way to end the ordeal was for one of them to die so authorities would shut down the camp. They drew lots to decide who would drink nightshade tea, derived from a poisonous plant, but staff discovered the plot before anyone could go through with it. Two weeks later, they met again. This time they decided they'd have to kill Bruce, but ultimately abandoned the plan.

    And then one day a staffer found the wallet in a five-gallon bucket of electrical wires. While Bruce never confessed to putting the wallet there, Chandler says he has never doubted that Bruce did it. Not that it mattered to any of the boys. After six weeks, their trip to the Sacramento Mountains was finally over.

    All the boys I talked to who participated in the beatings had trouble admitting what they had done to Bruce. "It's something I have a really hard time forgiving myself over," one former camper says. "I feel so guilty, not just for taking part in the beatings, but for wanting him to die. I still have nightmares from what we did to him."

    It's hard to know how many programs like Tierra Blanca operate across the country, but conservative estimates put the number in the hundreds. Some are tough-love boot camps; others are wilderness-based programs whose philosophies can vary from meditation and yoga to the most extreme versions of fundamentalist Christianity. Many of the programs share an outright disdain for traditional therapy and try to fly under the radar of state regulators.

    Despite an alarming report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2007 that found "thousands of allegations of abuse, some of which involved death" at residential treatment programs nationwide, the troubled teen industry has flourished in recent years, especially in states with religious exemption laws. In Florida, which bans the inspection of private, faith-based facilities, there have been at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect over the past decade. Children have complained of being pinned to the ground for hours, held in seclusion for days and made to stand until they wet themselves.

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  43. Some have even been choked to unconsciousness. Girls have been forced to wave around their menstrual-stained underwear as chastisement for being "unclean." Conversion therapy for gay teens is a common practice at many of the faith-based facilities as well.

    Most troubling about the growth of the industry, advocates say, is that there's no proof any of it works. In fact, research highlighted by the GAO report suggests that tough love programs are actually counterproductive. "If you want to teach a kid how to get along better in the outside world, it doesn't make sense to completely isolate them and submerge them in this world with arbitrary rules and unpredictable and severe punishments and make them live in a constant state of fear," says Julia Graff, of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C. "Most kids are worse when they get out."

    In the past 15 years, as many as 86 kids have died in troubled teen programs. At least 10 kids have died at wilderness programs like Tierra Blanca, most of them because of starvation, exposure to the elements or pressing medical needs that went ignored. In one of the most highly publicized cases, a 16-year-old named Aaron Bacon was forced to hike without food for as many as 14 days and sleep for several nights in freezing temperatures in the canyons of southern Utah without a sleeping bag or blanket. When his body began to shut down, and he lost control of his bowels, the staff made him walk without pants. He died after just 20 days at the camp.

    "These programs are based on the premise that today's teens are so out of control and morally compromised that only the most extreme and harsh tactics can keep them in line," says Maia Szalavitz, who interviewed hundreds of kids who had attended tough love programs for her 2006 book,Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids. "And they think the answer is to isolate them, deprive them and eventually break them."

    The largest industry trade group—the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP)—says that tough love programs like Tierra Blanca are outliers and not representative of the industry as a whole. The group requires its 166 member programs — which serve an estimated 6,000 kids, or about half of those in the industry — to be licensed or accredited, something programs like Tierra Blanca are notorious for resisting.

    "There's a lot of frustration about these sorts of programs because it's a black eye for the field as a whole," says the NATSP's spokesperson, Megan Stokes. "Programs using outdated tough love methods with no science, that's absolutely not what we're about."

    By the time Bruce arrived at Tierra Blanca, New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) had compiled a growing list of concerns about the ranch. In 2006, a father contacted CYFD to complain that his son had been kicked in the head by a staff member for "faking" a seizure. Two years later, a 16-year-old escaped with a satellite phone, until state police found him miles away trying to remove the shackles from his ankles. During visits, CYFD found that one staff member had no first aid training, another hadn't undergone a criminal background check and there were no written policies or procedures to explain the ranch's rules.

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  44. There was also no working landline, meaning the only way anyone could communicate with the outside world was through Chandler's cell phone. "This is not an acceptable safety situation," a CYFD staffer wrote in an internal memo, "especially since [Tierra Blanca Ranch] is located in a very remote, rural area." To make matters worse, calls were monitored and letters were screened. "If I wrote, ‘This shit is happening, they ran me until I was coughing up blood,' they wouldn't have sent it out," says Ryan Houghton, who was a camper at Tierra Blanca the same time as Bruce. "There was really no way to tell anyone what was going on."

    Before their next visit, CYFD informed Chandler that, among other things, he'd need to ensure that any vehicle used to transport kids had a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and enough seat belts. Otherwise, CYFD warned, Chandler would be shut down.

    Chandler said he was working to come into compliance with these requests when the state decided, in 2006, to re-classify Tierra Blanca as a wilderness camp. That meant the program would no longer fall under the state's purview. "I don't think anyone can explain why the state agreed to that," says Liz McGrath, Executive Director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, in Albuquerque. "At that point, the state abdicated its responsibilities to oversee the ranch. There really was no one there to ensure the safety of these kids." (CYFD didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.)

    By the time Bruce was in elementary school, his family was coming apart: his dad left them when Bruce was 10 and his mom worked long hours at a hospital in El Paso. Bruce spent afternoons alone, playing video games, or riding his bike aimlessly around the neighborhood. "The kid never met a stranger," says his brother Eric, a 27-year-old at New Mexico State University. "He was a really fun, energetic kid, but he didn't really have anybody. He was pretty lonely."
    Bruce started skipping school when he was 12, and then fell in with a group of friends who seemed dangerous to his mom. At one point, they robbed her house, and from there Bruce's life unspooled in a classic archetype of teenage angst: black clothes, thrash metal, the musty odor of marijuana trailing him from his room.

    When the family moved to the trailer park outside Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a flyspeck of a town known for farming and meth, in 2010, things got worse. One night the following summer, Bruce came home rolling on ecstasy and shoved his mom. A few days later, he ran away from home; his mom and stepdad didn't hear from him again for two weeks. "I was worried he was going to end up in jail, or even end up dead," Carla Moffat says. "If he ran away one more time I didn't think I'd ever see him again. People don't understand how few options parents have in these situations."

    When Moffat heard about Tierra Blanca from a friend, she researched it online and found glowing testimonials from graduates. Even though she was already working 12-hour shifts, and paying for the program would require additional overtime, she felt like it was worth it. On the phone, Chandler explained how the program worked: she wouldn't hear from Bruce for several months and she couldn't visit without permission. "He told me, ‘You're the parents, but we're his family now.' I asked him how we would reintegrate Bruce back into our family and he said, ‘You don't. Because the problems that exist in the family will always exist in the family.' That should have been a red flag right there."

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  45. Despite the violent episode in the Sacramento Mountains, Bruce began to adjust to the strict regimen at Tierra Blanca. By the fall of 2012, just months after the wallet incident, he earned certain privileges for good behavior. In the bunkhouse at Tierra Blanca headquarters, he now ate cornbread, beef stew and the occasional steak that Chandler's daughters cooked. His grades began to improve under Miss Allie too. All signs to Chandler that Bruce was on the path to "real change."

    "He was on my A team," Chandler says. "If there was a job to do that had to be done right, he was one of the first kids I'd pick. And that was a real cool thing to see, just knowing some of the things he was dealing with when he came in, some of the things going on in his life."

    When Bruce's mom and stepdad visited him, in the winter of 2013, he seemed like a different person. He had gone in with big gauges in his ears, but now he wore a black cowboy hat everywhere. Bruce also started attending a Baptist church in nearby Hatch with some of the other boys, often lingering in the chapel to talk with the youth leaders who played guitar. Eventually he asked one to baptize him. "The program seemed to be working," Carla Moffat says. "He looked happy. He was polite. He was calm. He had direction."

    In the meantime, pressure to regulate the ranch was mounting at the governor's office. In December of 2012, CYFD got a 27-page memo from the father of a boy who had gone to the ranch, alleging potential abuse and neglect. He included statements from boys who had contemplated suicide and at times felt like they were starving, along with details of an incident in which a staffer had allegedly beaten a 15 year old with a night stick for not completing exercises.

    Six months later, Pegasus Legal Services for Children sent a letter to the governor and the then-director of CYFD, alerting them that former participants had told police that "children are routinely hit, shackled, and handcuffed, deprived of food…and threatened by staff at Tierra Blanca Ranch if they make disclosures about abuse." Pegasus urged an investigation.

