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Lockdown: are teens (and taxpayers) paying the price at Christian reform schools?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

THE YEAR WAS 1986. I was a somewhat normal sixteen-year-old, enjoying the Southern California summer weather, trips to the beach, and preparing to start my junior year of high school in Orange County. However, my puberty-driven rebellious behavior was brought to a screeching halt on the morning of September 1. What was supposed to be a family outing to the San Diego Wild Animal Park was actually a carefully executed plan by my parents to deliver me into what would be the worst experience of my life: a year in a locked-down, all-girl, unlicensed, unregulated fundamentalist Baptist reform school.

The isolated facility was called Victory Christian Academy and was located in the desert town of Ramona in San Diego County, California. The twelve-foot-tall chain-link fence surrounding the former FBI bunker--and the fact that the facility was in the middle of nowhere--made it the perfect place to hold teens undetected with no state oversight or accountability. I was immediately dragged through the front doors and to a back dorm where I was placed against my will in a small walk-in style closet they called the Get-Right Room. This solitary confinement room was where they put you if you swore, gave the staff any problems, rolled your eyes, refused to eat, or refused to get saved by converting to their version of fundamentalist Christianity. Most of us got acquainted with the Get-Right Room upon our arrival.

During my year at Victory, I witnessed extreme mental, emotional, and verbal abuse not just directed toward me, but toward most of the girls there. I remember the "Rap Sessions" where we were encouraged to call out others' imperfections in front of staff and students. I remember girls being harassed because of their eating disorders; underweight girls were force-fed and food was withheld from overweight girls. Vegetarians were forced to eat meat in large quantities. Girls whose aptitude was below the majority of the group were forced to sit in the corner and were called stupid. Lesbians were ousted in chapel and told they were going to burn in hell. The words "slut" and "whoremonger" were used often. What our parents saw when they went up to look at the facility and when they would come for monthly visits was not the abusive reality we girls encountered on a daily basis. There were girls who had bi-polar disorder or severe depression and anxiety disorders. There were those with drug and alcohol problems, victims of precarious living situations, victims of sexual abuse, prostitutes, and runaways. Then there were the girls who had been placed there simply because Mom and Dad didn't like their rock music, their friends, or didn't approve of them slipping away from the Christian upbringing they deemed so important for entry into adult life.

The cure-all for each problem was the Old Testament; six hours a day of indoctrination. We were told again and again that we were worthless sinners and that we were each a disgrace to God and our parents. We were told that all the sin in the world was caused by Eve and that this was the reason girls have a menstrual cycle and painful childbirth. We were told that a woman's place is in the home, not a classroom, and that God had intended us to bear children, which, according to the preacher, should be our sole lot in life.

It was all about submission and subjugation. We were voiceless, completely isolated from the outside world, and stripped of our civil liberties and freedoms. There was no phone for personal use, no television, no movies (except those about the rapture which we were forced to watch), no reading material or books (except the Bible), no music, no medical or dental care, no licensed therapists, no college-degreed staff--in essence, no normalcy of any kind. We were not allowed to wear pants. We were not allowed to talk about our problems. There were intercoms and floor alarms everywhere. We could only talk and use the restroom at certain times. Most of us had nightmares often. It's no wonder that we all walked out of there with no self-esteem and immediately started to make bad choices.

Victory Christian Academy was operating without a license from the U.S. Department of Education to teach school. The Christian booklets I completed that were supposed to count as my junior year of high school were deemed later by a proper school counselor to be sixth and seventh grade work. I ended up getting my GED, as did many others.

The facility was run by preacher Mike Palmer, whose hatred toward anyone who didn't share his radical rightwing views resonated loud and clear from the pulpit each night in chapel. His divisive intolerance didn't in any way teach the loving side of religion, or any form of spirituality, which might have had a more positive effect on us. If Palmer had taught love and acceptance instead of fear and hate, I'd be writing something very different about my experience.

