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Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes

Girls locked up inside fundamentalist religious compounds. Kandahar? No, Missouri.

Ford operated a separate New Bethany home for boys in Longstreet, Louisiana. Clark Word, now 44, was sent there when he was about 15. On his second day, he recalls, he watched administrator Larry Rapier punch a boy of 10 or so in the mouth for wetting his pants on the bus to Sunday worship. Violence was the norm, Word says, and students were expected to enforce discipline. In one memorable 1982 incident, a student named Guy disappeared from the school after he was badly beaten with golf clubs by other students, leaving Guy's terror-stricken friends to wonder whether the staff had finished him off. (Rapier's ex-wife Dee told me she sent Guy to recover at her mother's Texas home before returning him to his parents.)

In 1982, when New Bethany's leaders shut down the home to avoid a state inspection, they had a volunteer staff put up this banner.In 1982, when New Bethany's leaders shut down the home to avoid a state inspection, they had a volunteer staffer put up this banner.  [MORE: See photos of life at New Bethany.]My attempts to track down Larry Rapier proved fruitless. But Dee Rapier confirmed the atmosphere of physical and psychological torment at the facility she ran with her former husband. "Larry had a room that used to be a storage place that was six by eight, or eight by eight, that he called 'solitary confinement,'" she told me. (A former staffer called them "revival rooms.") Misbehaving boys were put in isolation, given a can to pee in, and forced to listen to hours of taped sermons, Word remembers.

After Word had been there for almost seven months, his "watch" escaped. Police normally returned runaways to the home, but the severity of the boy's injuries led state officials to investigate. Rapier, who had continued running the school while free on bond in a 1981 child-abuse case (the charges were eventually dropped), sent the other boys away—some went home, some were placed at kindred facilities. School records, Dee Rapier told me, were shredded.

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 raiding the compound discovered a young man bound, in his underwear, on the floor of a dark and padlocked isolation cell.

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.

Reclamation Ranch founder Lee Patterson calls the abuse allegations bogus: The ranch, he insists, had "a family-style atmosphere."

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.

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.

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