    And then tragedy struck. On the night of Sept. 22, 2013, Bruce and a group of boys were coming back from Chandler's parents' house after watching a football game when the boy driving, a recent Tierra Blanca graduate, took a curve on a dirt road too fast and rolled the truck. Because there weren't enough seats in the cab, Bruce had volunteered to sit in the bed of the pick up, and the crash ejected him. The remote location of the ranch and the spotty cell coverage delayed Bruce's arrival at the hospital, in part because calls kept dropping. Not long after being airlifted to a Level 1 trauma center in El Paso, Bruce died of massive internal bleeding.

    The crash was the last straw for CYFD and the governor's office. Less than three weeks later, state police raided the ranch, search warrant in hand, only to find no one there. State officials, believing Chandler had been tipped off and fled with the boys, issued an AMBER Alert. Chandler maintained that they were on a camping trip, and arranged to deliver 11 of the 13 teens to their parents (the other two were 18 and decided to return to the ranch with Chandler). A week later, Chandler and his wife, Colette, appeared on theToday show with Matt Lauer. "People don't understand...the type of kids we end up dealing with," Chandler told Lauer. "We care about kids. We want the kids to be safe. We want them to be successful."

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  46. When I visited Chandler this spring, he carried himself like a man under siege. He called the raid and what followed "the burn down," and seemed convinced the governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, had a personal vendetta against him. (The governor's office declined to comment.) He said his critics fail to recognize that he deals with kids who have criminal records and were violent with him and his staff. "You're only getting a part of the story," Chandler told me. "Some of the things these kids are saying, they're just flat out not true. You have to remember some of these kids are master manipulators, and a lot of them have some big credibility issues."

    Chandler speaks with a slight drawl, which depending on his mood can come across as friendly or slightly intimidating. When we stopped at a local Mexican restaurant for lunch, nearly everyone there seemed to consider him a close friend. Many Tierra Blanca graduates speak of him fondly; some consider him a mentor or surrogate father and still keep in touch, sending wedding invitations and birth announcements.

    Growing up in Central Texas, Chandler's parents had taken in teens from "broken homes" and he'd seen the difference it made in the kids' lives. After his dad allowed a wilderness program to operate on portions of his ranch in the late 90s, Chandler decided he could do it better, and cobbled together a "common sense" approach to reforming troubled teens. When I asked if a particular methodology governed the ranch, Chandler seemed amused. "People keep looking for a formula for our success, but it doesn't work like that," he said. "It's not something that's easy to replicate."

    Chandler says he doesn't practice what he calls the "medical model" of treatment. And while he's contracted with therapists in the past, he's never hired one on staff. "Our philosophy is you can replace the things drugs are trying to do with just work, exercise, get the endorphins going, you know, try and teach," he says. "We've become such a pill society, we mask our emotions. We don't just learn how to resolve a conflict, they have to have something else to control their emotions up and down."

    Fiercely individualistic, Chandler subscribes to a sort of libertarian idealism common in the West. Spend a few minutes with him and he's sure to bring up parental rights, which is his way of saying that the government has little to no business telling parents how to raise their kids. "People don't understand what we do," Chandler says. "We were trying to make productive citizens out of a group nobody cared about, and now we're getting burned at the stake. My family has been through so many lies, distortions and mischaracterizations."

    During my visit, we drove out to Camp Lockwood with his wife and two of his daughters (all of them help on the ranch), and Chandler introduced me to several program graduates still there. All of them disputed the allegations made in the lawsuits: namely, that staff had encouraged boys to beat Bruce. "This is all based on hysteria," a staffer and former camper named Tim Roberson told me. "If they had any evidence, why hasn't a single charge been filed against anybody? I've known the Chandler family for about six years and they are the most amazing family I've ever met. They've tried to help every person that's come through here, even those who are now trying to hurt them."

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  47. That evening as we drove back towards town, I asked Chandler about some of the most troubling allegations against him. He didn't deny subjecting kids to intense exercise or cuffing them. And when I asked if a former staffer had used a night stick to punish a boy, Chandler said, "It didn't happen like that." But he strongly rejects allegations that he encouraged his kids to beat each other. Those who did, he said, were immediately disciplined.

    We drove in silence for a few moments, and then his wife spoke up from the back seat of the truck. "Let's just say this," she said of the incident. "Do you remember when you were a kid in the school yard and there was some kid out there who just drove everybody crazy and a few of the boys got together and just gave him a little dose of medicine?"

    "Yeah," I said.

    "Things like that happen sometimes," she said.

    As for Bruce, most of what happened was "out of earshot" and the exercises he imposed as discipline during that period were roughly similar to "what guys do in the military," he said. But he did acknowledge that sometimes "kids took matters into their own hands." (In a subsequent interview he denied ever being aware of other kids beating Bruce.)

    "If we had really done something wrong," Chandler said. "Would we really be sitting here two years later without a single charge filed against me or any of my staff?"

    Chandler's supporters, and there are many, are intensely loyal (after the raid, he says, a petition he prepared got over a 1,000 signatures). A half dozen graduates Chandler put me in touch with said the program literally saved their lives. One of them, Pecos Cook, today a 28-year-old oil field worker in North Dakota with a wife and two kids, described similar experiences to those now suing Chandler: grueling physical exercise, being so hungry he ate grub worms and staffers who enforced strict rules. And yet, Cook says, those very tactics made the program work. "At times that place was hell," Cook says. "But looking back on it, I needed it. There are certain types of kids where that's the only thing that's going to work."

    Other program graduates, now in adulthood, told me the same thing: that they went in adrift, with no work ethic or sense of purpose, and left with a sense they could do just about anything. "If somebody you love has a terminal illness, you're going to do whatever it takes to get them treated, and that's how I see the ranch," says Matt Griffoul, who sent two of his kids to Tierra Blanca. "These parents who are complaining now, they knew exactly what they were getting into. So I think some of the blame has got to fall on them."

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  48. Last year, Chandler reached a civil settlement with the state, allowing limited oversight for one year. But he still faces a lawsuit from parents who say their children were abused at the camp. A criminal investigation sparked by the raid is still under review by the state attorney general's office. Their findings could determine the fate of the program. For now, however, Tierra Blanca is open for business.

    A week after Bruce died, his family and friends gathered for a memorial service at the church were he had been baptized. Many of those in attendance came from Tierra Blanca, including Scott Chandler. Afterwards, the boys from the ranch approached Carla and Jim Moffat and presented them a baseball they had all signed, a small way to memorialize the good times they'd had playing games on the ranch. When Carla realized the boy who was driving the truck during the accident hadn't signed the ball, she found him in the crowd and asked him to sign it.

    "I hold no malice for these kids," Carla says. "I see it as Animal Farm, orLord of the Flies. It was that kind of environment where you had kids turned against kid. It wasn't their fault."

    The long-term answer, Szalavitz and other advocates say, is federal legislation that would put the industry under a uniform standard. Former California congressman George Miller twice sponsored bills that would do just that, banning programs from withholding food, water and medical care "under the guise of discipline or therapy," and reserving the use of handcuffs, shackles and other physical restraints for emergencies. The bill also would have created a national hotline for kids to report abuse, but it was never signed into law. A similar piece of bipartisan legislation, introduced in July, is currently in committee.

    Earlier this year, I drove out to Truth or Consequences to meet with Bruce's mom, Carla. We sat on the porch of their doublewide, and she showed me the last of Bruce's possessions: the black cowboy hat he wore everywhere, the blue T-shirt he'd earned once he attained privileged status and the Bible he had marked up after his baptism.

    Carla says the abuses Bruce suffered at the camp came out slowly, in emails and phone calls from different boys. Her husband Jim has asked her not to read some of the details. And while the incident that claimed her son's life was an accident, Carla says it's a direct reflection on the way Chandler runs the ranch, and his refusal to comply with safety guidelines suggested by the state years earlier. "It's a wonder no one has died out there before," Bruce's stepdad, Jim Moffat said. "There are kids who attempted suicide, kids who ran away in the desert, and it's in the middle of nowhere, kids who felt like they were starving to death. That place was an accident waiting to happen."

    Carla showed me the truck Bruce used to drive, and the horse Chandler had promised to give Bruce upon graduation. Instead, he gave her to the Moffat family, and Jim now makes a point of riding her as often as he can. "There's nothing I can do to bring him back, and honestly, there are days I don't know if I can go on," Carla said. "But if it can result in some kind of lasting change, if it saves another kid's life, maybe some good can come from all of this."


