Reform schools find a haven here

Post-Dispatch/November 17, 2002
By Matthew Franck

Teens are sent to religious reform schools in Missouri from all over the nation by the hundreds, but no one knows exactly how many. They are confined for months or years on at least a half-dozen remote, rural campuses, but no one knows the precise number of schools that dot the state's woods and farmlands.

The teens are plunged into a regimen of Bible discipline - where some say they are paddled daily for misbehavior, where several schools ban them from dialing a phone, and where workers screen all outgoing mail.

Many have emerged years later to recount stories of mistreatment and ridicule; others praise the ministries for reclaiming them from the despair of street life.

But state authorities can't know how all these teens are treated. And that's how Missouri lawmakers want it.

Missouri is one of a handful of states that do not require faith-based child residential facilities to get a state license. So unless officials are investigating a report of child abuse, state authorities cannot inspect the reform schools, monitor their quality or know how many they enroll or where they are.

As a result, Missouri has become a magnet for a breed of strict schools that could not operate in most other states. In fact, several of the reform schools have come to Missouri after being exiled elsewhere.

Chief among them is Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy near Patterson, Mo., a ministry that shut down in Mississippi in 1986 after years of abuse allegations, legal proceedings and a court order to remove all of its students.

More than two dozen former students interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say they were mistreated by the ministry. Some - particularly those who attended in Mississippi - recount heavy paddlings, and many women say their menstrual cycles were interrupted at the school, presumably because of stress.

"Your inner self is destroyed from the moment you walk in the door," said Collin Poetting, who attended Mountain Park from 1994 to 1996. Still, Mountain Park has prospered in Missouri. Parents praise the school's strict approach for rescuing their children when no one else could. "Our child met Christ at this institution," said David Schock of Grand Haven, Mich., whose son attends the school. "In terms of changing his life, it was close to a miracle - no, it was a miracle."

Mountain Park and similar schools have for years been able to defeat legislative efforts to regulate them. By citing religious freedom, the schools have counted on the support of a legislature that is hesitant to interfere with faith-based institutions.

That hands-off approach stood even after a student at Mountain Park was killed in 1996 by three others, apparently in a plot to take over the school.

Since then, the unregulated teen reform industry has boomed in Missouri.

In the past six years alone, at least four rigid reform schools have opened in the state, attracting hundreds of teens from across the country. Among the larger new schools are Agape Boarding School, which enrolls 125 boys near Stockton; Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, with 65 boys and girls near Devil's Elbow; and Heartland Christian Academy, with about 150 boys and girls near Bethel. And judging from the expansion plans of several ministries, the state's faith-based teen reform industry is thriving.

Thriving, because the schools have tapped into a niche market of desperate parents, many of whom got results and spread the word. Thriving, because those parents are willing to gamble as much as $14,000 a year on the hope that strict discipline will rescue their uncontrollable children.

But thriving most of all because year after year Missouri lawmakers have rejected legislation that would require the schools to obtain state licenses.

Here, the schools have friends in the Legislature who passionately defend the ministries and their religious rights amid continued allegations of abuse.

Here, the schools have found a safe harbor.

A shared formula

If Missouri's unregulated reform schools have anything in common, it's seclusion.

The schools are set up in the far corners of rural Missouri, and many can be found only by traveling down obscure gravel roads. Mountain Park, for example, is so remote that even the postal worker in nearby Patterson struggles to give meaningful directions.

The isolation is intentional, and the schools' low profiles are protected under state law. An unlicensed program in Missouri is not required to register with the state or even present proof that it is a faith-based institution that should be exempt from regulation.

"Even knowing where these homes are would be a start," said Carmen Schulze of the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies. "But I can't even get a list."

Several of the unlicensed schools are founded on a simple premise: the radical separation of teens from their lifestyles. It's an approach that appeals to religious and nonreligious parents.

Administrators of the schools say only a portion of their clients are actively religious. More often, they say, they cater to parents who simply want a form of discipline that they cannot find at traditional treatment centers.

Some already have tried professional counseling. Others cannot afford professionally licensed residential programs, which often cost more than $30,000 a year.

Four of the larger unlicensed schools - Heartland, Mountain Park, Agape and Thanks to Calvary - follow a remarkably similar formula. Each requires that parents enroll children for a minimum of a year.

Students adhere to a strict schedule that includes hours of worship and chores. They are told that their problems are rooted in sin, not diagnosable illnesses. And they are punished for failing to memorize passages of Scripture or for having the wrong attitude.

They can receive phone calls only from their parents, and even then only for a few minutes every two weeks. Letters they write are screened by staff, though many former students of Mountain Park say they also were censored.

