Investigative Report Reveals Some Religious Reform Schools Are Havens for Child Abuse

An investigation alleges extensive child abuse in youth programs in Florida

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Kathleen Flynn / Tampa Bay Times /

A drill instructor prays with a boy during a church service at Florida's Gateway Christian Military Academy on Oct. 5, 2012

An investigation reveals extensive child abuse in youth programs in Florida.

They’re advertised as “boarding schools” or “Christian” children’s homes in Florida, but a yearlong investigation published in the Tampa Bay Times reveals lax oversight on dozens of youth programs, some of which had been shut down for abuse in other states and have continued to operate for decades.

In Florida, such unlicensed religious homes can operate outside state child-protection laws thanks to an exemption that protects religious practices. Some are structured more like military camps, while other boarding-school programs emphasize the “emotional growth” aspect of their mission, claiming to help teens with everything from defiance to depression to drug problems. Hundreds of students register at these schools each year, enrolled by desperate parents eager to pay $20,000 or more in tuition to put their children back on the “right” path — away from drugs, crime and even homosexuality.

The religious exemption protects the programs from inspections by the state’s department of children and families, which means students can be imprisoned or shackled and, unlike with licensed youth programs, can be denied contact with their parents and prevented from accessing child-abuse hotlines. Regulatory authority over these religious programs lies almost entirely in the hands of the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCA). And these programs flourish in other states as well, since no national regulations exist to oversee such facilities for teens.

In the opening story of the Tampa Bay Times three-part investigation, reporters recount the experience of a former Christian-military-school attendee named Samson Lehman:

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.

When the teen was finally taken to the emergency room, Lehman was immediately airlifted to a higher-level facility because his condition required more-complex treatment than a local hospital could provide. Dehydration had caused a potentially lethal buildup of waste in his body; an ibuprofen painkiller that staff had given him only made matters worse. Lehman required months of dialysis to help his kidneys recover.

“I thought I was going to die slumped up against a wall,” he tells TIME, describing the worst part of the ordeal. An honor student, Lehman had been placed in the program by his mother, who suffers from mental illness and was overly worried that he would follow in the footsteps of his older brother, who had been arrested. Lehman did not have behavioral problems, other than arguing frequently with his mother. She learned about the program from a boyfriend, who had heard about it while in prison, and she convinced herself it would help Lehman.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the director of Gateway Christian Military Academy blamed Lehman’s hospitalization on pre-existing “mineral deficiencies.” He also told the paper that the program has since hired a registered nurse to handle health issues, eliminated the intense, lengthy exercises that Lehman describes, and requires applicants to pass a physical before entry.

But Florida’s child-welfare agency described what happened as “verified medical neglect.” Since Gateway is regulated only by the FACCCA (which is a voluntary association manned by two full-time and two part-time employees) and because the state did not chose to file charges, it remains open.

Gateway Christian Military Academy is also part of a national organization called Teen Challenge, which has a history of abusive practices carried out in the name of religion. For decades, Teen Challenge has run afoul of states with stricter oversight of youth facilities for some of its practices.

In the mid-’90s, Teen Challenge tangled with state regulators in Texas when officials demanded that all programs that involve locking up youth meet certain training, safety and education standards for counselors. Citing religious freedom, Teen Challenge resisted — and then-governor George W. Bush stepped in to save the program by exempting all religious youth facilities from oversight.

Reports of abuse at the exempted facilities began surfacing, including one in which a girl was found bound in duct tape, but without the licensing rules, the state couldn’t act. When Texas officials rescinded the exemption in 2001, programs simply moved to other states, including Florida, where religion was still used as a buffer to protect such abuses.

(MORE: Increasingly, Internet Activism Helps Shutter Abusive ‘Troubled Teen’ Boot Camps)

The Tampa Bay Times series shows that the beatings and abuse simply continued, while Teen Challenge facilities only expanded their reach further. Lehman says his grandfather recently encountered people trying to recruit youth to attend Teen Challenge at a Florida Walmart. “He was pretty upset about it,” he says.