Just as only one version of religion was taught and tolerated at Victory, science was considered hogwash. The Old Testament was taken as literal truth and embraced as law; logic and reason were seen as the devil's tools on every level. Girls who had previously been diagnosed with emotional disorders were told that the devil was controlling their minds, and if they were depressed, it was because they weren't letting go and giving their problems up to God. The owners didn't believe in any form of professional counseling. Psychotherapists were going to hell too, for lying and having a college degree.

Escape attempts were common. One girl tried to run during her six-month parental visit. Her parents brought her back and her year started over. Another who tried to escape by climbing the fence ended up breaking her ankle. I also remember three suicide attempts: a girl drank cleaning fluid and another slashed her wrists in the shower, which resulted in razors being taken away from everyone. A third Victory student tried to starve herself and was put in the Get-Right Room for a week.

I didn't witness any deaths while at the facility but one did occur about a year after I left. Fifteen-year-old Carey Dunn, who had already been at the facility for two years simply because her parents didn't approve of her boyfriend, died when a stack of lumber fell on her head while she helped with a construction project for Palmer and his wife. Dunn's death prompted the State of California's Department of Social Services to take a closer look at the school and the preacher, who owned the facility. After many attempts and court battles, the school was finally ordered closed down by a San Diego judge in 1992. Evidence of abuse and neglect had been found by authorities. The Fire Marshal also concluded that the facility was a death trap and cited numerous safety violations. The Get-Right Room, where some girls were kept in the dark for days or weeks at a time, was also illegal.

In the twenty-two years following my Victory experience, I was able to make some clear decisions about what's important to me. One is a commitment to expose these kinds of facilities for what they promulgate in the world: immoral thuggery, degrading behavior akin to spiritual rape (and even physical rape--more on this later), and divisive intolerance, which evokes the worst kind of arrogant and illegal abuse of power. There are thousands of survivors of such institutions, and many of them aren't doing well in the world.

I've received many emails from women who were at Victory during and after my time there. Many convey deep thoughts and personal details about their post-Victory lives, most of which are characterized by depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide attempts, recurring nightmares, low self-esteem, insecurity, difficulty with relationships, accidental pregnancies, and trouble finishing high school. Many of the women who have contacted me complain of a strained relationship with their families still twenty years later. And to my knowledge none of them have maintained the level of religiosity that the home tried to brainwash us with. Almost all of them mention that they have struggled with drug addiction or alcoholism through the years while struggling to cope with the painful memories of being trapped in the Get-Right Room at Victory Christian Academy.

I consider myself among the more fortunate in that I maintain an independent and fulfilling life, but not a day goes by in which I don't relive the traumatic events that occurred more than twenty years ago at a center supposedly devoted to the work of God. And my commitment goes deeper than naming the kind of abuse that I and others experienced there. It is a commitment to place a spotlight of public awareness directly on all such institutions, for there are similar schools located in many states. They need to adhere to basic standards of behavior and treatment that support civil liberties, freedom of speech, and equality--or else be closed down.

It's difficult to obtain a count of how many of these so-called fundamentalist boot camps are in operation around the country because they aren't licensed or regulated by any state or federal accrediting agency. Based on watch lists and survivor chat groups found on the Internet, one can safely assume there are dozens in operation today, possibly hundreds. States where they seem to thrive are those in the Bible Belt, such as Texas, Florida, and Mississippi. Reform schools get funding through state faith-based initiatives, voucher programs, churches, and from parents. And some of these programs can cost as much as an Ivy League university, which strikes me as fraudulent since they offer inadequate education.

A fair number of reform schools use Accelerated Christian Education, a curriculum in use since 1970 in Christian home schools. I remember this teaching method from my days at Victory. The booklets were called PACEs (Packet of Accelerated Christian Education) and consisted of pages of Bible verses that we were forced to memorize. The only history we learned consisted of Old Testament doctrine; we were told that if it wasn't in the Bible, it simply didn't happen. When I asked questions about evolution and fossils, I was told that dinosaur bones were a hoax created by liberals. And as punishment for questioning the story of Adam and Eve, I was given hundreds of lines of scripture to write out of the book of Genesis.

