The terrifying entry conditions for abusive Christian reform homes

The terrifying entry conditions for abusive Christian reform homes June 10, 2016

If you’ve read this blog, you’ll be aware of abuses at Christian ‘troubled teen’ reform homes. These places call themselves educational facilities but are more like prison camps. Some are surrounded by barbed wire.

New Bethany Home for Girls, pictured in 2013 after it closed. YouTube.
New Bethany Home for Girls, pictured in 2013 after it closed. Image: YouTube.

Despite all the evidence that has come forward, despite the dozens of independent testimonies from former detainees, all of which describe similar situations and similar abuses, and despite successful prosecutions for abuse in some of these homes, there are still people who accuse the survivors of lying or exaggerating. So I’ll tell you what: just for today, let’s not listen to the survivors. Let’s listen to the homes themselves. Or rather, one home in particular: New Beginnings Girls Academy.

Let’s look at the “Enrollment Agreement” from New Beginnings Girls Academy (NBGA) that the activist network HEAL posted online. This, remember, is what parents agree to on sending their children to the home. This is the stuff that is not even contested.

The document is undated, but the address on it is La Russell, Missouri. According to the survivor website, NBGA moved to La Russell in 2007, so this document is less than ten years old. A 2013 Change.org petition appealing to the state of Missouri to stop abuse at NBGA also lists the location as La Russell. So this document is probably from between 2007 and 2013.

What do we find?

Extreme censorship

“The staff has complete discretion in determining the appropriateness of all mail.”

NBGA had more postal censorship than anywhere this side of Stalin’s Russia. The “Mail Policy” states that all incoming and all outgoing mail will be censored by NBGA staff: “The

All mail must be sent and received via the parent(s)/guardian(s). All correspondence to students will be restricted to family members only, unless prior approval is given by New Beginnings staff. All mail is read by New Beginnings staff prior to release to the student. The student’s outgoing mail will also be censored in this way. The staff has complete discretion in determining the appropriateness of all mail. A parent/guardian should not become offended, whenever something is returned to them deemed inappropriate. All scriptural references, whether in letters, cards, bookmark, etc., must be from the OLD King James Bible (KJV 1611).
NBGA Mail Policy. Click to enlarge.

staff has complete discretion in determining the appropriateness of all mail.” The only correspondence allowed is with family members. Photographs will be censored if the people in them do not meet the NBGA dress code. References to and photographs of old boyfriends will be censored.

No newspaper articles, clippings, Internet or e-mail clippings, church bulletins or school newsletters are allowed. Any letters containing references to the student’s homecoming, i.e., “When you get home…” will not be permitted and will be returned.

Only parent(s)/guardian(s) may initiate a phone call. The parent(s)/guardian(s) may call in. The child does not call out. All phone calls should be restricted to family members only. The most important topic discussed is the telephone. The first phone calls are especially important. During your first telephone conversation, it should be established that the parent(s)/guardian(s) are in control of the conversation. If at any point the conversation becomes negative in any nature, the parent(s)/guardian(s) should warn their child that if he or she continues with this type of conversation, they will discontinue the conversation. If the child continues, the parent(s)/guardian(s) should follow through on their warning and discontinue the conversation. During the next scheduled phone call, the parent(s)/guardian(s) should again give their child this warning. This should continue as long as necessary to re-establish your authority and control. The first phone call may be received after one full month of enrollment. Second and subsequent phone calls may come one every two weeks. Married parents and divorced parents calling their child may have a maximum of fifteen (15) minutes per call. Divorced parents calling separately may each have a maximum ten (10) minute phone call. In a divorce situation, once you have decided whether you will be calling together or separately, you will need to maintain that status.
Telephone policy.

The “Telephone Policy” is just as restrictive. Residents of the home cannot make any outgoing phone calls. The only people who may call them are parents. These phone calls are restricted to 15 minutes in length, and if the child expresses negativity about NBGA, parents are instructed to end the conversation.

Visits from parents are not allowed at all in the first six months, and then only at six-monthly intervals. Students are required to spend their first Christmas after enrollment at NBGA. Then there’s the list of prohibited items:

“The following items WILL NOT be allowed at New Beginnings:

  • Books
  • Videos
  • Candy
  • Magazines/catalogues
  • Posters/wall hangings/calendars
  • Video or board games
  • Baggy style clothing
  • Gangster, grunge, camouflage or faddish clothes
  • Newspaper articles, clippings, Internet or e-mail clippings, church bulletins/newsletters
  • Anything containing Scriptural references from any source other than the King James Bible
  • NO ALL BLACK CLOTHING ALLOWED”

These policies are a clear violation of the detainees’ human rights. The policies mean that if detainees were being abused, it would be almost impossible for them to tell anyone about it. US felons on death row are afforded more freedom of speech and communication than these teenage girls. It is a policy characteristic of a totalitarian regime, not an educational institution.

Cruel and unusual punishment

The “Discipline Policy” begins with a section lifted almost word-for-word from page 115 of the Accelerated Christian Education Procedures Manual (this being the curriculum used at NBGA):

Discipline is what is done FOR a child, not what is done TO your child. It is a preventative action. Training a student for leadership requires consistency in love and discipline. By nature, young people rebel against controls that suppress their carnal desires. Unchecked by discipline, these desires will lead to a life of heartache and negative consequences. With discipline, young people experience productive achievement.