Julia Scheeres, author of the best-selling memoir Jesus Land, which describes her forced participation in a similar Christian home, says reading about Lehman’s ordeal and the network of such religious programs in Florida “made me so angry I could barely skim the articles. A school’s ‘religious rights’ should never trump a child’s human rights. It sickens me to see this.”

She adds, “These are the same tactics that were used at my reform school:  shaving heads for running away, monitoring all communication with the outside so kids couldn’t complain, calisthenics to the point of vomiting, sleep deprivation.”

The consequences for her, as for Lehman, were dire. “Most of us came out of that school worse than we went in,” she says. “Living in an atmosphere of constant fear 24/7 is anything but therapeutic. Many of us alumni have struggled with fallout — depression, substance abuse, failed relationships, despondency, anger issues. And most of us have nightmares about being back there, decades later.” Lehman, now 20 and an engineering student, says, “If you are going to try to reform your child, you should look for a professional place that’s monitored and has standards to go by.”

The debate over the role that corporal punishment has outside the home — in schools, and meted out by non–family members — continues to rage, despite growing research showing it can have lasting detrimental effects on child development and behavior. The issues are at the same time both similar and more compelling when it comes to residential institutions for youth — religious or otherwise — or for teen programs whose primary mission is to improve potentially disobedient or disruptive behavior. In a nonresidential situation, parents will see bruises and hear complaints if a child is punished too severely; and if children cannot contact a parent, use a phone or the Internet to reach out to child-abuse hotlines, serious abuse can go undetected for long periods of time.  The problem is particularly challenging when youth with behavioral problems are involved, since program officials often successfully argue that their complaints are the result of manipulative or mentally-ill people who cannot be trusted.

In 2008, Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, introduced the first bill in Congress, the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act, to regulate teen residential programs. It passed the House twice and was introduced in the Senate for the first time last year by Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa. It bans punitive use of restraint and prohibits programs from “physically, mentally or sexually abusing children in their care,” as well as requiring access to an abuse-reporting hotline.

If the bill passes, it will be too late to protect students like Lehman but hopefully in time to prevent hundreds more from enduring equally tragic experiences.

MORE: New Efforts to Crack Down on Residential Programs for Troubled Teens


This happens all the time. On Facebook a girl from an all girls Christian based at risk teenage girls program started a group called Survivor's Of Steppin' Stone Farm. You should read what the girls and even the staff say, reported, and testify to what happened and still happens there. I was a victim of serious medical neglect. I was trampled by two different cows I raised for them and the Director didn't do anything. Some of the staff didn't care. They made the girls parents believe we were lying because we were considered "at risk teenagers" so we had to be lying about everything! These places need to either be shut down or monitored VERY CLOSELY before someone goes on a rampage or something and it ends badly!


Things like this is why religion is insane. Masses thinking the same only cause grief. Think for yourselves people, not what others tell you to believe.


yes you would THINK it would be covered under criminal codes, but they get away with it everyday... theres already plenty of lawsuits out there, one involving over 300 people disgruntled for being mistreated like this (and this lawsuit has people forced to eat their own vomit and lie in dog cages for days, literally.) these people just change the name of their school and no one bothers them.


Samson Lehman should get with his grandfather, hire an attorney, and file both civil and criminal actions against this nut house.  And have the mother committed to a humane mental health facility. 


"It bans punitive use of restraint and prohibits programs from “physically, mentally or sexually abusing children in their care,” as well as requiring access to an abuse-reporting hotline."

It's nice that this  "Stop Child Abuse In Residential Programs for Teens Act" is focusing on the issue, but I believe existing criminal codes cover it.  Even given Republican insanity in allowing unregulated juvenile institutions, how do individuals running programs such as that described by Samson Lehman escape legal intervention for criminal assault, regardless of other regulatory exemptions? 

dutchs 1 Like

ANY situation where people can have unchallenged authority leads to abuse.