  49. NOTE - THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE PROVIDES FURTHER INFORMATION ON "NEW BEGINNINGS GIRLS ACADEMY" DISCUSSED IN THE ARTICLE ABOVE POSTED BY Perry Bulwer November 2012 at 16:02 "Religious exemption at some Florida children's homes shields prying eyes" By Alexandra Zayas, Tampa Bay Times Staff Writer October 28, 2012


    The terrifying entry conditions for abusive Christian reform homes

    June 10, 2016 by Jonny Scaramanga, Leaving Fundamentalism

    If you’ve read this blog, you’ll be aware of abuses at Christian ‘troubled teen’ reform homes. These places call themselves educational facilities but are more like prison camps. Some are surrounded by barbed wire. -

    Despite all the evidence that has come forward, despite the dozens of independent testimonies from former detainees, all of which describe similar situations and similar abuses, and despite successful prosecutions for abuse in some of these homes, there are still people who accuse the survivors of lying or exaggerating. So I’ll tell you what: just for today, let’s not listen to the survivors. Let’s listen to the homes themselves. Or rather, one home in particular: New Beginnings Girls Academy.

    Let’s look at the “Enrollment Agreement” from New Beginnings Girls Academy (NBGA) that the activist network HEAL posted online. This, remember, is what parents agree to on sending their children to the home. This is the stuff that is not even contested.

    The document is undated, but the address on it is La Russell, Missouri. According to the survivor website, NBGA moved to La Russell in 2007, so this document is less than ten years old. A 2013 Change.org petition appealing to the state of Missouri to stop abuse at NBGA also lists the location as La Russell. So this document is probably from between 2007 and 2013.

    What do we find?

    Extreme censorship
    “The staff has complete discretion in determining the appropriateness of all mail.”

    NBGA had more postal censorship than anywhere this side of Stalin’s Russia. The “Mail Policy” states that all incoming and all outgoing mail will be censored by NBGA staff: “The staff has complete discretion in determining the appropriateness of all mail.” The only correspondence allowed is with family members. Photographs will be censored if the people in them do not meet the NBGA dress code. References to and photographs of old boyfriends will be censored.

    No newspaper articles, clippings, Internet or e-mail clippings, church bulletins or school newsletters are allowed. Any letters containing references to the student’s homecoming, i.e., “When you get home…” will not be permitted and will be returned.

    The “Telephone Policy” is just as restrictive. Residents of the home cannot make any outgoing phone calls.
    The only people who may call them are parents. These phone calls are restricted to 15 minutes in length, and if the child expresses negativity about NBGA, parents are instructed to end the conversation.

    Visits from parents are not allowed at all in the first six months, and then only at six-monthly intervals. Students are required to spend their first Christmas after enrollment at NBGA. Then there’s the list of prohibited items:

    “The following items WILL NOT be allowed at New Beginnings:
    Posters/wall hangings/calendars
    Video or board games
    Baggy style clothing
    Gangster, grunge, camouflage or faddish clothes
    Newspaper articles, clippings, Internet or e-mail clippings, church bulletins/newsletters
    Anything containing Scriptural references from any source other than the King James Bible

    These policies are a clear violation of the detainees’ human rights. The policies mean that if detainees were being abused, it would be almost impossible for them to tell anyone about it. US felons on death row are afforded more freedom of speech and communication than these teenage girls. It is a policy characteristic of a totalitarian regime, not an educational institution.

    continued below

  50. Cruel and unusual punishment

    The “Discipline Policy” begins with a section lifted almost word-for-word from page 115 of the Accelerated Christian Education Procedures Manual (this being the curriculum used at NBGA):

    Discipline is what is done FOR a child, not what is done TO your child. It is a preventative action.
    Training a student for leadership requires consistency in love and discipline. By nature, young people rebel against controls that suppress their carnal desires. Unchecked by discipline, these desires will lead to a life of heartache and negative consequences. With discipline, young people experience productive achievement.

    From there, it goes on to get even more extreme than the (already abusive) recommendations of past editions of the ACE manual. NBGA survivors have described being forced to do hard physical labour as punishment, and also being put on ‘Redshirt’: “a punishment which requires the detained girl to stand all day with the tip of her nose on a wall with her hands at her sides or behind her back and her feet flat on the floor”. It turns out parents were agreeing to punishments like this in advance:

    Various forms of physical training which include but are not limited to the following: jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, hops, leg lifts, crawls, running, carrying cinder blocks, or all of the above.

    Standing with your child nose touching the end of your child bed for a time period of 1 hour with a 10-minute sit-down break each hour. This is excluding any regularly scheduled activities and school time.

    An altered menu of bland foods will be issued at the discretion of the New Beginnings staff in conjunction with the above referenced discipline measures.

    And this is before we get onto the beatings. According to the enrollment form, students may be paddled for any of the following:

    physical fights, talk of running away, running away, or any attempts thereof, direct disobedience to be defined as a student’s refusal to follow a directive given by any adult staff member of New Beginnings; defiant and disrespectful attitude and actions as determined by New Beginnings staff; and the third offense for cheating in school.

    The reason I’ve put some text in bold is that this is so vague as to be a licence for beating over almost anything. The chances of justice being done with such a code are minimal.

    NBGA survivors have described being hit over and over again. The enrollment agreement says the number of ‘swats’ will be limited to five (5), but there’s a caveat: the swats must be “correctly received”.
    Incorrectly received swats do not count towards the five-hit limit:

    A maximum of five (5) consecutive correctly received swats upon the buttocks may be administered. Correctly received swats are those in which the student exhibits a submissive attitude, as determined by the administrator of the corporal discipline. This submissive attitude must be exhibited throughout the discipline session. A maximum of fifteen (15) swats of any kind, whether correctly received or incorrectly received, may be administered in a twenty-four hour period.

    That is far beyond the limit of what even the most conservative paedatricians consider acceptable. The beatings are administered with a “flat paddle”, which the American Academy of Paediatrics is clear should never be used. And these girls were teenagers, and even spanking advocates acknowledge that spanking teenagers is counterproductive. This is abuse. In fact, in 1996 the AAP convened a conference on spanking.

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  51. In their consensus statements every attendee agreed that spanking “older children and adolescents is not effective and is associated with increased risk for dysfunction and aggression later in life.” They also unanimously stated that corporal punishment should never be used in school:

    Data indicate that corporal punishment within the schools is not an effective technique for producing a sustained, desired behavioral change and is associated with the potential for harm including physical injury, psychological trauma, and inhibition of school participation.

    (“Consensus Statements”, Paediatrics, vol. 98 issue 4, p. 853)

    Silencing tactics

    Not content with abusing children and preventing them from telling anyone about it, NBGA made parents promise not to discuss conflicts with NBGA:

    At no time should the parent(s)/guardian(s) discuss any differences or conflicts that they might have with New Beginnings with their child.

    Then they required parents to sign waivers absolving the school of responsibility for harm to children, and requires them to promise not to sue the school. The statement of faith, to which parents agree, states:

    We believe that Christians are prohibited from bringing civil lawsuits against other Christians or the church to resolve personal disputes. We believe the church possesses all the resources necessary to resolve personal disputes between members.

    The accompanying release form states:

    I/we agree that I/we will hold harmless and not bring suit against New Beginnings or its agents or employees for any injury, harm or other dangers, whether caused by its agents, employees, or by third parties. Nor will any action be brought for the acts of the child named.

    So parents agree to allow their children to be abused, and then they promise not to sue over the resulting harm.

    So we can stop debating whether New Beginnings Girls Academy was abusive now. Even if it only stuck to what parents were told (and survivors say it didn’t), their official policies were brutal and unethical.

    This is not a secret

    The world of ‘troubled teen’ homes is vast, and once you start researching it, profoundly distressing. One of the organisations devoted to opposing them, SIA (Survivors of Institutional Abuse) has a video of a two-hour Congressional hearing on the subject as well as a link to a US Department of State document about ‘behavior modification facilities’. People in power know about this, and still nothing has been done.

    There are parallels here with the horrendous abuses in Canada’s residential schools for aboriginal children in the 20th century. There the abuses have only been acknowledged, and steps taken to compensate the detainees, now that all the schools have closed. There are still troubled teen homes operating in the United States, sometimes with the knowledge and assistance of the state. We could put this right today. I can think of nothing more to do except continue to raise awareness.


  52. Rapes, Daily Beatings and No Escape: Christian School Was Hell For These Boys

    Blue Creek Academy was an abusive hell on earth, former students say—and the principal who ran it is now heading up a new Bible school in another state.
    by Brandy Zadrozny, Daily Beast June 11, 2016

    [*Names of children and parents have been omitted or changed to protect child victims of sexual abuse.]

