Youth facility in Marion under fire for its tactics
New Horizons official says problems of the past are being solved
BY TERESA AUCH
MARION -- New Horizons Youth Ministries, a conservative Christian school based in Marion since 1981, is at the heart of a controversy over the treatment of children in its care. But the academy's chief operating officer says problems of the past are being solved and the school continues to care all its former students even those who are now campaigning against the school.
"When push comes to shove, we love our kids," Chuck Redwine, chief operating officer of New Horizons, said. "Even the stinkers."
The school has a current enrollment of 63 children, placed in the school by parents in an effort to remedy behavior problems. New Horizon uses a boot-camp atmosphere to place children onto what school officials believe to be the right road for life.
A handful of protesters showed at a Founder's Day celebration this month at the Marion campus.
"We want people to ask us about our experiences in the program, educate those who didn't know about the program and let students see that we are rooting for them," said Lisa Brown Wilbur of New Castle as she held a sign reading "Stop the Abuse."
The protesters painted a picture of complete dictation, a life completely monitored by counselors.
"They infantilize the students and force them to be supervised at all times," David Hupp of Chicago said.
Author: 'Tough-love' programs prey on parents' fears
By NICK WERNER
MARION -- American parents are outsourcing child abuse to tough-love programs such as the Marion-based New Horizons Youth Ministry in response to behavioral problems that typical adolescents outgrow, according to author Maia Szalavitz.
Szalavitz said she was familiar with New Horizons, though it was not included in her book Help at any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids.
"These programs scare parents into thinking that if your kid is smoking pot and drinking, he's going to be dead tomorrow," Szalavitz said. "These are parents who did it themselves."
Techniques for transforming the teenagers vary from starvation, sleep deprivation, humiliation and physical abuse to gagging them with tampons and denying them access to toilets, Szalavitz said.
The recent growth in tough-love programs has been aided by several factors, including media "fear-mongering" and a growth in conservative religious ideologies, according to the author.
Statistics show today's teen is less likely to have unsafe sex or experiment with alcohol and most drugs than teens 20 years ago, Szalavitz said. Their Baby Boomer parents, however, are shipping them to tough-love camps in increasing numbers.
"How good these kids are doing is amazing," Szalavitz said. "It's a massively undercovered story. People want teens to be doing badly because it makes better news."
The idea that you have to hurt someone to help them is as old as the juvenile justice system itself, Szalavitz said.
"Everybody keeps re-inventing the same crooked wheel," she said.
In Help at any Cost, Szalavitz traces the troubled teen industry roots to a cult called Synanon, founded in 1958. The group claimed to cure heroin addiction. Its techniques, including forced confessions, imposed powerlessness and "attack therapy," were replicated across the United States.
Synanon's founder was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after placing a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an attorney.
The group bankrupted, but it's legacy lives on, Szalavitz said.
In 2004, the National Institutes on Health released a statement saying that teen programs that used "fear and tough treatment" don't work and that there is some evidence that they make behavioral problems worse.
Szalavitz, who is herself a recovered drug addict, said the most effective treatments for truly troubled teens are out-patient family therapies.
Most behavioral problems that appear in adolescence can be blamed on youthful indiscretion and are outgrown, Szalavitz said.
"What you have is a teenager," she said.
Maia Szalavitz is the author of the critically acclaimed "Help At Any Cost: How The Troubled Teen
Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids", Riverhead Press 2006
MORE INFORMATION & RESOURCES:
ISAC Watchlistof Abusive Private Programs and Facilities for Children and Teens
CHILD TORTURE USA - Fraudulent and Abusive "Treatment" Centers for Children & Young Adults
In the Caribbean: Founded in 1971, New Horizons began by taking students with behavioral problems off to a Caribbean mission field to do service projects. Today, students usually stay about one year at the campus near Jarabacao in the Dominican Republic, West Indies. The campus includes more than 20 buildings on 25 acres in the mountains.
In Canada: In 1976, the school established the Missanabie Woods (Survival) Academy in Northern Ontario. Located on about 580 acres on Dog Lake, New Horizons developed a campus for summer school, which accommodates about 100 people.
