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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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Donna told me that she has approached at least seven state and federal offices—including the Missouri AG—seeking action against Circle of Hope for stating falsely on its website that it was state-registered, a claim she says gave her the confidence to send Kelsey there. "I've been fighting this. I've been calling everyone," Donna says, "and I want to know: Why is nothing being done?"

"Our Consumer Protection Division is still looking into the issue," Gonder responds. "The school cooperated in providing information, but their information was different from hers."

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.) 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. Its findings—which detailed the use of extended stress positions, days of seclusion, strenuous labor, denial of bathroom access, and deaths—came out in a series of dramatic congressional hearings over two years. The result was House Resolution 911 (PDF), which proposed giving residents access to child-abuse hotlines and creating a national database of programs that would document reports of abuse and keep tabs on abusive staff members.

Hephzibah House's Ron Williams and Reclamation Ranch's Jack Patterson urged supporters to fight the bill. In an open letter, Williams argued that it would "effectively close all Christian ministries helping troubled youth because of its onerous provisions." They were joined by a group called the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, which opposed HR 911 on the grounds that states—despite all evidence to the contrary—are best situated to oversee the homes. The bill passed in the House, but stalled in a Senate committee.*

In March 2010, the House passed the Keeping All Students Safe Act, 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, 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 to gather and publicize survivor stories. SIA is planning a 2012 convention for adults who have been through "lockdown teen facilities."

Back in Maryland, Jeannie Marie has introduced Roxy to the survivor community in the hope that sharing her ordeal will help her recover. "I show her the websites," Jeannie Marie says, "and tell her, 'Look how long ago this happened to these girls: 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago. These girls are just letting go and finding freedom because they started discussing this.' I said, 'Roxy, don't wait that long.'"