Religious Exemptions Allow Abuse in Florida

The Tampa Bay Times has a very disturbing report about how religious exemptions allow Christian academies and homes to commit the most horrible abuse against teenagers in the name of God. They begin with the story of one young man who nearly died at the Gateway Christian Military Academy after several days of abuse, then look at the laws that allow this to go on with impunity:

In this state, unlicensed religious homes can abuse children and go on operating for years. Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children’s homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.

Today, virtually anyone can claim a list of religious ideals, take in children and subject them to punishment and isolation that verge on torture — so long as they quote chapter and verse to justify it.

The Tampa Bay Times spent a year investigating more than 30 religious homes that have housed children in recent years across Florida. Some operate with a religious exemption, legally regulated by a private Christian organization instead of the state. Others lost their exemption and operate with no legal accreditation at all.

Although most drew few complaints, nearly a dozen have been hounded by allegations of abuse. A review of thousands of pages of investigative files and interviews with dozens of former residents found:

• State authorities have responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in the past decade, but homes have remained open even after the state found evidence of sex abuse and physical injury.

• The religious exemption has for decades allowed homes to avoid state restrictions on corporal punishment. Homes have pinned children to the ground for hours, confined them in seclusion for days, made them stand until they wet themselves and exercised them until they vomited.

• Children have been bruised, bloodied and choked to unconsciousness in the name of Christian discipline. A few barely escaped with their lives. In addition, in two settled lawsuits, a mother said her son was forced to hike on broken feet; a father said his son was handcuffed, bound at the feet, locked away for three days and struck by other boys at the instruction of the home.

• Adults have ordered children to participate in the punishment, requiring them to act as jailors, to bully troublemakers or to chase, tackle and sit on their peers.

• Teens have been denounced as sinners, called “faggots” and “whores,” and humiliated in front of their peers for menstrual stains and suspicions of masturbation.

• Parents share the blame. Some sign away their children for a year or more without first visiting a home or checking credentials. But state officials bear some responsibility because they have not warned the public about programs they believe are abusive.

• Florida taxpayers have supported some unlicensed homes with hundreds of thousands of dollars in McKay scholarships — a government program to help special needs students pay tuition at private schools.

It’s not only time to start putting those who run these homes in jail, it’s time to start putting the parents there too.

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