In Marion: On December 9, 1982, the Roosevelt Elementary building -- three miles southeast of Marion at 1002 S. Grant County Road 350-E -- was purchased from Marion Public Schools to be used as a headquarters facility and a boarding school. The 120-acre facility was named New Horizons Academy. It opened its doors to the public Sept. 1, 1983. Over the next few years, four student homes and three staff homes were added to the campus, according to the New Horizons Web site. Before returning home, most students stay at the Marion campus in order to "test the waters" of returning home or attend college at a local Christian university.
Students: The three sites combined currently have 63 students.
Tuition: The base rate of $6,000 a month is prorated based on the financial status of parents.
Online: The New Horizons Web site is www.nhym.org
New Horizons has campuses in the Dominican Republic and Canada. Many of the abuse claims are related to the Dominican's Escuela Caribe (See JESUS LAND)campus. School opponents say that having some operations based in the Dominican, where there is no direct outside oversight, means officials can get away with methods that would not be acceptable in the United States.
However, school officials say the program was based in Central America to get the teenagers out of their comfort zone. "The philosophy is this -- sometimes there's so much pain in a family that you've got to get away from that pain," said Redwine.
Redwine admits the school's past has not been free of inappropriate treatment of students by staff. He started working at Escuela Caribe in 1981 and left in 1984. Relations between students and staff began to deteriorate at about that time, according to Redwine.
"That was not a good year for us down there," he said. "Were we too physical and rough on kids at times? Yeah."
Redwine said the home-life director had gotten tired and the couple overseeing the teenagers lost control of them. He also described the time as being more violent, and admits that wrestling matches took place, pitting staff against students.
Working to correct mistakes
The school asked Redwine to go back to the Dominican to straighten things out in 1984, he said. He joined the Marion campus in the spring this year.
Redwine says he has worked to make changes so past mistakes won't happen again. Staff members now receive six weeks of training; before they received little or none.
Former student David Gann, who graduated in May this year, said the program did go too far sometimes and recounted one incident where he was thrown to the ground by his shirt because he stepped in front of a woman.
Unlike the detractors, though, Gann said that overall the school helped turn him around from what would have been a destructive lifestyle.
"Overall, it did its job well," Gann said. "It wasn't perfect, you know, it wasn't fun, but for what needed to happen in my life and my family's life ... it did it very well."
Gann said he could understand how some people could feel abused by the program but that he would still recommend it.
Rules for restraining children have become more stringent -- in the 1980s, employees would often physically fight with students when they began to act violently.
The school's policy now says two adults must be involved in the restraint, and that physical contact must be a last resort. Staff training includes techniques to calm students down.
Redwine has also tried to encourage an open-door policy by the school, he said.
All of the New Horizons schools are accredited, and the governments inspect the schools in Indiana and Canada yearly.
Redwine is now in talks with an accreditation council to review the non-academic portion of Escuela Caribe. Otherwise, the school relies on checks by the U.S. Consulate in the Dominican as some degree of outside oversight there.
The U.S. Consulate says that it has not seen any behavior that would cause concern.
But perhaps the biggest change for the school's program has yet to come. The school is abandoning the practice of hitting students with a leather paddle.
If students do something wrong the school's program requires they face consequences.
Punishment can be anything from writing a sentence repeatedly to swats -- use of the paddle to strike a student's bottom and upper legs.
Redwine said the school does plan on doing away with the swats, which most of the detractors have spoken out against. But he said the school does not intend to lighten up on students.
When students first enter, they are put at the bottom of a ranking scale that has them following a military lifestyle. Beds must be made with sheets tucked in with 45-degree corners. Shirts must all hang facing the same way. Labels on toiletry bottles must be pointed outward.
Initially the structure overtakes the student, Redwine said.
"Boom, 6 o'clock, you jump out of bed and everyone around you explodes and begins to make their beds," he said.
For new students, life is especially strict. They are required to ask for permission to do the most basic of tasks -- entering and leaving a room, beginning to eat and going to the bathroom.
Current student Kelsey Frey, 16, said she had a hard time adjusting, but in the end the schedule helped her organize her life.