    Jacob* dressed himself in a camouflage jacket and a matching beanie on the summer morning he ran away into the West Virginia hills. At 14 years old, he was one of the youngest, smallest, and longest-attending students at Blue Creek Academy, a religious reform school for boys from which he was desperate to escape.

    Blue Creek Academy was made up of an old schoolhouse and several cabins situated on a remote campground in central West Virginia. A mission of the nearby Independent Fundamental Baptist church, pastor James Waldeck advertised Blue Creek as an “alternative to today's degenerate, secular culture and education methods,” and took in boys who had been in trouble at home—both locally and from as far away as Texas—to be reformed. Its principal, 35-year-old JR Thompson, had reopened the church’s campgrounds in 2010, renamed it Blue Creek
    Academy, and marketed the boarding school, which he ran with his wife, Hannah, as a godly answer for “at-risk” teens with emotional and behavioral disabilities and Christian parents with $1,000 a month to spend on their salvation.

    “We can’t wait to watch God move as he helps us snatch troubled souls out of Satan’s hand,” Thompson wrote on the school’s now-defunct website.

    What the boys found when they got to Blue Creek Academy was something else entirely—an all-too-common story for victims of Lester Roloff-inspired homes, which thrive as part of the unregulated religious teen reform industry.

    Along with a strict Bible-based curriculum, boys at Blue Creek Academy were allegedly subject to isolation, physical beatings and mistreatment, and at least two students reported sexual abuse by another student, according to court documents from a pending civil case brought against the school by one boy’s guardian; complaints and reports from West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Daily Beast; and interviews—with a lawyer representing three Blue Creek Academy students, three other former students, one parent, and the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office.

    Once at Blue Creek, the boys were cut off completely from the outside world, former students and their representatives claim. Bunkered in dilapidated quarters that were infested with rats and mice, the boys weren’t permitted to speak in public unless it was to sing hymns for local churches and the elderly. They weren’t taken to the doctor, and their calls home were monitored to intercept any unhappy tidings. When the boys weren’t going to church, doing manual labor, ormemorizing Bible verses, they were in a kind of school—seated in desks facing the wall, completing Bible-based academic workbooks for hours.

    Staff at Blue Creek Academy educated children using the Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) curriculum, from a homeschooling supply company whose workbooks promote the Bible as a literal history book and stress Creationism as science. (At one time the company even usedthe Loch Ness Monster to “disprove” Darwin’s theory of evolution.)Following A.C.E. guidelines, desks faced the wall, and were usually surrounded by dividers to block out any distractions.

    “They basically handed you a book and said, ‘Learn,’” one former student, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Beast.

    In lieu of teachers, ACE only requires “facilitators” to check students work and record grades, but even that was neglected at Blue Creek, according to several students who told The Daily Beast their time at Thompson’s school had to be made up once they returned to public school because none of their work “counted.”

    continued below

  53. Even the directors adopted son 19-year-old Justin Thompson, who lived at Blue Creek starting in 2010, told The Daily Beast over Facebook chat, “I passed high school but [JR Thompson] never kept a lot on record, so I have no proof.”

    But the educational neglect was nothing compared to the punishments given by Thompson, former students allege.

    Boys who acted out, or refused to obey, might have their heads shavedlike Jacob. Attempts to run away were allegedly penalized with food: an all-bean or asparagus diet or being made to chug water then denied use of the bathroom. They were all allegedly beaten—with bare hands, paddles, and boards. Jacob—whose new guardian is now suing Thompson and Waldeck for the maltreatment the boy allegedly endured there— said he was thrown into a wall when he wouldn’t confess to breaking a bench.

    “Mr. Thompson was very aggressive when it came to paddlings,” said one former student, reached through Facebook, who says he was sent to Blue Creek Academy for drinking and smoking pot. The boy, who asked not to be named because of his remaining ties to Blue Creek staff, said that he was hit nearly every day with Thompson's bare hands or a two-inch thick wood plank with holes they called “The Hillbilly Hot Seat” for lying, or cursing, even singing a secular song in the shower.

    “It was hell,” he said. “They forced unwanted religion on us, made us do labor that we hated, and made us run up and down the driveway. They used a board to hit us if we didn't do what we were asked,” he said.

    At least two of the boys there were the victims of sexual abuse. As detailed on an intake form from the division of Child Protective Services, obtained by a FOIA request from The Daily Beast, a 17-year-old boy—who was sent to Blue Creek from another teen reform school in Wisconsin where he had been originally placed and subsequently booted for molesting boys—was sexually abusing two of the younger students in 2012. Thompson—whom two former Blue Creek familiesfault with failing to supervise a known abuser—did report the older boy to police. When questioned, the older boy admitted to Thompson and police that he had raped one boy and molested another; he was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center, where he was charged with four counts of 3rd degree sexual assault and three counts of 1st degree sexual abuse.

    A separate allegation of sexual assault by a different boy at Blue Creek Academy is still currently under investigation, according to Sgt. Brian Humphreys, the public information officer for the Kanawha Sheriff's Office.

    Blue Creek administrators had their own personal history with CPS: one had been investigated for the alleged sexual abuse of his biological children, while another had been reported for unspecified allegations against his adopted son. Both investigations were closed as “incomplete.”

    On the intake form, the CPS investigator noted there was not enough supervision at the school and took issue with the policy of corporal punishment, but neither concern was enough to remove the children. Besides, where would they go? “The parents of all the boys do not seem interested in coming to get any of them,” the worker wrote.

    But Jacob wanted out. So he waited until the morning of June, 10, 2014 when Thompson would be off campus. As the other boys gathered for prayers and school, Jacob went back to his cabin, telling them he had forgotten to brush his teeth. Then he made a run for it.

    When the staff at BCA realized Jacob had run, they called Thompson back to look for him. After hours of fruitless searching, Thompson called local law enforcement, who helped him search the surrounding woods—but Jacob was gone.

    The next evening, a man found Jacob begging for change at a neighboring county supermarket 10 miles from Blue Creek and called Clay County Child Protective Services. Jacob smelled foul and the soles of his shoes had been worn bare from running. He was hungry, dirty, and scared, according to the CPS intake form.

    continued below

  54. Jacob begged the sheriff not to send him back.

    Kanawha County Child Protective Services went out to investigate Jacob’s abuse allegations and interview the boys at Blue Creek. When they got past Thompson, who initially refused to let them in the door, they found seven boys who all disclosed allegations of abuse and neglectby Thompson. The caseworker wrote that, in her interviews, the children told her Thompson had left marks from beatings and his poor supervision allowed for the molestation of several children; guns, drugs, and alcohol were also being brought on campgrounds. The official finding was maltreatment.

    “There was a lack of oversight,” said Troy Giatras, the attorney litigating a case for Jacob’s guardian against Thompson, Waldeck, and Blue Creek Academy. “The corporal punishment, the manual labor, the isolation, and the allegations of abuse that were never investigated? Other kids have reached out to us, so I know this isn’t an isolated incident.”

    “You have a place that is operating without a good charter and not well supervised by the Department of Health and Human Resources, and parents with troubled kids who are expecting a religious school to help.”
    No one from Blue Creek chose to comment for this story. Calls to Wadeck and Bible Baptist Church, and calls and emails sent to JR Thompson, his wife Hannah, and two other couples who worked at the camp during the time of alleged abuse were also not returned. In answers to a number of pending lawsuits, however, including one on behalf of Jacob, Waldeck and Thompson deny all charges of neglect or mistreatment of the boys at Blue Creek Academy.

    After her interviews, with the help of the Kanawha County Sheriff, the Child Protective Services caseworker brought the kids to a pizza parlor while they organized a return to their homes.

    While the children could be removed—because Blue Creek was unlicensed as a residential home—the Department of Children and Families had no power to shut the boarding school down. Like thousands of other religious private schools around the country—many of which become havens for abuse—Blue Creek Academy operated unlicensed, unregulated, and wholly unmonitored by the state. The only avenue for closure rested with the Board of Education, an entity that until then, had also had minimal interaction with the school.

    As in many other states, religious private schools in West Virginia aren’t held to the same standards as their nonreligious counterparts. Thoughthe ways in which they are exempt varies from state to state, for many schools that operate with a religious mission—80 percent of private schools nationwide—accreditation or licensing, the hiring of certified teachers or the approval of curriculum, or even simply notifying the state as to its existence is completely voluntary.

