Religious exemption at some Florida children’s homes shields prying eyes

Excerpts from a Tampa Bay Times article, by Alexandra Zayas, October 26, 2012. Read it in full, and see the Times’ video.

Trigger warning: Almost everything.

They shaved him bald that first morning in 2008, put him in an orange jumpsuit and made him exercise past dark. • Through the night, as he slept on the floor, they forced him awake for more. • The sun had not yet risen over the Christian military home when Samson Lehman collapsed for the sixth time. Still, he said, they made him run. • The screaming, the endless exercise, it was all in the name of God, a necessary step at the Gateway Christian Military Academy on the path to righteousness. • So when Samson vomited, they threw him a rag. When his urine turned red, they said that was normal. • By Day 3, the 15-year-old was on the verge of death, his dehydrated organs shutting down. • Slumped against a wall, cold and immobile, Lehman recalls men who recited Scripture calling him a wimp. And he thought: Maybe, if I die here, someone will shut this place down. • Not in Florida.

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 jailers, 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.

[…]

Seven facilities account for two-thirds of abuse hotline complaints over the past decade. Among them: Gateway Christian Military Academy, Camp Tracey near Jacksonville, Anderson Academy in Vero Beach, Southeastern Military Academy in Port St. Lucie and Lighthouse of Northwest Florida in Jay.

Several others, including New Beginnings Girls Academy, have few hotline complaints but show up in Internet message boards and “survivor” groups.

Jamie Lee Schmude said she was 16 when her parents sent her to New Beginnings to stop her drinking and pot smoking.

She recounts extreme punishments, including being forced to stand in one place so long she urinated on herself.

One day in 2003, she’d had enough. When she was made to stand at a wall for a deed she doesn’t remember, she gave up and sat.

She said girls were ordered to take her to the preacher, who made them pin her to the ground as his wife unhooked a thin plastic rod from the blinds.

The wife started swinging.

“It didn’t matter where she hit me,” Schmude recalled. “I had bruises all over my butt and my lower back and my upper legs.”

Two others told the Times they were forced to witness it all, made to hold her down as she wailed on the filthy floor, then made to sing once it was over: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound …

Officials with New Beginnings Girls Academy did not respond to a phone call, emails or a letter sent by the Times. The home, which left Florida voluntarily in 2007, was last investigated in 2006 on allegations of sexual abuse. State officials found no evidence to support the claim, records show.

[…]

New Beginnings was the kind of children’s home FACCCA was created to regulate. Its founder was Lester Roloff, a Baptist radio preacher among the first to use religion as a shield against the licensing of a reform home.

The subject of repeated abuse allegations over several decades, the program left Texas for good in 2001 when that state’s Legislature decided religious homes were no longer exempt from licensing.

It settled in a Panhandle city called Pace and remained there until 2007.

At New Beginnings, teenage girls got a heavy dose of strict Christianity. They were forbidden to wear pants or hear news of the outside world or even make eye contact with crowds when they toured churches in the summer.

Brittany Campbell arrived at the home in 2001.

Her sister enrolled her, Campbell said, after the 15-year-old smoked pot for the first time and began dating girls.

She recalls Pastor Bill McNamara’s introduction during the first sermon.

“He just looked right at me from the platform, ran at me, and all these girls jumped out of the way,” Campbell remembers. “And he jumps, like, onto the pew in front of me and then bent down at his waist and told me I was a ‘faggot.’ ‘God’s not going to bless a bunch of faggots.’ ”

The Times interviewed nine women who attended the home in Florida from 2001 to 2007.

They say their menstrual-stained underwear was waved around to chastise them for being unclean and recall being timed when they went to the bathroom and rationed squares of toilet paper based on what they disclosed they needed to do. They remember being awakened in the night, as the preacher stormed into their dorm, screaming that the room stank and he could “smell masturbation.”

“Every time he said it, I would just cringe,” recalls Anni Leigh Smith, now 26.

Reporting abuse? Unlikely, former residents said.

New Beginnings, like many other unlicensed homes, monitored all phone conversations.

Several former New Beginnings residents said they were scared to speak out and were intimidated by adults at the home about talking to investigators.

Campbell said she witnessed the whipping of Jamie Schmude. She said before DCF came asking questions, she was coached by the stout, fiery McNamara.

“He would play that sort of thing from a classic cult angle,” Campbell said. “Related them (investigators) to Satan. … ‘These people don’t know what we do here. The world doesn’t support God’s way’ …

“We were under his authority, as ordained by God.”

Today, the women have a 130-member Facebook group called “Proactive Survivors of New Beginnings Girls Academy.” In recent years, there has been online talk about the new children’s home that moved in after New Beginnings left Florida for Missouri.

Newer Beginnings

Marvelous Grace Girls Academy now sits at the end of that long, clay driveway in Pace.

It is hard to tell where New Beginnings ends and Marvelous Grace begins.

The property has not been sold since its days under Pastor McNamara. It is still owned by a corporation that lists McNamara as an officer. And though the girls of New Beginnings recall moving to Missouri in 2007, back in Florida, police reports continued to call the home by the same name for years.

The home’s website in 2009 called Steven Blankenship executive director for “New Beginnings Girls Academy.” On that site, Blankenship — now director at Marvelous Grace — said he found God “after years of living as a Satanist and a Witch.”

Another defunct site, truth4teens.org, showed photos of Blankenship preaching during radio broadcasts and revivals and listed his name under blog entries. The site called hatred “a family value.”

It also showed what the site called a brain scan of a man hospitalized for voices in his head. The image contained a horned shape that the site suggested was the face of Satan caught by modern medical equipment. “It has been validated as authentic!” the site declared.

Marvelous Grace has no state license and is not accredited by FACCCA. DCF investigated an abuse allegation in 2010, finding no evidence.

Blankenship declined to be interviewed. In an email, he wrote: “Please do not call, email, text, send letter, or show up on Marvelous Grace Girls Academy’s property.”

He told the Times he will be accredited by January 2013.

The rest of the article is here.

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