"When I first came, I was like 'Are you serious?'" Frey said. "It really just helps you get into a routine ... and it kind of makes you better, a more responsible person."
Part of the reasoning for the severity, Redwine said, is to make sure the youths, who are usually angry at being sent away from home, don't react violently and do something that could hurt themselves or someone else. But the school also wants students submitting to structure and authority.
"First thing you have to do when you have kids in chaos is you have to get order out of the chaos," Redwine said.
Students are evaluated with a point sheet on issues such as cooperation, respect for others, hygiene and honesty. If they earn enough points, they can increase their rank and earn more freedom and privileges.
Redwine points out the level system and rigidity is often how residential programs operate, including non-religious ones.
Polly Craig, director of admission at the Youth Opportunity Center in Muncie, says her program utilizes many of the techniques New Horizons practices.
For instance, students at the YOC also have to ask when they can eat and leave a room, she said.
"That's pretty much the norm," she said.
The YOC also has a strict schedule and makes students do chores as a way of teaching them responsibility.
Cathy Grahm, executive director of IARCCA -- the Indiana Association of Residential Child Care Agencies, which accredits New Horizons -- said using a level system to encourage changes in behavior is common. The policy of two-person restraints is also common and would have been approved, along with all of New Horizons practices, in the school's license with the Indiana Department of Child Services.
However, it is not unusual for people to see the programs as going too far.
"I can tell you through 25 years of experience, sometimes allegations are made that sound very fantastic and something's misinterpreted or misconstrued along the way," Grahm said.
That's not to say real problems do not happen at the school, she said, but as for New Horizons, just one person has ever filed a complaint with her office, and the person had not been a student or a parent of a student.
The Marion campus has had its problems. In 1994, New Horizons employee Rob George, who now works as a copy editor for The Star Press, was convicted of sexual misconduct with a minor. The conviction sprang from one occasion, when George kissed a 15-year-old female student and fondled her breast over her clothing. He says that he had no other sexual contact with students.
George was in the Dominican for all but about a year from 1989 to 1993. The incident took place when he worked as a house father in 1994 in Marion. He pleaded guilty and spent three years in counseling, along with serving six months in jail.
"I really feel sad and ashamed it happened," he said.
Although most house fathers truly loved the students, George said, he knew of two or three who were on power trips. He said he could easily picture them forcing students to do humiliating things -- such as urinate on themselves.
A year ago freelance journalist Julia Scheeres published a book, Jesus Land. The book documents the time she and her brother spent at Escuela Caribe.
According to the book, her brother and she suffered physical abuse from New Horizons. At one point, she writes about her brother getting punched in the stomach after failing to answer a question in class.
About 25 former students have written about their time at the program at www.nhym-alumni.org, a Web site devoted to school opponents. Most report being there from 1991 to 1997. The most current former student on the site left in 1999.
Although stories vary, some students report being thrown around, grabbed by their throats, forced to do push-ups until their arms gave out and being violently thrown against walls.
Scheeres has bitter memories of the founder.
"I have nothing but contempt for the school's happily-deceased founder, Gordon Blossom, who threatened to 'strip me naked and beat me black and blue' when I was 17," Scheeres wrote in her online blog. "Too bad his reform school cash cow didn't die along with him."
School officials are unsure just how successful the campaign against them has been.
Enrollment has been down by about 20 students, Redwine said, but the drop started several years ago, before the negative publicity.
The school was first established in the Caribbean 1971 by Blossom. Generally students come from the Midwest, but some current students are from California, New York and Alaska, Hatland said. Most students come to the school through word-of-mouth from former students, parents and staff members, she said.
The school has a maximum tuition of $6,000 a month per student, although the tuition is based on the parents' income.
In an attempt to combat the negative publicity, New Horizons plans on adding a link on its Web sites where former students, parents and staff members can leave positive feedback. Otherwise, Redwine said the school has stopped trying to address the complaints.
" Sinners go to: HELL. Rightchuss go to: HEAVEN. The end is neer: REPENT. This here is: JESUS LAND."