    “It’s a little scary when you think about it,” Betty Jordan, executive assistant to West Virginia’s Education Superintendent told The Daily Beast, explaining Blue Creek’s “Exemption K status,” a category that simply requires any religious school to send a letter to the state of its intent to operate and file annual test scores.

    “There is very very limited oversight. Actually there is no oversight. So basically if I wanted to tomorrow, I could write a letter to the state saying I want to open a school and I could open a school.”

    There are 130 such schools in West Virginia. Jordan said the exemptions are “hardly ever” revoked.

    State superintendent Michael Martirano did initiate Blue Creek’s closure, by revoking Blue Creek’s exemption status shortly after the children were removed. And in his September 2014 revocation letter, Martirano ostensibly put an end to any ideas of Blue Creek reopening. He wrote: “Due to the egregious nature of the non-compliance, children's health, safety and welfare, any future attempts by the school to seek reinstatement of the exemption status will be denied by this office.”

    continued below

  55. Notably the superintendent had shuttered another school 75 miles south of Blue Creek Academy the month before, after 26 years of operation. Martirano forced Miracle Meadows, a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school for “at risk” boys and girls from 6 to 17 years old, to close after a DHHR investigation found that school officials had failed to report an instance of sexual abuse of one student by another and that a school janitor had restrained students in handcuffs until their wrists bled and choked others who misbehaved.

    The Department of Health and Human Resources had received 13 formal complaints about the school since 2009, four of which alleged sexual misconduct, according to an Associated Press report on records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

    Miracle Meadows’ former director Susan Gayle Clark, 69, pled guilty this year to three misdemeanors counts of child neglect creating a substantial risk of injury, failure to report by a mandated reporter, and obstructing a law enforcement officer. She was sentenced to six months and 30 days in prison.

    Abuse at religious schools like Blue Creek Academy and Miracle Meadows is underreported and frighteningly prevalent, according to Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and author of God vs the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.

    “These small institutions can be very dangerous to kids because they are isolated and fly under the radar,” Hamilton told The Daily Beast. Because some fundamentalist parents agree with physical abuse as discipline and sexual abuse is often dealt with internally or covered up, Hamilton said, it can be “easy for these groups to get away with it for quite a while, while endangering a series of children.”

    “This is a common problem, which calls for a National Commission on child sex abuse and for states to work more cooperatively on tracking entities that permit and foment child sex abuse and neglect.”

    Indeed, a lack of cooperation by states is the very thing that allows abusive Christian teen reform homes closed by authorities in one state to be reopened in another, sometimes using the same name, and frequently run by the same operators.

    After Olin King pled “no contest” to charges in South Carolina stemming from the isolation, imprisonment, and beatings of children in his care at The New Bethany Baptist School for Boys in 1984, he packed up and moved, opening the aptly-named Second Chance Ranch in Danbury, North Carolina. A state bill that would have licensed such boarding schools proposed in response to New Bethany’s closing was protested by local pastors who called it an “intrusion into freedom of the church’s rights.” Today South Carolina is one of the states that exempts religious schools from licensing rules that govern other residential youth homes.

    In 2009, a Lester Roloff disciple, Pastor Jack Patterson, was forced to close his tough-love boarding school, Reclamation Ranch in Alabama, after allegations of torture and a police raid that turned up guns and shackles. As part of a plea deal, Patterson traded in a felony aggravated child abuse for a verbal harassment misdemeanor and a $500 fine. Though he did close Reclamation Ranch, Patterson opened a home for adult men in its place, maintained his school for girls nearby, and told aMother Jones reporter in 2011, he planned to open more homes in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.

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  56. In 2012 Alexandra Zayas a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her reporting on religious boarding schools in the state, wrote that Florida preacher Clayton "Buddy" Maynard was housing five children when, just two years earlier his isolated Heritage Boys Academy had been closed after a state investigation found that boys had been abused there, including one boy who was whipped 1,330 times. “None of the state agencies that oversee such facilities were aware the church was caring for children,” Zayas wrote.

    And Florida pastor Russ Cookston’s Lighthouse ministries school was closed in 2013 after being plagued with allegations of physical and sexual abuse and solitary confinement. According to his Facebook and LinkedIn pages, though, one month after he closed up his shop in the small town of Jay, he was working as an associate pastor at a Master’s Ranch, a home for troubled boys in Missouri, a state with notoriously lax child welfare laws.

    In an interview with The Daily Beast, Master’s Ranch administrator David Bosley confirmed Cookston’s position as a senior staff member, praising him as “almost too gentle for this job,” “extremely kind,” and “extremely patient.”

    “I do know when you get in this business—and I've been working with kids for almost 30 years—that you will always be accused of abuse by someone,” Bosley said. “I firmly believe every student should be heard and every allegation thoroughly investigated for the safety of all kids, but you're always going to have one or two disgruntled kids or parents who are trying to find a way out of the program or who just hate you for trying to help him.”

    The Government Accountability Office found thousands of allegations of abuse at teen reform homes and camps from 1990 to 2007, some of which involved the death of a young person. The 2007 report was unable to provide a specific number however, as “it could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.” In fact, the only tracking of these types of homes and the abuse that often occurs in them, comes from bloggers and advocacy groups.

    Angela Smith, 42, runs HEAL, one of the most prominent organizations working to expose and ultimately close abusive youth facilities. Blue Creek Academy is one of some 500 past and present residential programs in the U.S. that currently make up HEAL’s watch-list of fraudulent and abusive programs in the U.S.

    “Abuse is rampant because many of these facilities operate with little or no oversight and accountability,” Smith said. Even in the states with licensing boards like Montana and Utah, she said, ”the people who own and operate these youth programs are the ones doing the oversight.”

    “The fox is watching the hen-house so to speak.”

    Nobody seems to be watching JR Thompson.

    By the time the Department of Education mailed the revocation letter to Blue Creek Academy, principal Thompson had moved to Montana, to a three-bedroom single family house on 11 acres in De Borgia, a six-mile-wide town near the Idaho border that, as of the last census count, was home to 78 people. Within a year, and with the blessing of his “sending church” in West Virginia, Thompson had registered his new home as Canaan’s Land Baptist Church with the Secretary of State. By August 2015, the Canaan’s Land Boy’s Ranch, a non-public secondary school, was registered as a business.

    “Even though our name is Canaan’s Land Boys Ranch, we are not currently in a ranch setting,” Thompson says in a video advertisement for the $900-a-month boarding school running out of his new home. “We do plan to expand and move to a location where we will be able to acquire animals for the boys to work with.”

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  57. There is space for eight children according the Canaans Land Boys Ranch website, and so far, two boys, ages 14 and 15, currently live, go to church with, and are educated by the Thompsons. The minors both appear in promotional videos for Canaan’s Land Boys Ranch, where they decry their past lives of “doing the wrong things,” and being disrespectful to their parents. They’re wearing bowties in Facebook photos as they sing hymns with the Thompsons for a church audience.

    The existence of Thompson’s new endeavor came as a surprise to Montana school officials.

    “This is the first I’ve heard anything about Canaan's Land Boys Ranch,” said Mineral County Superintendent of Schools Mary Yarnall, who explained Thompson has yet to fill out the minimal paperwork the state requires from the operator of a boarding school.

    “I will try figure out an address and send him a packet. If he doesn’t acknowledge that, I can send the sheriff to at least make him sign, but in Montana there isn’t a whole lot of consequence for not registering.”

    Montana’s negligible yet unenforceable education requirements for religious private schools no doubt appeal to Thompson, who according to his pseudonymous activism on social media, seems particularly keen on separating himself and his boys’ home from any more government meddling.

    Thompson blogs under the the alias Nehemiah Flynt, “a Christian author determined to expose the evils of Child Protective Services,” according to his Facebook page, which he made private following a request for comment for this story. In a YouTube video reading from his book, “Legal Discrimination,” Thompson—speaking as Flynt, with his face blurred, but with his characteristic southern drawl intact—does speak to the controversy at Blue Creek saying, “Flynt took charge of a successful Christian-based facility for at-risk youths. He soon, learned, however, that the government of the United States is so narrow-minded that they would stop at nothing to close any facility operating under moral or religious principles differing from their own devilish agendas. ”

    “One allegation from a non-credible source changed everything," he says in the video.

    Now, attorney Troy Giatras says he’s representing at least three former students and their parents, who are hoping someone at Thompson’s former boarding school will have to answer for what went on there.