Those tactics are at odds with the way most faith-based children's group homes operate. Numerous religious homes for youths in Missouri have willingly sought state licenses and complied with standards on treatment.

For example, administrators of the Evangelical Children's Home in north St. Louis County and the Missouri Baptist Children's Home in Bridgeton say state standards are sensible and do not infringe on their desire to mix therapy with religion.

Only licensed homes can get state funding and serve children in state custody.

But Mountain Park and other strict reform schools are a separate breed of faith-based program - one that has no interest in state funding or regulations.

They are supported by tuition and donations. And because the schools are unregulated, they can operate almost entirely on their own terms. The schools hire whomever they want, regardless of credentials. They shun modern psychotherapy and require that children empty bottles of Ritalin and Prozac before enrolling. They control a youth's mode of worship, communication and behavior in a way that no licensed program or even juvenile detention center could.

But that's not to say the schools have completely skirted government involvement. Because the schools are still subject to child abuse laws, officials have the authority to investigate reports of mistreatment. And several schools have been stung by allegations.

A limited view

At Hope Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, a small school that had enrolled fewer than a dozen boys in St. James, a pastor is facing felony abuse charges for repeatedly paddling a student.

And at Heartland Christian Academy, several workers were charged with criminal child abuse for forcing youths to shovel in deep manure as a punishment and for excessive paddling. But nearly all those charges have been dropped or dismissed by juries.

Administrators of the schools say the abuse inquiries illustrate that even though their operations are not licensed, the state has enough authority to keep their ministries in line.

"The state has every law it needs to inspect a school like this," said Jim Clemensen, who operates Agape Boarding School. Heartland founder Charles N. Sharpe is more critical of the state's intervention. He describes those who have investigated him as "evil."

And like many pastors at the state's reform schools, Sharpe blames society and its public institutions for destroying youths. He said he's merely trying to clean up the mess.

"Abuse is kids on drugs and alcohol, and it's 13-year-olds getting pregnant," Sharpe said.

Heartland, along with Agape and Thanks to Calvary, allowed a reporter to visit and interview students recently. Inside, numerous teens praised the ministries and could be seen hugging and laughing with school leaders.

"I know I'm changing, but when I first got here I was at my worst," said Leigha, who has attended Heartland for over a year. The visits also turned up signs of the reform schools' rigor.

At Heartland, several boys said they have been paddled nearly every day for bad behavior. Others said they would escape if they could, even if it meant being sent to the harshest juvenile detention facility.

Getting a complete picture of how reform schools truly operate is impossible.

Because the newer schools have been open for less than six years, they have few graduates who can speak freely of their time there. Some of the schools are so young, in fact, that most of their original students still are enrolled in the program. But Mountain Park is different.

Mountain Park has hundreds of alumni who have sorted through experiences for years.

Mountain Park has a history.

A troubling history

The school's past is relived today by numerous former students who say they were mistreated at the school.

Mountain Park administrators would not grant interviews or allow the Post-Dispatch to tour their facilities and meet with students. The school did provide a list of supportive parents and alumni who in interviews dismissed critics as a vocal minority.

But the school's detractors have congregated by the dozens in Internet support groups. Their accounts are consistent with one another and span decades of the ministry. They also are backed by numerous former students who are quoted in court documents and news articles.

Each attended either Mountain Park, which opened in Missouri in 1987, or Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys, which were operated by Mountain Park founders Bob and Betty Wills from the early 1970s to 1987 in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Some former students told the Post-Dispatch of severe corporal punishment, including so-called "board parties," where they said several students received as many as 50 swats. There is some evidence the school has curtailed its use of the paddle in the past few years, but the school's tactics continue to come under fire.

This summer, a suit filed by Jordan Blair, an Arkansas teen, claimed the school abused him by cutting off communication to his lawyer, limiting him to two bathroom visits a day, and administering various forms of corporal punishment on boys at the school.

Those kinds of allegations date nearly to the ministry's inception in Mississippi.

In 1982, civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, became aware of a pregnant 19-year-old who claimed she was being swatted and denied the right to leave.

In the court proceedings that followed, several students would testify of abuse. A medical expert also testified that nearly half of the female students had menstrual complications because of intense stress.

Court documents include accounts of a girl who was reportedly swatted 25 to 30 times. Her offense: slashing her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.

Dees' efforts resulted in a court settlement in which the school agreed to tone down its use of corporal punishment, allow students to communicate freely through mail and telephones, and report any menstrual problems to parents. The agreement came with no admission of wrongdoing by the ministry, and no employees were charged with criminal child abuse.