When George W. Bush became president, he created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and established Centers for Faith-Based Initiatives in five federal agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and departments of Labor, Justice, and Education. This was not Bush's first foray into the funding of faith-based groups. In 1997, when he was governor of Texas, the state legislature passed a program there allowing deregulation for faith-based reform schools. The legislature then passed a bill allowing the creation of alternative accreditation programs in which faith-based child-care centers could forego state licensing and instead receive accreditation from one of these newly created private agencies. Deregulation was an essential component of the faith-based initiative because it ensured that more faith-based providers would be eligible for government funds. And it substantially reduced health and safety requirements and oversight for these religious facilities.

That same year the state of Texas approved the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (TACCCA), whose board was comprised of eight pastors, three of whom also operated child care facilities. Upon TACCCA's creation, the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS) no longer held jurisdiction over childcare programs or certain schools and so could not investigate complaints of abuse. Also upon creation of TACCCA, then-Governor Bush invited the Roloff Homes, centers for troubled youth founded by fundamentalist Baptist preacher Lester Roloff, to return to Texas. Incidentally, Roloff--who, among other things, was notorious for paddling pregnant girls who were living in his homes for unwed mothers--was an associate of Victory's Mike Palmer.

In 1985, after numerous allegations of abuse and a refusal to accept state oversite, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Roloff Homes either had to be licensed by the state or be shut down. They chose the second option and moved to Missouri where they stayed until Bush asked them back, buoyed by deregulation. The Roloff homes were accredited by TACCCA, which was supposed to uphold the same standards as TDPRS. However, the association never conducted a single legally required surprise inspection at any of its facilities. In 1999 the state of Texas issued a finding of physical abuse and medical neglect at Roloff's Rebekah Home for Girls. The following year brought a criminal trial where administrators from a Roloff home for adults were found guilty of abuse.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Although Texas abandoned its alternative accreditation program in 2001, those who wished to avoid state interference still had options. The Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA) was created to do the same thing TACCCA did in Texas. After Victory Christian Academy was closed down in Ramona, California, FACCCA welcomed them to open up in Jay, Florida, where they are still operating today (as Lighthouse Ministries of Northwest Florida), despite rape and abuse allegations by former teens who have exited the program. Many complaints have been made against FACCCA facilities, but because the association doesn't seem to require facilities to allow participants access to victims' services, it is impossible to provide statistical data about the actual occurrence of abuse. The allegations that have been made, however, indicate the absence of any real regulation by FACCCA.

One could argue that deregulated systems such as those in Texas and Florida are unconstitutional as they violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause by placing program participants in a less protected class than children in state-regulated programs. Likewise, one could assert that deregulation also violates the First Amendment's establishment clause by allowing special treatment for religious groups. And the quality of teachers at Christian reform schools is another issue. A staff member's background goes unchecked and they rarely have anything but a high school diploma, making them unsuitable candidates to teach certain subjects and work with kids who have mental health issues. One simply has to be a Christian and he or she is deemed suitable to work in the facility with kids.

Beyond the obvious damage such schools inflict on individuals is the danger that they may receive funding through faith-based initiatives, including President Obama's Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Under Bush's federal faith-based initiative, money was distributed in the form of block grants to the states, which were more or less free to spend it as they saw fit. There was no requirement that only licensed facilities be funded, unless a state had its own laws to that effect.

Another way fundamentalist boot camps like Victory Christian Academy can receive money is through state voucher programs. Under the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, there would be nothing to stop a state from funding a Christian reform school through vouchers as long as it was merely one choice among others. And because many proposed state voucher programs are aimed at "at-risk" or troubled youth, presumably this would make it more likely for Christian reform schools to be involved. Writing in the March issue of Church & State, Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State notes that state legislatures are increasingly becoming battlegrounds for Christian conservatives on issues such as religious-school voucher subsidies. "Religious and political groups that promote public aid to private education, aware that their influence in the U.S. Congress has dwindled, are placing renewed emphasis on state capitals" writes Boston. "At last count, fifteen states were considering some type of voucher or tuition tax credit/ deduction proposal. That number is expected to grow as legislative sessions continue in the states."

