Religious Exemption for Children’s Homes Results in Rampant Abuse

They told him his mother didn’t want him. They shaved his head. They made him carry two 5-gallon buckets of dirt everywhere he went, and at night, run laps around the dorm with a tire tied to his waist. They let him speak to no one but staff, and only if he was spoken to first, and they made him sleep on the floor of a mudroom for a week or more, giving him a bucket to use as a toilet.

I’ve said this so many times before: Just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you’re good. And we can’t trust religious organizations to do the right thing, left to their own devices. They need oversight.

This heartbreaking story just makes that point as clear as ever.

30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law saying that the state government didn’t need to look after children’s homes run by religious groups.

The Tampa Bay Times recently released an investigative report on a number of those homes. And then another. What they discovered is awful. Really, sickeningly awful.

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.

Among the cases [the Department of Children and Families] “verified:” a 16-year-old girl in Orlando pressured to perform oral sex on a counselor she considered a father figure; a 15-year-old boy in Punta Gorda forced to lie facedown in the dirt for three hours as a 220-pound counselor lay on top of him; and a 16-year-old boy in Port St. Lucie, shackled for 12 days and berated by staff with racial slurs.

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.

What did they find in these homes? Evidence of sexual abuse, extreme physical injury, corporal punishment, name-calling (“faggots,” “whores”)… and that’s only what they could find. I can’t even think about what may have been covered up. Some parents sent their kids to these homes because they were using drugs. Others, because their kids were gay or lesbian and needed “fixing.” Some children were there because they were recipients of McKay scholarships, awarded to special needs students to help them pay for tuition at private schools.

These homes lacked legally recognized credentials yet they were still allowed to operate because, you know, religion.

Amazingly, none of the children in their care died, but I’m sure some of those children wished for that alternative.

There is a solution to this. Florida legislators can pass laws requiring these homes to be regulated or shut down. Belief in God doesn’t mean you should be able to get away with abuse.

(Thanks to Annie for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • DougI

     I see the word colonel in quotes. I wonder if he’s just some loser who dons a uniform and gives himself a title.  Probably.  Any guy who has to beat up kids is a loser.  We have a Christian military school here in Kansas that’s under investigation for beating children.  Of course, when investigated they whine about religious persecution because it’s the religious right to beat children.

  • Brian Scott

    “Amazingly, none of the children in their care died” Some do.

    This isn’t merely a religious issue (though religion definitely exacerbates the effects by making lack of oversight even more egregious). The entire “troubled child/teen” industry is a cesspool of bad decision making. While not as spectacularly violent looking/sounding as molestation or beatings, the use of prone restraints is rampant. It’s astounding the frequency with which 200+ lb. men deem it necessary to crush a child or teenager half his weight or less beneath him in positions known to frequently cause physical trauma. This isn’t even touching on problems like “escort” services (read: legal kidnapping with the parent’s permission) that transport kids to these facilities and a host of other issues like denigration used to break the child’s/teen’s will (calling them “faggot”, “whore” etc.)

    Even for teenagers who do have genuine need for such facilities (and I would contend it’s much, much less than the current “I caught Jimmy smoking a joint so I’m sending him to boot camp” methodology would output and definitely does not include any kid sent there for being gay), they often end up as nothing more than excuses for adults to abuse teenagers whom nobody will listen to because they’re “bad kids who need a kick in the ass”. The entire industry is wretched to its core, and attempts to install regulation and oversight invariably get blocked by politicians who could probably need such facilities more than many of the children and teenagers trapped there.

  • Stev84

    Here is another case of Christian foster care. No excessive physical abuse this time, but excessive verbal abuse and sabotaging a kid’s future because he is gay. Also in Florida:

    When the boy said he was indeed gay, the head of his foster care shelter purportedly drove him to an isolated location, wept uncontrollably and screamed at him: “How could you do this to me?”

    He was expelled from the Christian school, in which he had been enrolled by the shelter. He was forbidden to speak with his best friend, a young man shelter administrators erroneously believed also was gay. Staff tried repeatedly to “convert” him to heterosexuality. Other staffers “humiliated and harassed” the boy – and so did other foster kids who were housed with him.

  • Octoberfurst

      I watched all three videos in the series and these people scare me. It’s the combination of extreme self-righteousness & cruelty on the part of the staff that makes me wonder how on earth these places are not regulated.  When you have an organization that has total control over a child and no oversight whatsoever you are asking for trouble.
      I found the “Colonel” particularly troubling. I’ll bet he was never in the military and is probably just a control-freak who likes to wear a uniform. I say either get the State to have oversight over these places or shut them down.  

  • Me

    I, for one, am not in the least surprised that these abuses happen and will continue to happen.

    If adult human beings have never bothered to find out anything about reality, they cannot be expected to understand anything about child care.

  • C Peterson

    Why should anybody be surprised that Christian homes are raising children in the ways advocated by the Bible?

  • Annie

     In one of the articles, it said the “Colonel” tried to enlist in the army (I think?) but could not because he was allergic to bees.  He quickly pointed out that what he is doing now is a type of service, and I imagine he views himself as military personnel. 

