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The Shocking Stories of How Christian Homes Treat Troubled Teens

Cut-off from parents and the outside of world, troubled teens are forced to endure the physical and psychological abuse of these Christian teen homes.

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In a 1979 standoff that would become the stuff of fundamentalist folklore, Roloff declared his cause "the Christian Alamo," organizing hundreds of supporters into barricades to keep state officials off his compound. The ensuing church-state battle outlived Roloff, who died in a plane crash in 1982. The home relocated to Missouri three years later, returning to Texas in 1998 after then-Gov. George W. Bush deregulated the activities of faith-based groups there.

Rebekah Home eventually closed, and New Beginnings opened in Florida soon after, under the watch of a couple who had worked with Roloff for 35 years. They were Wiley Cameron (who later served on Bush's peer-review board for Christian children's agencies in Texas) and his wife Faye (who was banned from working with children in the Lone Star state). Bill McNamara and his wife eventually took over, and when state officials began investigating the home, they moved New Beginnings to Missouri. "Because I used to listen to [Roloff] on the radio, and read about the great girls coming out of his place, I thought maybe this was God's thing for Roxy," Jeannie Marie remembers. "I didn't know to do deeper research, because, I thought, these are Baptists, these are my people."

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, parents at Amelia Academy, a Virginia Christian day school with no IFB affiliation, made an unpleasant discovery: One of the teachers had been accused by former students at the New Bethany Home for Boys and Girls—a Roloff-inspired facility in Louisiana—of participating in physical punishments decades earlier. After a heated school-board meeting where parents demanded an investigation, Amelia headmaster George Martin went online to solicit stories from New Bethany alumni. (A criminal background check came back clean, and the teacher, who denied abusing any children, remains at Amelia.)

One of the students Martin contacted was Teresa Frye, now a 43-year-old mother of four. She told me of her upbringing in North Carolina, where an IFB preacher named Mack Ford occasionally visited her church. He would arrive with a school bus full of teenagers from his girls' home in Arcadia, a Louisiana town of 2,700. They made a striking presentation—young women in white blouses or dresses, with lovely voices, singing and offering dramatic testimonies. They spoke of living as prostitutes and drug addicts before finding salvation at New Bethany, where they now rode horses and studied the Bible. Churchgoers emptied their wallets, pouring out "love offerings" to sustain Ford's mission.

Interviews with a half-dozen former students indicate that most of the girls were merely "rebellious" teens—like Frye, who at age 14 began resisting her strict Baptist parents. In 1982, they sent her to New Bethany, and her 10-year-old sister followed soon after. The girls found themselves at a remote compound bordered by a rural highway and ringed with barbed wire. There was no horseback riding. Their studies consisted of memorizing Scripture (mistakes were punishable by paddling) and a rote Christian curriculum. Discipline ranged from belt whippings to being forced to scrub pots with undiluted bleach or—in the years after Frye attended—wearing painfully high heels for weeks on end, or running in place while being struck from behind with a wooden paddle, according to alumni.

Then there was the "big sister treatment"—established students, directed by staff, inflicting punishments on the newbies. "It was basically like in the military, where they do a 'blanket party,' throwing a blanket over your head, and your teammates beat the crap out of you to make you get back in line," says Lenee Rider, a New Bethany alum whose father, an IFB pastor, frequently hosted Ford's touring chorus during his training.