One day last November, a group of teenage girls dressed in long khaki skirts and modest blouses stepped onto the stage at an Independent Fundamental Baptist church in Maryland where Jeannie Marie (a military spouse who asked that her last name not be used) attended services with her family. The young women, visitors from a Missouri girls' home called New Beginnings Ministries, sang old-time hymns, recited Scripture, and gave tearful testimonies about their journeys out of lives of sin. Headmaster Bill McNamara spoke, too, depicting the home as a place where girls could get on track academically, restore broken relationships, and learn to walk with God.
New Beginnings describes itself as a character-building facility for "troubled teens," and what Jeannie Marie heard in church that day was that this might be a place for her daughter to heal. While jogging earlier that year, the 17-year-old (whom I'll call Roxy) had been pulled into a vehicle and assaulted by a group of men. Since then, she had begun acting up at home, as well as sneaking out and drinking. Two weeks after seeing the girls in church, Jeannie Marie and her husband left Roxy in McNamara's care with the promise that she would receive counseling twice a week and stay at New Beginnings no longer than two months. "It sounded like a discipleship program," Jeannie Marie recalls. "A safe place where a daughter can go to have time alone to find God and her direction."
Instead, Roxy found herself on the receiving end of brutal punishments. A soft-spoken young woman, blonde and blue-eyed with a bright smile, Roxy confided to me that she found it easier to discuss her ordeal with a stranger than with the people closest to her. She told me how, in her first weeks at the academy's Missouri compound—a summer-camp setup in remote La Russell, population 145—she and other girls snuck letters to their parents between the pages of hymnals in a local church they attended, along with entreaties to congregants to mail them. When another girl snitched, Roxy said, McNamara locked some girls in makeshift isolation cells, tiled closets without furniture or windows. Roxy got "the redshirt treatment": For a solid week, 10 hours a day, she had to stand facing a wall, with breaks only for worship or twice-daily bathroom trips.
She was monitored day and night by two "buddies," girls who'd been there awhile and knew the drill. They accompanied her to the shower and toilet, and introduced her to a life of communal isolation and rigid discipline. Girls were not allowed to converse except from 6 to 9 p.m. each Friday. They were not allowed contact with their families during their first month, or with anyone else for six months. By that time, Roxy said, most girls are "broken," having been told that their families have abandoned them, and that the world outside is a sinful, dangerous place where girls who leave are murdered or raped.
A traveling chorus from New Bethany. "I felt like they stole whatever was inside me that allowed me to trust," says a former resident. [MORE: See photos of life at New Bethany.]The girls' behavior was micromanaged down to the number of squares of toilet paper each was allowed; potential infractions ranged from making eye contact with another girl to not finishing a meal. Roxy, who suffered from urinary tract infections and menstrual complications, told me she was frequently put on redshirt, sometimes dripping blood as she stood. She was also punished with cold showers, she said, and endless sets of calisthenics after meals.
Back in Maryland, Jeannie Marie was unaware of her daughter's plight. Her letters went unanswered—only one of Roxy's replies got past the academy's censors. Getting through by phone also proved challenging, and calls were monitored. A billing dispute with New Beginnings' staff didn't make things any easier. It was two months before she and her husband could arrange a conference call with Roxy and the staff. They asked Roxy if she wanted to come home. Surrounded by her disciplinarians, the girl replied that she had to stay—that New Beginnings was good for her. The call dissolved into a shouting match between Jeannie Marie and McNamara—who finally declared that he would only discuss the matter with her husband.
When I phoned New Beginnings to ask about the family's allegations, a staffer referred all questions to Wesley Barnum, the academy's attorney, who did not return my repeated calls.
A week or so after the disastrous conference call, Jeannie Marie traveled to La Russell with a friend who'd heard about places like New Beginnings—sketchy teen homes drawn by Missouri's laissez-faire policy toward faith-based residential facilities. Authorities in the state are barred from inspecting the homes or even keeping track of them. (New Beginnings has operated under multiple names in Florida, Mississippi, and Texas.) "It's hard to understand it, but faith-based is just taboo for regulation," says Matthew Franck, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who authored an investigative series on the state's homes in the mid-2000s. "It took decades of work to get just the most minimal standards of regulation at faith-based child-care centers," he adds. "I just knew that when certain lobbyists would stand up to say, 'We have a concern about how this affects faith-based institutions,' the bill was immediately amended—it was a very Republican legislature—or it would immediately die. That's still true." (Missouri isn't alone. In April, Montana state Rep. Christy Clark, who campaigned on a "faith and family" platform, joined 11 other Republicans in scuttling a bill that would have regulated religious teen homes; a mother of three, she cast the homes' residents as unreliable witnesses who "struggle with truthfulness.")
When Jeannie Marie arrived at New Beginnings, she had a tense conversation with the school counselor, who insisted that Roxy wanted to stay. She extracted her daughter nonetheless. The school's effects on Roxy were striking, Jeannie Marie told me. When they stopped at a restaurant on the way home, she robotically asked for permission to speak or to use the bathroom. After months of punitive mealtimes, including five-minute "force feeding" sessions for girls on redshirt, she wolfed her food. Back in Maryland, she showed signs of an eating disorder, self-destructive behavior, and severe depression. "I was only there for three months," Roxy said, "but because we weren't allowed to keep track of time, it felt like six."
Desperate for a way out, she'd attempted suicide—many of the girls did, she added nonchalantly, if only for the chance to get taken to a hospital and beg for outside help. "They take away any feeling that you are capable of doing anything outside the home," she said. "You have this sense of total isolation: There's no way out of it, you're there for the rest of your life."