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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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The school reopened the next year in Walterboro, South Carolina, under a new administrator, Olin King. Word's 14-year-old brother, Doug, was sent there soon after for stealing a neighbor's Playboy magazines. In 1984, police were tipped off by escapees about a rope "chain gang" working the gardens, and beatings with PVC pipe—which, the boys darkly joked, stood for "pound victims cruelly."

Officers raided the compound and discovered Doug Word bound, in his underwear, on the floor of a dark and padlocked isolation cell. King and his assistant were charged with kidnapping, unlawful neglect, and conspiracy. They pled no contest to false-imprisonment charges and received suspended sentences and probation. "I took that case personally," recalls Emory Rush, the now-retired sheriff's chief deputy who led the raid. "I abhorred the fact that they would do children like they were doing them."

The raid grabbed headlines, but the school reopened again, this time merging with Ford's New Bethany girls' school in Arcadia. Over the next two decades, both the girls' and boys' branches would close and reopen several times more—swelling at times to hundreds of students.

Authorities and watchdog groups are familiar with the patterns—the state-hopping, the frequent openings and closings—but "people forget," says Deputy Rush. Indeed, Olin King (who through his wife declined to comment for this article) now runs a North Carolina home for preteen boys under the names King Family Ministries and Second Chance Ranch. New Bethany alumni alerted local authorities to King's past and his new location. But Maj. Durward Bennett, the former chief deputy of the local sheriff's department, told me they didn't see fit to investigate King's new home because, Bennett erroneously insisted, King was never convicted, and North Carolina has never deemed him unfit to operate a home.

The operators of shady homes do seem to have a knack for avoiding major prosecution. Just last year, prosecutors in Blount County, Alabama, charged Jack Patterson—a Roloff protégé and founder of a boys' home called Reclamation Ranch—with aggravated child abuse. Then-prosecutor Tommy Rountree said deputies raided the ranch after an escapee alerted them to beatings, isolation cells, and armed staffers who would "go hunting for runaways."

The raid uncovered handguns and rifles, leg irons, and handcuffs; 11 boys were taken into state custody. But because deputies neglected to seize Patterson's computer, which the escapee claimed contained files of videotaped beatings, Patterson was able to plead his felony charges down to a "verbal harassment" misdemeanor carrying a $500 fine. He now runs a home for adult men on the Reclamation Ranch property and a girls' home called Rachel Academy in neighboring Walker County—and is in the process, he says, of opening new homes in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.

Rountree, who bluntly calls Patterson "evil," says he and his staff traveled extensively to gather testimony from former Reclamation Ranch kids, but found little usable evidence. He blames this on the contracts parents sign—one mother who owed Patterson money feared that "Big Jack" might sue her if she cooperated with the state—as well as fervent support for men like Patterson among many Christian fundamentalists.

Patterson insists that the abuse allegations were bogus and denies using any corporal punishment or isolation tactics. Reclamation Ranch, he says, had "a family-style atmosphere." He points to his misdemeanor sentence as proof that the prosecution was politically motivated. As for the shackles and weapons, "I never knew how they got there," he told me. "My fingerprints were never on them." But he adds that he fired three staff members shortly before the raid for abusive methods: one for shooting a rifle over the boys' heads, one for "roughhousing" a resident and shoving him into a locker, and one for placing a boy in handcuffs.