    Since being reunited with her son after the raid at Blue Creek, one of Giatras’ clients, Carolyn*, 32, from Evansville, Indiana, has written and called every local, state, and federal law enforcement office and lawmaker that she knows, looking for someone who will hold the operators of Blue Creek Academy accountable for the abuse she says her son withstood there for 17 months, and to make sure it doesn’t happen to other children.

    “They dodged my calls,” she said. “They told me that me and my son should be lucky, that I got him back and they don’t have time to do anything else, that their work is for active cases.”

    As for her son’s well-being, she said, “It’s a process. The damage is overwhelming. He’s been in counseling ever since he left.”

    Meanwhile, Thompson is being careful with his new school. The website for Canaan's Land Boys Ranch used to have his and his wife’s names on it, but they’ve since been scrubbed clean and a warning for prospective parents has been added: “Our Ranch Isn't For Everyone!” it says, along with the caveat that boys with a history of “sexual acting out (molestations, rapes, etc)” and “students who come from families who would not be supportive of the day to day operations of Canaan's Land Boys Ranch” will not be admitted.
    read the numerous links embedded in this article at:


  58. Girls tell of terror and abuse at Missouri Christian boarding school under investigation


    Their daughter was nearly 2,000 miles away in a Christian boarding school in southwest Missouri and Brian and Michelle Stoddard knew they needed to get her out.

    The couple had been reading social media posts from women who had once been at Circle of Hope. And they had watched a video taken in March that appeared to capture Boyd Householder — who runs the school with his wife, Stephanie — endorsing the use of violence between the girls.

    “We were going to bed one night, and just both of us, in our hearts we knew,” said Michelle Stoddard, of the Seattle area. “God was like, ‘Get up and start driving.’ And we did. We dumped everything in our refrigerator into a cooler and drove 32 hours straight.”

    That was in late July. About two weeks later, after their 17-year-old daughter Emily told a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy stories from inside Circle of Hope, authorities removed 25 girls from the reform school.

    Now, emboldened by recent events and the involvement of local and state officials, more former residents are coming forward to share similar horror stories they say have played out at the school that has close ties to the independent fundamental Baptist church.

    “I can confirm there is an ongoing investigation in this matter,” Ty Gaither, Cedar County prosecuting attorney, told The Star.

    Gaither said his office expected to receive “investigative” reports from local law enforcement and state departments “in the near future.”

    On Thursday, Gaither announced that a search warrant was executed at Circle of Hope on Tuesday “pursuant to an ongoing investigation.” A source with knowledge of the investigation said items authorities were seeking included computers and electronics, such as hidden cameras and surveillance equipment.

    The boarding school has been investigated many times before. In fact, it has had four substantiated reports of abuse and neglect since it opened in 2006, The Star has learned.

    But because faith-based Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch is exempt from state licensure, the Missouri Department of Social Services “does not have authority” over the facility’s operations, said Rebecca Woelfel, an agency spokeswoman.

    In response to questions from The Star, Woelfel said the boarding school has had one substantiated report of neglect, one substantiated report of physical abuse and neglect, and two substantiated reports of sexual abuse recorded in the state’s central registry. She did not say when the reports were made or whom the allegations were against.

    The Star talked to several young women who have lived at Circle of Hope and parents who have sent their daughters there. The former residents described in vivid detail a place that sounded more like a maximum-security prison than a Christian school for troubled girls.

    They told of punishment that included withholding food and water and being forced to stand against a wall for hours on end for even the most minor infraction. They explained how they were restrained — a procedure in which they said that after shoving a girl to the floor, Boyd Householder would kneel and press his knee on the back of her neck while four other girls or staff members were required to push as hard as they could on the pressure points on her arms and legs.

    Girls said they were told they would go to hell if they ever wore pants and were allowed only two changes of clothes per week. They were allotted four squares of toilet paper when using the restroom, and their rare phone calls with parents were strictly monitored and cut off if they complained or didn’t say the “right” things. School was not a priority, they said, and at times they had no teachers.

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  59. The Householders could not be reached for comment. They did not respond to emails, and the phone at Circle of Hope went unanswered. Their attorney, Jay Kirksey, did not return phone calls requesting comment.

    In a June 15 letter to pastors of churches that have supported the Circle of Hope, Boyd Householder — whose Twitter handle is Gunslinger4God — said he wanted to explain “the attacks being made against us on Social Media.”

    He blamed the problems on his daughter and mother-in-law, who he said had turned their daughter against them. Their daughter, he said, “has determined that she will force Circle of Hope Girls Ranch to shut down.”

    “...We know that the devil hates what we do and he will stop at nothing to stop us,” he wrote.

    In her two years at the school, Emily Stoddard said state child protection workers — referred to as “Satan’s soldiers” by Boyd Householder — came to the property multiple times. Deputies often would come along as well.

    Girls were told they could speak to the child protection workers if their parents approved. If they did, though, girls said they knew that the Householders would be listening in a nearby room or grill them when it was over to learn what was said.

    And if the couple didn’t like what girls said to the workers, they knew they would be punished.

    By the end of July, Emily’s parents arrived at the school — which they paid $1,500 a month for her to attend — to take her home. They wanted to show up unannounced to get their daughter, but during their drive from Washington, the Stoddards got a call from Householder, who said Emily needed to go home now.

    In recent weeks, the teen had begun to understand that what was happening at the ranch wasn’t right and she had been standing up to Householder. And now she worried what her family would think. Would she be in more trouble?

    “From what I would hear from Boyd and Stephanie, I thought my parents would be mad at me and they believed the Householders,” Emily said. “I was very scared, like even thinking about, ‘Are they even going to want to hug me?’ … I was like really nervous and fearful. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

    What she didn’t know is that her parents, too, were unsure. As her dad put it: “We didn’t even know if she wanted to come home.”

    But she did. And not just for herself.

    As Emily left the ranch that late July day, she thought of the paper tucked in the sole of her tennis shoe. It had the names of three girls’ parents and their phone numbers — their hope to get rescued, too.

    The ranch is located less than seven miles from Humansville on Highway N in Cedar County. Next to the main buildings, a Trump 2020 flag waves alongside American flags and a nearby white warning sign:

    “SMILE YOU ARE ON CAMERA,” it reads.

    Below are the “Campus Rules:” No weapons, except authorized persons. No smoking. No cursing. No alcohol and no drugs.

    The last rule: “You must speak English America’s language.”

    The Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch opened its doors to three girls on July 1, 2006, according to the school’s website. Since then, the reform school has expanded to more than 20 girls.

    “The girls come from all walks of life, some have been in gangs, drugs, alcohol, boys, etc,” the website says. “Some have been physically violent with their families and some have been abused. Most of them have been adopted, or come from broken homes and do not know how to deal with the past.

    “Circle of Hope’s goal is to help young ladies who were destroying their lives through poor choices and behaviors, change their future. ... We use the BIBLE to teach them that they are to obey their Parents and the authority over them.”

    The Circle of Hope website has two sections containing testimonials from parents and former students, many praising the Householders for turning their daughters’ lives around.

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  60. “We are so grateful to Circle of Hope and God for giving us our daughter back,” wrote parents identified only as “I” and “G.”

    “I honestly do not know what would have happened to her if not for this wonderful ranch and caring people! Our daughter loves and cherishes the Householders as well as we do for the love and care that they show and have shown. I recommend Circle of Hope for anyone that is at the end of their rope with their daughter.”

    Circle of Hope has a strong connection to independent fundamental Baptist churches, which teach followers to separate themselves from worldly influence. Some of the former residents said their parents attended IFB churches and their pastors recommended that they send them to the Missouri school.

    The school isn’t registered with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

    “We don’t have purview over non-public schools,” said an education department spokeswoman. “We don’t regulate private schools in any way.”

    In correspondence with parents, Boyd Householder makes it clear that he is in charge.

    “I need to address a few items, the first being the reason your daughter has been placed at Circle of Hope,” he wrote in an Oct. 19, 2007, letter. “She was misbehaving and disrespectful and you felt that you had no other choice. You wanted her life to change and her behavior to change. I cannot understand why I receive so many phone calls questioning my decisions and rules, when what you did at home did not seem to work.”

    He told them he realized the letter seemed harsh, “but as the contract states, I have a Non-Interference Policy.”

    “It is my job to get her to change her life, if you do not allow me to do this then you are wasting my time, your time and money and your daughter’s time ... I will NOT argue with another parent about how I do things at Circle of Hope, if you do not agree with me you have a choice deal with it or take your daughter back.”

    Amanda Householder was 15 when her parents opened Circle of Hope. Before that, the family lived in nearby Stockton, where her father worked at Agape Boarding School, a Christian home for troubled boys.

