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Horror Stories From Tough-Love Teen Homes

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

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.

"We have laws to protect people from illegal incarceration," says an alum of one tough-love home for teens. "But apparently not if you're a teenage girl."

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.'"

Clarification: The version of this article that appeared in the magazine left the impression that Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) was concerned that HR 911 could interfere with parents' rights. In fact, in a letter to the constituents inquiring about the bill, Brown had simply noted that this was a concern of the bill's opponents, not necessarily his own view.

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