New Beginnings is emblematic of an unknown number of "troubled teen" homes catering to the Independent Fundamental Baptist community—a web of thousands of autonomous churches linked by doctrine, overlapping leadership, and affiliations with Bible colleges like Bob Jones University. IFB churches emphasize strict obedience and consider teen rebellion an invention of worldly society, so it's little surprise that families faced with teenage drinking, smoking, or truancy might turn to programs promising a tough-love fix. Fear of government intrusion—particularly on account of the community's "spare the rod, spoil the child" worldview—is so pervasive that IFB congregations are primed to dismiss regulatory actions against abusive facilities as religious persecution.
The entrance to New Bethany's Louisiana compound. [MORE: See photos of life at New Bethany.]New Beginnings and numerous other Christian reform schools trace their lineages to Texas radio evangelist Lester Roloff, who founded the Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi back in 1967, employing disciplinary tactics that were adopted by dozens of imitators. He also pioneered girls' singing groups as a way to promote Rebekah Home—the "Honeybee Quartet" was featured in his daily revivalist radio broadcasts. But back at the hive, Roloff's wards were often subjected to days in locked isolation rooms where his sermons played in an endless loop. They also endured exhaustive corporal punishment. "Better a pink bottom than a black soul," Roloff famously declared at a 1973 court hearing after he was prosecuted by the state of Texas on behalf of 16 Rebekah girls. (The attorney general responded that he was more concerned with bottoms "that were blue, black, and bloody.") Later that year, a former student testified that a whipping at Rebekah Home left inch-high welts on her body.
The "bowel and bladder torture" consisted of girls being given bran, made to drink lots of water at breakfast, and then denied bathroom access until lunch.
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.
Rider recalled one new girl she was assigned to supervise: Angela was a firebrand who'd arrived at New Bethany straight out of a mental institution and became such a target of staff and "big sister" discipline that she twice attempted suicide. First she jumped through the glass of a second-story window. Later, she slashed her wrists. Rider found her in the bathroom, surrounded by shards of broken mirror. After a housemother bandaged Angela's arms, Rider said, she heard the girl being beaten down the hall. When Rider tried to apologize, Angela asked why she hadn't just let her die.
"After a while, I was so brainwashed I didn't even want to run....I figured this was God's plan."
In 2000, Rider created a New Bethany "survivor" forum comprising as many as 400 former residents and staff. Among them was Cat Givens, an Ohio radio technician who stayed at New Bethany in 1974 and became so shell-shocked by the routine of punishment and submission—and the spectacle of runaways being returned by the police and handcuffed to their beds—that she lost her will to resist. "After a while, I was so brainwashed I didn't even want to run," she told me. "I figured this was God's plan."
Karen Glover, a Navy veteran who attended Indiana's Roloff-inspired Hephzibah House as a girl, described what she calls "the bowel and bladder torture." The girls were given bran, made to drink lots of water at breakfast, and then denied bathroom access until lunchtime. There was no apparent reason for this treatment, Glover says, save reminding the girls who was in charge. Dave Halyaman, assistant director of Hephzibah House, would not respond directly to Glover's claims. Instead, he offered to put me in touch with two pastors who had daughters there. "We have our critics, but also people who think very well of us," he said.
New Bethany founder Mack Ford proved even less talkative. I reached him at home on three occasions, and he hung up on me twice. He refused to discuss any allegations of abuse. ("I don't know anything about that," he said.) Nor would he divulge the name of his attorney or agree to have his attorney contact me.