Teen Challenge: The Assemblies' own "kiddie gulag"
Over the next few days, we are going to focus on a specific chain of these facilities (which have been compared to Abu Ghraib)--Teen Challenge, a chain of Assemblies-run "faith based rehabs" that was the target of a "get out of jail free" deregulation of the "kiddie gulag" industry in Texas by none other than George W. Bush.
We begin with a history of how Teen Challenge was deregulated, and some of the reports of gross mistreatment at the facility--including just about every form of abuse that could have been done to those kids.
It is almost impossible to understate just how much of a "get out of jail free" card Teen Challenge was provided by George W. Bush.
Teen Challenge is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it is one of the few groups promoting abusive "kiddie boot camps" that is clearly linkable to a known religious group with documented coercive tactics (to the level that Narconon was linked to the Church of Scientology); secondly, it is a known recipient of federal funds under the "Faith Based Initiatives" program (one of the few abusive facilities of this type to get such funding); thirdly, Teen Challenge acts as a wonderful example of the bad things that can happen when "faith-based" kiddie gulags go completely unregulated.
One reason Teen Challenge has likely gotten preferential treatment from Bush is because it is actually an Assemblies of God frontgroup (and a very closely connected one at that--namely, it's technically a division of its youth ministries program focusing on "troubled youth"). The group operates a chain of facilities (including not only ranches but other inpatient facilities similar to the now-closed "Love In Action/Refuge" "degaying" center) across the US and in several other countries.
Of note (and in a sign that the Assemblies does operate Scientology or Moonie-style fronts), it does not openly advertise its Assemblies links or the fact it is technically an Assemblies youth ministry but this information is easy enough to find, including on the Assemblies' own website.
Teen Challenge has also been the subject of multiple reports of abusive activity--not only spiritual abuse, but physical and mental as well. There are also in fact two expose groups on Teen Challenge--not only a site operated by a Teen Challenge survivor, but a second page detailing additional reports of abuse (and further documentation of the Assemblies linkages).
In addition to unlicensed counselors hired at the Texas ranch (an occurence common across Teen Challenge facilities and one which has led to a known child molester being manager of a Teen Challenge facility in Maine), there was evidence of educational neglect (educationally insufficient material) and reports of physical, mental, sexual, and emotional abuse. And such reports are not isolated; Teen Challenge (which is an Assemblies of God frontgroup managed by their youth ministries division which focuses on "troubled youth") has had many reports of abuse at their various facilities including forced missionary activity, possible violation of child labour laws, forcing people to sign over paychecks to Teen Challenge for not joining additional programs, and the abusive use of "discipling and shepherding", and physical abuse and medical neglect including at least inmate suffering a miscarriage who was not referred to appropriate medical care.
Teen Challenge has also been listed on one group's listing of abusive "faith based" centers--the same site notes that Teen Challenge's present program has close links to Mel Sembler of Straight, Inc, (via his Drug Free America Foundation).
Texas' experience with Teen Challenge's "get out of jail free" card did not go unnoticed--or unchallenged.. Texas Freedom Network, a group fighting dominionism in the Lone Star State, had a specific example of the efforts that eventually led to partial re-regulation:
Teen Challenge is a national faith-based residential drug treatment program that had nine branches in Texas in 2004. The programs have no medical component and center instead of around prayer, Bible study and religious conversion.A repeating pattern around the country
Teen Challenge currently operates five drug treatment centers in Texas – none of which have a state license, but only two of which have formally registered their status as a faith-based facility exempt from state licensing. As exempt faith-based drug treatment centers, Teen Challenge facilities are not required to have licensed chemical dependency counselors, conduct staff training or criminal background checks, protect client confidentiality rights, adhere to state health and safety standards, or report abuse, neglect, emergencies and medication errors.
Even prior to seeking an exemption from state licensing, a 1995 state inspection revealed that Teen Challenge was not compliant with numerous state health, safety and quality of care standards.
Rather than force Teen Challenge to meet the basic health and safety standards to which their secular counterparts must adhere, then-Governor George Bush pushed through legislation that would exempt Teen Challenge and other faith-based drug treatment centers from state licensing – and the health, safety and quality of care standards that accompany that licensure. "Teen Challenge should view itself as a pioneer in how Texas approaches faith-based programs, I’ll call together people, ask them to make recommendations. I’d like to make recommendations to the legislature...But Teen Challenge is going to exist...and licensing standards have to be different from what they are today," then-Governor Bush said. (World Magazine, 7/29-8/5/1995)
Texas is also, sadly, not the only state that Teen Challenge was given a carte blanche in. Florida has a nearly identical scheme to the one Texas had until recently, in that centers can be completely exempted from regulation by joining the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies--and Teen Challenge happens to be a member of FACCCA. Not surprisingly, evidence of extensive abuse has turned up with the Florida facility of almost an identical manner to what was documented in Texas before Dubya shut the investigation down:
West Florida Teen Challenge Boys’ Ranch—in Bonifay, Florida is a confirmedly abusive teen program. The contract parents must sign with Teen Challenge does not indicate that the school meets standards that might be roughly equivalent to state requirements. The contract states that the Florida Association of Christian Child-Caring Agencies’ (FACCCA) "intent" is to "insure the physical and spiritual health, safety, and well being" of the children and therefore that thee boy’s ranch must meet FACCCA’s "minimum standards," but the only one described in the contract is allowing access to public officials who inspect for fire, health, safety, and sanitation codes. Parents have to agree to hold the ranch and its employees harmless from "any and all liability" for injury to the child "even injury resulting in death." Parents must agree "that God desires that they resolve their dispute with one another within the church and that they be reconciled in their relationships in accordance with the principles stated in I Corinthians 6:1-8, Matthew 5:23-24, and Matthew 18:15-20." If they cannot resolve their disagreement privately within the church, parents must accept resolution through "biblically based mediation" by rules of the Association of Christian Conciliation Services. There is no refund of tuition or deposits if the boy leaves the ranch before 15 months even if the ranch has expelled him. Several former students say that staff, "use physical punishment, ridicule intimidate and/or verbally abuse children; use chemical restraints; employ cruel or humiliating treatment or other emotionally abusive behavior; assign excessive exercise or work duties, deny food, clothing, shelter, medical car, and/or prescribed therapeutic activities, or contacts with family, counselors, or legal representatives as a form of punishment." Please do not send your child to any Teen Challenge program. Detailed report provided by Children’s Healthcare Is a Legal Duty, Inc. Nov. 4th, 2004 newsletter.(CHILD, Inc. is a group working to stop religiously motivated child abuse and neglect, in particular working towards removing "religious loopholes" to providing children lifesaving treatment.)
There have also been similar reports focusing not only on Texas and Florida but also with a facility in California, and reports have been made by walkaways of similar abuses not only in the US but with Teen Challenge facilities overseas as well.