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.
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.
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.