The Shocking Stories of How Christian Homes Treat Troubled Teens
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Despite the bad PR, Christian reform facilities appear to have no trouble attracting new recruits. Bruce Gerencser, who spent 25 years as an IFB pastor, recalls Lester Roloff visiting his Bible college to promote the homes. Once Gerencser reached the pulpit, he saw teen-home directors showing up at pastors' fellowship meetings to peddle their services; Hephzibah House director Ron Williams— who now hosts a show on the Bob Jones University radio station—visited Gerencser's own church with a girls' chorus. "I would give literature to parents about the schools," says Gerencser, who is now a critic of the IFB mindset. "I'd never visited those homes, but you took at face value that people were doing good things. I look back on it and see how irresponsible that was."
In September 2008, Clark Word began doing some research on New Bethany. He found Rider's online community, which included Dee Rapier, the wife of his old nemesis. Now 65 and living in Texarkana, Texas, Dee had pleaded for forgiveness from her former charges. She had posted her phone number for anyone wanting to talk, drawing a cautious but earnest call from Word. "She wanted to know how I'd turned out," Word recalls. "She said, 'So many of you turned out to have alcohol and drug problems.' I didn't tell her at that point that she'd ruined my life."
Indeed, a lot of the kids who were forced to regale churchgoers with phony addiction stories turned to drinking and drugs to help them cope with what happened at the schools. After leaving Hephzibah House, Karen Glover ended up becoming both an addict and a sex worker for a time. Teresa Frye "did my body weight in drugs" after her stint at New Bethany. Lenee Rider "stayed drunk for a year." Angela, her old watch, died of complications from cirrhosis in 2008. "I felt they stole whatever was inside me that allowed me to trust," Rider says.
NEW BETHANY FINALLY shut down its remaining Louisiana compound after years of police raids and legal battles. Its board of directors reportedly voted for closure in 2001, but rumors abound that New Bethany boarded girls as late as 2004. That the home's own former staffers aren't sure of the year speaks volumes about an industry so poorly regulated that state officials can't verify whether certain homes even exist.
Survivors and their families complain that the state authorities seem uninterested in prosecuting abuses at the homes—particularly in Missouri, where some facilities settle so far out in the sticks that state agencies are unaware of them. Nanci Gonder, press secretary for the Missouri attorney general's office, suggests that officials are hamstrung—private schools don't require state accreditation and are not governed by laws regulating the public schools. "Our only authority is through the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act, which would include concerns like false advertising," she says.
That's the backdoor channel that Donna, a military wife and mother of eight in the Northeast, ended up taking. In 2007, she sent her 14-year-old daughter, Kelsey, to the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in Humansville, Missouri. The girl had been caught drinking with school friends. Donna, spread thin with her husband on his third Iraq deployment, and fearful of a family history of substance abuse, worried that Kelsey was headed for trouble. At Circle of Hope, Kelsey was allegedly ordered to do pushups in horse manure, restrained and sat upon by staff members, and pushed to make false confessions about promiscuity. Donna estimates that the family spent $20,000 on her three-month stay—tuition and fees, plus the cost of counseling and educational catch-up required after Kelsey came home. Jay Kirksey, Circle of Hope's attorney, would not address Donna's claims, but he extended an invitation to come visit. "Unfortunately, just like there is in the public schools and public sector, there are disgruntled parents, who, instead of looking at their own child and situation, choose to talk about the school," he said.