MartynWilson 3 Like

'Some Religious Reform Schools Are Havens for Child Abuse'. Apparently it is also the case that mammals of the family Ursidae have a tendency to defecate in wooded areas.

If you stick vulnerable kids in the care of people who believe in stone-age myths and in the power of a supernatural being who supports genocide, human sacrifice and child abuse, then what in the name of sanity do you expect. Ask yourself why 'unlicensed religious homes can operate outside state child-protection laws thanks to an exemption that protects religious practices.' Why are religious practices exempted from child-protection laws. WHY? 

It beggars belief.

barkway2 1 Like

It's not just religious youth programs or teen residential treatment programs. There are private boarding schools & youth military academies doing the same. Our child suffered similar at one of these, suffered irreparable harm, and will never be the same but because they are a private, well-respected school with connections, and a team of lawyers ready to sue any parent who tries to defend their child, they have gotten away with it for decades.

TonyConnelly 2 Like

These horrible abuses "in the name of" Religion or Treatment have nothing to do with REAL Religion or Treatment. Until we have laws prohibiting EVIL people from SECRETLY abusing children in these teen programs, there is no way to protect these children. These children deserve a voice from the "inside" to help on the "outside"and all adolescent programs have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible. There is simply no other reason for rules and policies of secrecy in teen programs with the exception of concealing abuse and wrongdoing. 

SIAOrganization 1 Like

PlumLine, I dont believe God has any part of this. It is people that do the harm and profess it to be in God's name. Have you heard of the Native American Boarding Schools? The Native American culture was in God's name forever changed. This was done by people not by God. Have you heard of Ethnocide? I am not sure how to take your comment, that you support what these facilities are doing to these children or that it is not God that is doing it. Not sure which it is but History shows man doing alot of Hurt in the name of God. To twists what God's word is and use it for their own warped purposes. No this is not God this is Man and it must be stopped. We all have a voice and when something is wrong then we must stand for change not stay the same and allow the abuse


@SIAOrganization I have done research on Native American Boarding Schools for a story I wrote for a competition. The schools in this article are similar. They need to be shut down as soon as possible. This is not God's way for discipline and is evil. It is disgusting what they did to these kids in this article and at the Native schools.

PlumbLine 1 Like

@SIAOrganization I agree, and I think that is what I was trying to say. God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all...........So if there is sin and abuse happening, it is the evil in mens hearts that are doing it..........however, if the evil being done is by so called representatives of God, the unbelieving world will quickly attach blame to God and His cause. .......

.........Matthew 7:21-23...........21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

PlumbLine 2 Like

God over the ages, has at times been so misrepresented, whether it was a Jim Jones, or the tradgedy at Waco Texas years ago. God never imprisons anyone against their will in any school or institution in order to force them into discipleship. God is Love. And to be unaware or ignorant of Gods true personality will open people up to deception and abuse. There are many outstanding christian schools in the country. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater..........The apostle Paul spoke of this kind of matter to the Corinthian Church who were putting up with false teachers and so false apostles.......2 Corinthians 11:20........20 You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face...

Matthew 19:14....But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”.......

Romans 6:16.....Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?.......

Romans 13:8.......8 Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.......

MartynWilson 1 Like

@PlumbLine I am sure you are a decent person, but will you please learn that making baseless assertions has been - and continues to be - one of the main sources of the cruelty relentlessly perpetrated by religious people. 

For every one of your 'god is love' quotations, there is another biblical declaration that god must be obeyed without question (on pain of death), that he will cast out demons and that he will condemn sinners to an afterlife of everlasting damnation and torture. Believe what you want, because that is your choice, but don't assert your beliefs as facts, because they are not. 

We have moved on, and so should you.


America just loves it's children, doesn't it?