Boston acknowledges that many Americans are wary of vouchers because they know that private schools aren't accountable to the public and play by their own set of rules. But perhaps they aren't aware of the highly abusive nature of the rules at certain types of schools. Representative George Miller (D-CA) tried for several years to conduct an investigation into reform schools, but the Bush Administration thwarted his efforts. It wasn't until the Democrats took control of Congress in 2007 that he was given the opportunity to launch an investigation into the abuses he had heard so much about in relation to these types of facilities, which included boot camps and wilderness programs in remote areas of the United States. Miller held a full committee hearing in October 2007 that heard compelling testimony from parents whose children died in lockdown programs that were intended to reform them. It was a huge step forward in exposing abuse in alternative residential treatment facilities, some licensed and some not; some religious, some secular.

It is imperative that the public, parents especially, are aware of what goes on behind closed doors at some of these unlicensed camps and schools. Parents are under the assumption that they have taken their troubled teens to a loving place when, in fact, many of us who have exited these programs have similar stories of abuse, have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and struggle for years to overcome the low self-esteem incurred from the experience. Any parent who is thinking of putting their teen in one of these locked-down facilities needs to do their homework and check to see if it has a clean record with Social Services and the Better Business Bureau, and has no pending investigations with the Department of Health and Human Services. It is also critical that a school is licensed by the Department of Education to assure that the curriculum is up to benchmark standards. One can also check to see if a school or camp is on the watch list of the International Survivors Action Committee (www.isaccorp.org). Those that don't allow prospective clients to interview kids inside the program should not be considered. This policy usually means there is something the owners wish to hide from parents who are considering enrolling their troubled teen in the program.

2009 Update: Recent Events in Fort Dodge

Shortly after my memoir Reform at Victory was published in 2008, I received an email from a concerned citizen in Fort Dodge, Iowa, who stated that sixty-nine-year-old Michael Palmer was living there and was possibly trying to open another unlicensed reform school for troubled teens. After some discussion with her, I concluded that this was the same Mike Palmer I'd known. I contacted authorities as well as a local reporter to inform them of Palmer's presence in Fort Dodge and to tell them about his checkered past (which, in addition to the closure of the California site and rape allegations from a Florida student, includes a raid by Mexican authorities on the Genesis-by-the-Sea girls school he ran in Ensenada, Mexico, that was subsequently shut down). I then heard from reporter Abigail McWilliam from the Fort Dodge Messenger newspaper, who had started to dig for information and, in doing so, found out that there is an unlicensed reform school much like Victory that has been in operation since 1996 in Fort Dodge. This newfound information prompted a series of investigative pieces about my experience, Palmer's past trouble with the law, Lester Roloff, and The Anchor Character Training Center (an unlicensed facility in Fort Dodge from which many teens have escaped). She also tracked down Rebecca Ramirez, who says she was raped by Palmer while a resident at the Jay, Florida, home in the early 1990s. McWilliam's articles were published in the Messenger on February 27, 2009. It usually takes media coverage or the publication of a book to alert the Department of Health and Human Services to the existence of these abusive facilities. Of course, by the time an investigation is underway much abuse has taken place inside those walls and fences. Thankfully, since these stories have hit the Fort Dodge news circuit and word of my book has spread throughout the community, the citizens of Fort Dodge will see to it that Palmer doesn't open another reform school, at least not in their community. It pays to speak out.

Michele Tresler-Ulriksen was born and raised in Orange County, California, and spent a year at Victory Christian Academy, which is the basis of her first book, Reform at Victory (Pizan Media, 2008). As an adult she has studied film and creative writing at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco and spent four years in public radio in Oregon, where she still lives and works as a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in World Kid Magazine, Freethought Today, Willomette Freethinker, The Peaceworker, Humanist Stories, Red Room, Alternatives Magazine, and The Commuter. For more information please visit www.ReformAtVictory.com.
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Author:Tresler-Ulriksen, Michelle
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
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