    She said “Brother House,” as Boyd Householder was called, required girls to wear different shirt colors to distinguish their rank, which he determined based on their behavior and attitude.

    “When I was there, when you came in, you were an orange shirt, and then you worked your way up,” said Amanda, now 29.

    There were few adult staff, Amanda said: “They used the older teenagers. So the teens were literally running that place.”

    Each day, Amanda said, the girls performed manual labor.

    “They would go out and clean the horse pens,” she said. “Rarely would we get to ride the horses or anything like that. They would just do farm work. Digging holes for posts, moving brush from one place to another.“

    The school curriculum they used, Amanda said, was Christian-based and required students to work at their own pace.

    “You basically teach yourself,” she said. “Getting school taken away from you was a punishment. And my dad would use that a lot.”

    On Sundays and Wednesday nights, she said, everyone was required to attend Berean Baptist Church in Springfield, an independent fundamental Baptist church about an hour’s drive from the school. The church’s pastor, Jeff Ables, sits on the Circle of Hope board of directors, according to its most recent tax form.

    A few months after the school opened, Amanda, still 15, ran away with two of the residents. The trio ended up in New Mexico. After learning of the girls’ location, Boyd Householder and Amanda’s grandmother flew out and brought her home. When they got back, Amanda said, “he threw me up against the wall and told me I will stay there until he says.”

    “The Wall” was one of Brother House’s favorite forms of punishment, Amanda said.

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  61. “I don’t remember a time when somebody wasn’t on the wall,” she said. “The only thing you can do is look straight ahead with your nose touching the wall or look down reading a Bible. You don’t get to sit down. You’re not allowed to eat, and you can’t use the restroom until they let you.”

    After that, Amanda said, she looked forward to the day she turned 18 so she could leave.

    She didn’t have to wait that long. Her parents kicked her out at 17, she said, after she was reported for trying to console a young girl who was crying because she was afraid her mother was going to hell for wearing pants.

    Amanda went to live with her grandparents in Florida, but left after a month because her grandfather died. She soon found herself in a bad relationship and then a marriage that didn’t work out. She eventually moved to California, where she now lives with her sons, ages 5 and 8.

    In 2010, Amanda said, some of the girls from Circle of Hope started coming forward with stories of physical and emotional abuse. At first, she said, she wasn’t supportive.

    “And then I had my own kids, and a lot of stuff just started coming back and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this was really wrong.’ So in 2015, I reached out to a lot of them, and we started working together.”

    Amanda said her therapist called to report the concerns about Circle of Hope to the state in 2015 but never heard back. She called the child abuse and neglect hotline herself in 2016, she said, but didn’t get a return call. In 2018, she said, a woman whose sister had been sent to the Circle of Hope contacted a Missouri Highway Patrol officer.

    “And he did a huge investigation,” she said.

    When the investigation appeared to go nowhere, Amanda said, “We kind of got discouraged. A lot of girls backed away. They stopped talking about it, which is totally understandable.”

    Then in March, Joseph Askins, a friend of Boyd and Stephanie Householder, contacted her. He’d just gone to see them, he said, and was so upset at the way Boyd Householder had treated the girls that he secretly took video on his cellphone in which Householder could be heard telling some of the girls to assault another.

    “It shook me up so much,” Amanda said. She showed it to the former residents she’d been communicating with.

    “I told them, ‘I can’t be silent about this. If you guys want to join me, you can join me.’ So the majority of them joined. And we have been going public since.”

    Amanda posted the video on Facebook, and it got about 3,000 views. Then she put it on TikTok. It went viral, and a Cedar County Sheriff’s deputy reached out to her soon after.

    Amanda said though she and the former Circle of Hope residents are excited about the current investigation, “they’ve probably had an investigation at least once every year for the past five years.”

    She said the Missouri Department of Social Services investigated her parents as far back as 2007, the year after Circle of Hope opened.

    “My parents told me, ‘When CPS (child protective services) comes out, you take the girls outside and you get them to work.’ Looking back, I realize it was to hide the girls from the CPS agents so the girls couldn’t talk to them.”

    Teresa Tucker was at the end of her rope.

    “My daughter was 16,” said the single mom from Texas. “She was doing drugs, she was running away.”

    On Dec. 4, 2014, the troubled teen bolted again. Police took her to a drug rehab center, but they wouldn’t keep her. Desperate, Teresa called her pastor. He made some calls, and a missionary in Missouri recommended Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch. So two days later, the pastor and his wife drove Tucker’s daughter, Ashley, to southwest Missouri. It was just for a visit, they told her, to check the place out.

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  62. Boyd and Stephanie Householder met them at the door.

    “They said, ‘We’re going to counsel this girl, we’re going to get her all the help that she needs, we’re going to turn her into a completely different person,’” Ashley told The Star. “And my preacher and his wife, they were all for it, because I was going down this horrible path.”

    Then they left her there.

    The first 30 days, Ashley said, she wasn’t allowed to speak to her mom. Nor could she participate in school. It was almost impossible to make friends, she said, because girls weren’t allowed to talk to each other.

    She said punishment for things like failing to say “yes, sir” or being “disrespectful” was common and often severe. One girl, she said, was put in a neck brace because she wouldn’t stop looking from side to side.

    “They put it on her really tight,” she said. “She could barely breathe. And so she wouldn’t take it off, they handcuffed her to the table for the rest of the night. She cried and cried and cried.”

    The worst punishment Ashley said she received was when she was told she wasn’t properly cleaning a wall. After ordering her to do a series of pushups, then accusing her of being disobedient and rebellious for doing them “wrong,” Householder “grabbed me and threw me to the floor,” she said, “and I ended up being restrained.”

    Ashley said Householder shoved his knee into the back of her head and called for several staff members to hold down her arms and legs, pushing on her pressure points while someone else twisted her ankles.

    “They did it as hard as they possibly could,” she said. “I was screaming because it hurt. And Stephanie and Boyd were laughing at me.”

    After an hour, Ashley said, Householder demanded more pushups, but she was so exhausted that she couldn’t get up. So they got back on top of her, she said, and restrained her again.

    Later, she said, she was summoned to Householder’s office. When she walked in, she was stripped of her orange shirt and given a black shirt — signifying the lowest ranking, she said. Then Householder shouted something to his dog in German.

    “And it bit my leg and hung on and would not let me go,” she said. “I was terrified that if I fell down, this dog was going to eat me alive. And I’m screaming, ‘Get it off, get it off!’

    “They just sent me back to bed. They said, ‘Duchess doesn’t like rebellious girls.’”

    Ashley said she showered, but the blood from the bite continued to run down her leg. When she went to bed, she asked to go to the restroom so she could use her four allotted squares of toilet paper to wipe it up.

    After that day, Ashley said, “I was terrified. ... they were starving me and I saw everything they were doing to the girls and I was just like, ‘I have to play the game.’”

    Teresa Tucker said she called Stephanie Householder every day to check on Ashley.

    “They would tell me she didn’t want to do her school work, she was being bad, she got restrained. I said, ‘What do you mean, restrained?’ She said, ‘Oh, we just hold her down.’ She told me that they were in school every day and they were in counseling every day.”

    But the second time she was allowed a phone call with Ashley, her daughter shouted that she was starving and had lost a lot of weight. Then the call was cut off. Teresa said she called back but when Ashley tried to talk, the phone went dead again.

    “I called back and told them I would be down there to pick her up on Saturday,” she said. On Feb. 14, 2015, Teresa Tucker drove to Missouri with a neighbor to retrieve her daughter.

    “When we walked in the door, she was crying,” she said. “She was really skinny.”

    Teresa Tucker said the Householders made Ashley sign a form before leaving.

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  63. “It says, ‘I acknowledge that I have not been physically, sexually, emotionally or mentally abused by Stephanie Householder and Boyd Householder,’” she said. “They said, ‘If you don’t sign this, you can’t leave.’ My next-door neighbor told Ashley, ‘Do what they want; let’s get the hell out of here.’”

    When they got home, Teresa Tucker said, she called the Humansville police.

    “They told me there’s nothing they could do,” she said. “They tried to put it off because I live in Texas. Then I called CPS. CPS said they went out and investigated and there was nothing they could do because nobody would talk.

    “It just blew my mind. I kept being told they weren’t doing anything about it because they’re a religious entity and they fall under a different government law.”

    Earlier this year, Ashley started seeing the videos and posts on social media by former Circle of Hope residents. Teresa Tucker had eventually given up calling authorities, but decided to try again. She said she got the same story from the Missouri Department of Social Services.