  • smrnda

    Another huge problem is that since these facilities restrict communication with the outside, yo have them always arguing that the accounts of abuse are just unfounded allegations which cannot be proven, or they argue that the kids are by nature dishonest and unreliable and are just slandering decent Christians.

    But it’s pure BS – if they’ve got nothing to hide, let them get monitored by the State like all other institutions.

    The people who run these places are pathetic little tin dictators who must feel awfully big and tough abusing kids who can’t fight back, all with the cover that it’s done for the kids’ own good. My only worry about shutting these places down is that there’s too many Bible thumpers in the  goverment.

  • Anon

    Never mind that the children have the right NOT to be beaten. Their religious rights supersede basic human rights.

  • Tyrrlin Flamestrike

    Considering they’re wearing old Army BDUs and PT uniforms, I don’t doubt it. As an Army vet myself, seeing this kind of horrible cruelty wearing a military uniform disgusts me.

  • Tiss

    No matter how many stories we read, no matter how many videos we watch, blogs posted, newspaper write ups and any other way that we could communicate with one another about the goings-on of the world around us, it STILL shocks me. It still hurts my heart right in the center. 

    I am a mother of 3. I cannot fathom how ANYONE could ever harm a child.  There is no amount of “conditioning” that will ever take away the shock I feel from stories like these. Every time is like seeing it for the first time all over again.  It is nauseating, disturbing, and most of all, life altering.  


    OK, ya, I know whats wrong with a lot of them… but this is not just restricted to religion, although the religious track record for abusing children and teens could probably wrap around the Earth six times, this is literally everywhere. 

    People cry cry cry for less government involvement. Well, I believe that until people are capable of being DECENT people, then we HAVE to have this involvement and restrictions. 

    Regulation is the only way these fake “homes”  are going to be sought out and found for what they are.  There needs to be someone to watch whats going on. Like your health inspectors just “show up” in the restaurants. We need this kind of drop in supervisory program as well. The way to catch abusers is to catch them off guard.  You cant let them know your coming at 10 am tomorrow….   thats akin to letting the murderer know your coming to arrest him/her and giving them a 24 hour head start.  Not good.

    No matter how tedious it seems it would be, no matter how understaffed the DCF, social workers, SPARCC and other places of the like are… it is SO important to support them (yes, they DO sometimes mess up, but think about the repercussions if they are wrong about suspected abuse… the potential lawsuits are enough to shut the whole operation down and then there is no one left) it really is a delicate balance in this field… but please dont give up on these kids! 

    Someone has to help them.  Their god is obviously lacking in the “looking out for your safety” department, so please….  guys, do whatever you can and help.  They cant help themselves, at least not yet and once they are old enough, it might be too late.  They might be ruined by then. 

    I am a student going for my Bachelors in Human Services in which I am trying to help troubled teens, unwed mothers (so they dont resort to this type of thing) and other at-risk adolescents and children. 

    Please know that there are people out there really trying to help. Just dont sweep these kids under the rugs.  Support your local organizations, volunteer for fundraising etc. 

    It really does help.  No matter how little you can do.  Be a foster parent, open a home, adopt if you qualify.  There is certainly a little something that everyone can do.  

    Contact your local organizations. I am sure their websites will be full of information about how to help. 

    My heart goes out to all of you. 

  • Annie

     The saddest part of all of this to me is that some of these children are McKay scholarship recipients.  Our tax dollars are actually going to fund this brutality.  Sadder still, according the to Florida Department of Education, “The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program
    provided over 24,000 Florida students with special needs the
    opportunity to attend a participating private school during the 2011-12
    school year. The McKay Scholarships Program also offers parents
    public school choice. A parent of an eligible special needs
    student may choose to transfer the student to another public

    These are children who have been classified as having special needs.  In order to qualify for the McKay scholarship, they must first be enrolled in a public school that fails them in some way.  We have some crappy public schools here in Florida, and some great ones too, but even the crappiest would be better for a child with special needs than these Christian boot camps. 

    You are absolutely right.  It is disgusting, and our children deserve so much better.  The first step to ensure that is to do away with “religious” schools being exempt from any form of oversight.  They need to be monitored and closed down when abuse is detected.  Or, better yet, state funds should NEVER go to pay tuition at a religious school, regardless of its record.

  • Tiss

    Actually, I have 2 daughters, both who had speech impediments. Both were enrolled pre-k special ed programs at 2 different public schools.

    The only qualification for them to get McKay scholarships was me signing a paper and them having the need. I was happy with their classes, so I declined, but the opportunity was there if we wanted it, school failing or not.

  • Annie

     So, if you accepted, what would happen to your daughters?  It was my understanding that the McKay scholarship was for parents to move their children to another school that would better suit their needs.  Why would you need a scholarship to stay in the same school?  McKay scholarships offer a child to be moved to a different, more appropriate public school, or a private school, if it better suits their needs.   If you know differently, please share, as this is of interest to me. 

    And, as far as I understand, the school does not need to be failing, it simply has to be failing to meet an individual child’s needs. 

  • pagansister

    Having now lived in Florida again for a year last month (after 7 previous years in the 1980′s) I have heard nothing about this at all in the local TV news or the local radio (PBS).   It is outrageous that just because the facility claims to be run by a religious organization that there are no state requirements or and oversight.  Amazing that I have to hear/read about it on the internet!