But Bob Wills refused to abide by the settlement and was convicted of contempt of court.

Ultimately, the state decided in 1986 to remove from the home 117 teens, dozens of whom described some form of mistreatment. That final act sent the Willses to Missouri, where friendly laws gave the ministry a new start.

Dan Wise was the interim youth court judge who ordered the state to remove teens from the Mississippi schools. When he learned that the schools' founders planned to move to Missouri, he sent documents to Missouri officials warning of the schools' history.

But Wise and others say Missouri had no interest in the information. "We were told real quick that Missouri can take care of itself," said Erik Lowrey, a lawyer who worked for years to close the Mississippi ministry.

A haven

Today, Mountain Park and similar reform schools are flourishing in Missouri. And they have the support of federal and state courts, which have historically supported parents in their right to raise and educate their children almost entirely as they see fit.

Parents pick the school and pick the church, and when their child gets out of control, they decide whether to turn to a therapist or to a member of the clergy.

That fundamental principle has long been a key legal defense of religious reform schools like those in Missouri.

Lawyer David Gibbs III has defended numerous religious teen programs nationwide. He said the fact that teens at the schools are compelled to worship a certain way or spend hours memorizing the Bible isn't relevant. If society didn't allow parents to make decisions against their children's wishes, few would attend school.

But Gibbs acknowledges that while a teen's rights are limited, a parent's rights are not limitless. Parents, he said, cannot legally send children to a place that abuses children.

The question is what constitutes abuse.

Bob Schwartz, who heads the Juvenile Law Association in Philadelphia, said there's "no clear line" when it comes to determining how much liberty can be taken away from a youth before he or she has been abused.

"Those boundaries are not precisely drawn," said Schwartz, whose nonprofit group defends the legal rights of children.

What is clear is that teens at reform schools have far fewer rights than children convicted of crimes by the courts. Teens in a juvenile detention center have access to legal representation, and the system is structured to make sure children are placed in the right kind of program. University of Florida law professor Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, a leading authority on juvenile law issues, favors legislative reforms that would give children a right to a hearing before parents send them to a highly restrictive reform school.

In most states, teens at a reform school would at least have the assurance that a treatment program was licensed and inspected. Backers of such regulation say the approach lets parents remain in control while allowing the state to make sure children are safe.

For years, child advocacy groups and operators of licensed residential facilities in Missouri have called for at least minimum standards for the programs. And their concerns are amplified with each new allegation of abuse. But in legislative hearings, pastors from the unlicensed homes have testified of their programs' effectiveness, arguing that government interference would force them to shut down.

Reforms have failed, most recently a bill that would have merely required the reform schools to register with the state. Some credit the political influence of Sharpe, who is one of the state's leading political contributors.

But others say the resistance roots from a more general distaste for regulation among Missouri lawmakers, especially when those regulations deal with faith-based institutions.

"Something mentioned in the name of religion is held in high esteem and sacred trust," said state Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, who has favored regulation for years.

Mountain Park's legislative supporters include state Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, who was pictured in a recent school newsletter and defended the school's track record in a Missouri Senate hearing this year.

Foster said in an interview last week that he has visited Mountain Park several times and has spoken to numerous parents and students who praise the ministry. "I would not try to protect anybody," he said. "I say it like I see it."

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said he has yet to see a reason why the reform schools should be licensed. "You would have to make a compelling case for them to be regulated," he said.

But Kinder said he was unaware of Mountain Park's history in Mississippi. When told of the allegations of abuse from former students, he said he would be open to investigating the issue and would not rule out favoring some sort of regulation.

A suit filed this summer seeks to change how Mountain Park does business by asking a federal judge to mandate reforms.

That legal technique ultimately shut down the Mountain Park ministry when it operated in Mississippi. But something else was happening in Mississippi that ultimately led to the closure of Bethesda.

Over the years, as teens escaped the Mississippi home to tell of abuse and mistreatment, local authorities grew suspicious.

So when runaways were picked up, the local sheriff eventually stopped taking them back to the school. Instead, they wound up in Lowery's office, and the lawyer often would win their release.

Students run away from Mountain Park, too, into the deep forest or toward the neighboring small towns.

Wayne County Sheriff Larry W. Plunkett guesses his officers pick up a few a year. They complain about the school, he said.

But he hasn't heard anything that would lead him to believe they are being abused. Teens with their background, he said, are bound to complain about rules and discipline.

So the runaways are rounded up in a squad car and hauled back up the long gravel road to Mountain Park, leaving their stories of life inside to be told another day.

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