From there, it goes on to get even more extreme than the (already abusive) recommendations of past editions of the ACE manual. NBGA survivors have described being forced to do hard physical labour as punishment, and also being put on ‘Redshirt’: “a punishment which requires the detained girl to stand all day with the tip of her nose on a wall with her hands at her sides or behind her back and her feet flat on the floor”. It turns out parents were agreeing to punishments like this in advance:

  • Various forms of physical training which include but are not limited to the following: jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, hops, leg lifts, crawls, running, carrying cinder blocks, or all of the above.
  • Standing with your child nose touching the end of your child bed for a time period of 1 hour with a 10-minute sit-down break each hour. This is excluding any regularly scheduled activities and school time.
  • An altered menu of bland foods will be issued at the discretion of the New Beginnings staff in conjunction with the above referenced discipline measures.

And this is before we get onto the beatings. According to the enrollment form, students may be paddled for any of the following:

physical fights, talk of running away, running away, or any attempts thereof, direct disobedience to be defined as a student’s refusal to follow a directive given by any adult staff member of New Beginnings; defiant and disrespectful attitude and actions as determined by New Beginnings staff; and the third offense for cheating in school.

The reason I’ve put some text in bold is that this is so vague as to be a licence for beating over almost anything. The chances of justice being done with such a code are minimal.

NBGA survivors have described being hit over and over again. The enrollment agreement says the number of ‘swats’ will be limited to five (5), but there’s a caveat: the swats must be “correctly received”. Incorrectly received swats do not count towards the five-hit limit:

A maximum of five (5) consecutive correctly received swats upon the buttocks may be administered. Correctly received swats are those in which the student exhibits a submissive attitude, as determined by the administrator of the corporal discipline. This submissive attitude must be exhibited throughout the discipline session. A maximum of fifteen (15) swats of any kind, whether correctly received or incorrectly received, may be administered in a twenty-four hour period.

That is far beyond the limit of what even the most conservative paedatricians consider acceptable. The

When all other forms of discipline have not produce the desired change in behavior and attitude, corporal discipline (swats) may be administered. A maximum of five (5) consecutive correctly received swats upon the buttocks may be administered. Correctly received swats are those in which the student exhibits a submissive attitude, as determined by the administrator of the corporal discipline. This submissive attitude must be exhibited throughout the discipline session. A maximum of fifteen (15) swats of any kind, whether correctly received or incorrectly received, may be administered in a twenty-four hour period. The Superintendent or any other adult staff member (who is of the same gender as your child) that the Superintendent shall designate will administer the corporal discipline. A flat paddle is used to administer the corporal discipline. The student will remain clothed for the entire procedure. Each incident of corporal discipline will be duly witnessed by another adult staff member (of the same gender). The corporal discipline will be acknowledged in writing on a corporal discipline report by the witness as to the offense and the number of swats administered following the administration of the corporal discipline. The witness and administrator of the corporal discipline will sign the dated corporal discipline report, which will then be filed in the student’s file.
Corporal punishment policy

beatings are administered with a “flat paddle”, which the American Academy of Paediatrics is clear should never be used. And these girls were teenagers, and even spanking advocates acknowledge that spanking teenagers is counterproductive. This is abuse. In fact, in 1996 the AAP convened a conference on spanking. In their consensus statements, every attendee agreed that spanking “older children and adolescents is not effective and is associated with increased risk for dysfunction and aggression later in life.” They also unanimously stated that corporal punishment should never be used in school:

Data indicate that corporal punishment within the schools is not an effective technique for producing a sustained, desired behavioral change and is associated with the potential for harm including physical injury, psychological trauma, and inhibition of school participation.
(“Consensus Statements”, Paediatrics, vol. 98 issue 4, p. 853)

Silencing tactics

Not content with abusing children and preventing them from telling anyone about it, NBGA made parents promise not to discuss conflicts with NBGA:

At no time should the parent(s)/guardian(s) discuss any differences or conflicts that they might have with New Beginnings with their child.

Then they required parents to sign waivers absolving the school of responsibility for harm to children, and requires them to promise not to sue the school. The statement of faith, to which parents agree, states:

We believe that Christians are prohibited from bringing civil lawsuits against other Christians or the church to resolve personal disputes. We believe the church possesses all the resources necessary to resolve personal disputes between members.

The accompanying release form states:

I/we agree that I/we will hold harmless and not bring suit against New Beginnings or its agents or employees for any injury, harm or other dangers, whether caused by its agents, employees, or by third parties. Nor will any action be brought for the acts of the child named.

So parents agree to allow their children to be abused, and then they promise not to sue over the resulting harm.

So we can stop debating whether New Beginnings Girls Academy was abusive now. Even if it only stuck to what parents were told (and survivors say it didn’t), their official policies were brutal and unethical.

This is not a secret

The world of ‘troubled teen’ homes is vast, and once you start researching it, profoundly distressing. One of the organisations devoted to opposing them, SIA (Survivors of Institutional Abuse) has a video of a two-hour Congressional hearing on the subject as well as a link to a US Department of State document about ‘behavior modification facilities’. People in power know about this, and still nothing has been done.

There are parallels here with the horrendous abuses in Canada’s residential schools for aboriginal children in the 20th century. There the abuses have only been acknowledged, and steps taken to compensate the detainees, now that all the schools have closed. There are still troubled teen homes operating in the United States, sometimes with the knowledge and assistance of the state. We could put this right today. I can think of nothing more to do except continue to raise awareness.

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