Julia Scheeres stumbles across these signs along the side of a cornfield while out biking with her adopted brother, David. It's the mid-1980s, they're sixteen years old and have just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees and trailer parks-and a racism neither of them is prepared for. While Julia is white, her close relationship with David, who is black, makes them both outcasts. At home, a distant mother-more involved with her church's missionaries than with her own children - and a violent father only compound their problems. When the day comes that high-school hormones, bullying, and a deep-seated restlessness prove too much to bear, the parents send Julia and David to the Dominican Republic - to
a reform school there. In this riveting memoir, first-time author Scheeres takes us with her from the Midwest to a place beyond our imagining. Surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe is governed by a disciplinary regime that demands its teens repent for their sins under abusive boot-camp conditions. Julia and David's determination to make it through with heart and soul intact is told here with immediacy, candor, sparkling humor, and not a note of malice.
Becky Fischer says in the "Jesus Camp" documentary: "The extreme liberals, they have to look at this and start shaking in their boots at what these kids will be like when they grow up. I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ, as the young people are to the cause of Islam." Fischer runs Kids on Fire, a summer camp for evangelical Christians that's nestled in Devil's Lake, N.D.
It's a desperate situation for many parents -- their child is unruly, rebellious, and out-of-control, and they don't know where to turn. Many find hope in private schools that promise a "faith based" program. In Florida, these private schools are allowed to operate with virtually no state oversight. We've looked inside two of these private academies here in Northwest Florida, and tonight, in the first of three reports, we'll hear from former students and parents who told Channel Three's Mollye Barrows their "Secrets in the Schoolhouse." "We just want to save these little girls," says 27-year-old Jennifer Connolly as she stands outside Victory Christian Academy, protesting the private, faith-based school.
HELL CAMPS FOR JESUS?
An On-Going Series About the Controversy Surrounding Faith-Based TOUGHLOVE Schools, Camps & Programs for Kids
One of the primary goals of President George W. Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives is "to eliminate unnecessary legislative, regulatory, and other bureaucratic barriers that impede effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems." Bush has said that America needs more "faith-based treatment" for addiction and juvenile delinquency and that he would like to "promote alternative licensing regimes to recognize religious training as an alternative form of qualification." Bad idea. Even leaving aside the dubious constitutionality of government financial support for religious services, deregulation is a recipe for disaster. Recent experience shows why.
New Horizons Youth Ministries, a conservative Christian school based in Marion since 1981, is at the heart of a controversy over the treatment of children in its care. But the academy's chief operating officer says problems of the past are being solved and the school continues to care for all its former students even those who are now campaigning against the school.
Evangelist Lester Roloff drew a line in the dirt to keep the State of Texas from regulating his Rebekah Home for Girls. Years later, George W. Bush's plan to free faith-based institutions from government rules handed Roloff's disciples a
long-sought victory. But this Alamo had no heroes - only victims like DeAnne Dawsey.
On the evening of Aug. 8, Dan Skerritt's home phone rang. Skerritt, a founding partner of a downtown law firm, couldn't understand the hysterical teenage girl on the line and handed the phone to his wife, Irina. She recognized the caller as Allison Tobey, her daughter Katrina's best friend. "She was crying," Irina recalls. "It was hard to get her to talk or to find out what was wrong."
SEYMOUR( CT) A town man sentenced to 20 years in a psychiatric hospital for trying to kill his parents by burning down their house has won a $900,000 judgment against a Southern Christian military boot camp where he said he was tortured. Joseph Gabriel Paolillo and his father, Joseph Peter Paolillo, won the judgment in Mississippi federal court Monday against the Bethel Boys Academy of Lucedale, Miss. The elder Paolillo was awarded $59,709 in damages.
A few years ago, Lynn Paddock sought Christian advice on how to discipline her growing brood of adopted children.
North Carolina: A Johnston County mother accused of murdering Sean, her 4-year-old adopted son, and beating two other adopted children -- surfed the Internet, said her attorney, Michael Reece. She found literature by an evangelical minister and his wife who recommended using plumbing supply lines to spank misbehaving children. Paddock ordered Michael and Debi Pearl's books and started spanking her adopted children as suggested. After Sean, the youngest of Paddock's six adopted children, died last month, his older sister and brother told investigators about Paddock's spankings.