    But a Cedar County Sheriff’s investigator listened, she said, and recently interviewed Ashley.

    “He talked to me and asked me what happened, and I just started crying,” said Ashley, now 22. “You could tell he cared.”

    Still, she said, it opened up old wounds.

    “I’ve never got to heal from all this,” she said. “It feels good to be out of there, but nobody ever gets away from the trauma.

    “I had just kind of got my life together. Now, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I have nightmares that they’re coming after me. My anxiety is back, my depression is back, my PTSD is back.”

    That day she was restrained, she says, still haunts her.

    “Before that, I was bad, but I had a soul,” she said. “That day, they took my soul away.”

    Joseph Askins couldn’t believe what he’d just been told.

    The Pennsylvania trucker had known Boyd and Stephanie Householder since he was 14 and a resident of the Agape Boarding School in Stockton when “Brother House” was on staff. After getting out in 2004, Askins had stayed in touch with the couple over the years.

    In February, Askins sent a message to Stephanie to see how things were going. She said Boyd was dying.

    In early March, he rented a car and drove 17 hours to Missouri. But when Boyd Householder came out to greet him, Askins was surprised.

    “He looked fine.”

    Askins stayed at a motel in Humansville that night, then returned to the ranch the next morning. Brother House sat down in the dining room with the girls, he said, and read “write-ups” — notes written by the older girls, or “higher ups,” about the rules the younger girls had broken overnight.

    “He hands out the discipline,” Askins said, “and I started to see how he really acted toward these girls.”

    Householder would humiliate the girls, Askins said, by letting everyone know why they’d been sent there.

    “One girl had sex for an iPhone in high school. He’d say, ‘This is why you’re here, because you did this at home.’ Or ‘Stay away from that girl, because I know you’re a lesbian.’ It was a constant belittling, a berating.”

    That night, he said, the girls were goofing off in the dorm.

    “He gave them all about an hour-and-a-half-long workout, watching them on the security cameras,” he said of Householder. “There was this one girl in particular that I noticed he really had it out for.”

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  64. The other girls knew that, Askins said, so they tried to get in Householder’s good graces by being extra mean to her.

    “She got punched in the face by one of the girls when I was there,” he said. “This girl had been having to work out all day long. She’d been doing pushups with a jacket on and it’s like 70 degrees, so she’s sweating even more, outside in horse s---, no gloves. So she was thirsty. And they kept telling her, ‘No water, no water, no water.’ So during this dorm-wide workout, she came up to the higher-ups and said, ‘Can I please have some water before I go to bed?’ And they said no.”

    In the living room that night, Askins said, some of the residents were talking about the girl, whom he estimated to be 13 or 14. And Householder gave them instructions, Askins said: “If she gets out of hand, he said, ‘Knock her out.’”

    Stunned at what he was witnessing, Atkins secretly recorded the conversation on his phone.

    The next morning, he said, the “higher-ups’‘ reported that after the girls had gone to bed, one gave the thirsty girl some water. Householder ordered the girl who provided the drink to do pushups. But the punishment for the other girl, Askins said, was appalling.

    “He said, ‘Go find me the biggest glass that you have and fill it up with water.’ They found this big container and he made her drink it in front of everybody. This girl’s 100 pounds — not even.

    “He said, ‘I’m gonna make it so you’re never thirsty again.’ She said, ‘Sir, I can’t do any more. I’m gonna puke.’ He said, ‘Good.’

    “He made her drink three of those. Then he made her go outside and run around the field three times. She came back inside, and he said, ‘I just want to make sure that you’re not thirsty anymore.’ And he made her drink some more. One of the higher-ups said, 10 pushups now. When she was doing the pushups, she threw up on the floor. And then he took her by the back of the head and rubbed her face in it like a dog.

    “She was crying the whole time. She was basically saying, ‘I can’t breathe. My stomach’s too full.’”

    A couple of hours later when everyone was outside doing chores, Askins said, he saw Householder grab the girl’s jaw.

    “And he says, ‘Look at me in the eyes.’ And he slapped her across the face and he said, ‘You will call me sir. Do you understand me?’ It wasn’t just a love tap. It was a clunk. Then he made her get down in pushup position, and she was just bawling.”

    Askins left for Pennsylvania the next morning — sickened, he said, by what he saw.

    “As soon as I left, I called the state police. They said, ‘Is it an exigent circumstance?’ And I said, ‘It is. This girl could have died. And the squalor that these girls are living in, and the things that these girls are going through…’”

    The Highway Patrol told him to call the Missouri Department of Social Services, he said, and he was put in touch with a worker familiar with Circle of Hope.

    “She said, ‘I have personally taken a vested interest in Circle of Hope.’ But she told me, ‘No matter what we do, we can’t put our thumb on this guy. We can’t touch him, due to the laws in Missouri, due to his reach.’

    “She paid an emergency visit that night to Circle of Hope. And she called me and she said, ‘I can’t even talk to the girls, because legally, he’s their guardian and he’s saying you can’t talk to any of my girls.’”

    The DSS worker told Askins to call the Cedar County Sheriff.

    “And that detective on duty called me back on a Saturday from his home number,” he said. “The deputy told me, ‘We don’t want this place up and running. We hear all kinds of stuff about it.’”

    Askins contacted Amanda Householder soon after that and sent her the video. Since then, Askins said, he’s received two calls from Cedar County Sheriff’s detectives telling him the prosecutor now has the case and asking if he’d be willing to come back to testify.

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  65. “I want it shut down,” said Askins, who has a 13-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. “It’s OK to have a private school. It’s OK to teach them about Christ and whatever your agenda is. But you guys need to be certified to run these schools. They need to be inspected. And there has to be an accountability system for when there is an abuse allegation going on.”

    Boyd Householder sent a letter to parents on March 14, telling them about Askins’ visit and saying DSS workers “arrived at 5:00 with abuse allegations” on the day he left.

    “The next day we were informed that he had taken a video in our house, and had cut and doctored it to make it look like we were trying to incite 26 girls to attack 1 girl,” he wrote. “It is clear that it is doctored and we now know that he was trying to ‘get dirt on us,’ although we are not sure of his reasons.”

    The Facebook page, named “Circle of Hope Recovery,” went up last month. It’s Brian Stoddard’s way of reaching out to parents and their daughters who suffered at the Cedar County reform school like they believe Emily did.

    He hopes former students and their parents reach out to him and he can use his training and resources as a pastor to help them heal and get the guidance they need.

    Another goal is to serve as a warning, something he and his wife didn’t have when “we did our homework” after their daughter’s counselor recommended Circle of Hope in late 2017. They didn’t know then that the school wasn’t licensed by the state or that so many girls said they had suffered emotional and physical abuse at the school.

    “God forbid if they are open again,” Brian said. “... Two years ago, if there was another parent who had written these things, I would have paid attention to that.”

    Michelle Stoddard said she looks back now and feels “so stupid.” And she doesn’t want that to happen to others.

    “We have to let people know about it. There are places that aren’t safe. Are other kids trapped in these hellholes?”

    Boyd Householder asked the Stoddards to sign forms similar to the one Ashley signed. He wanted Brian to say they were removing their daughter because of her poor behavior and for Emily to sign a form saying she was never abused at the ranch.

    “When I refused to sign them, I heard him tell his wife, ‘You need to call the attorney then,’” Brian Stoddard said.

    In late July, the family drove away from the Circle of Hope for the last time. Emily’s parents told her they were headed to the sheriff’s office, that authorities needed to know what was happening at the ranch.

    The teenager was able to describe what life was like at the reform school. So much of what investigators had been told was from years ago. What Emily detailed was from present day, and it corroborated what girls had said before, the Stoddards said.

    A worker with the Children’s Division called the Stoddards last month, before authorities went to the Circle of Hope and removed two dozen girls living there.

    “You need to go get your daughter,” the worker told Michelle. “We’re moving the girls.”

    The family had been home for more than a week, something the state worker hadn’t been told.

    When they got back to Washington, Emily’s parents called the numbers on the paper hidden in their daughter’s shoe when she left the boarding school. Two of the three parents were concerned for their daughters and had wondered if something bad was going on at the ranch.

    The third parent wasn’t concerned, the Stoddards said.

    Watching her parents get involved and try to spread the word about the damage done by the school, as well as trying to help girls in their recovery, makes Emily happy. She sees it making a difference.

    “Look at other girls who tried to do the same thing,” Emily said. “A lot of those girls were rebels without a cause. They didn’t have parents like I do to help them.”