Biblical Reform School Discipline: Tough Love or Abuse?

PHOTO Jeannie Marie sent her daughter Anne to an Independent Fundamental Baptist reform school in Missouri, which they claim was abusive.

Anne's rebellion against her large Christian family -- she was one of 10 children -- began after she was gang-raped last year while jogging in her Maryland neighborhood.

"Because of that the trauma, she started spiraling in every way possible," said her mother, Jeannie Marie, who did not want their last name made public.

Anne, now 18, said she numbed the pain with drinking and rebellion, which terrified her mother.

Desperate, Jeannie Marie turned to her church for help, learning about a Christian reform school that she says promised to "get right" her wayward daughter.

But neither was prepared for the ordeal they say Anne experienced from November to January of this year at New Beginnings Girls Academy, an Independent Fundamental Baptist boarding school in La Russell, Mo.

The school, according to its website, serves troubled teens so "through Jesus Christ, they can overcome their addictions, mend their broken relationships and get their lives on the right path."

Instead, Anne said she was told the rape was her fault and was subjected to harsh discipline -- ridiculed, restrained and deprived of proper nutrition and adequate clothing.

As punishment for misbehaving she says she was forced to wear a red shirt and stand facing a wall, sometimes for 8 to 10 hours a day with only 15-minute breaks for food. "I was so achy it hurt," said Anne.

She said toilet paper and sanitary pads were rationed, despite Anne's urinary problems after the rape. She also said no one offered to get her medical care.

"We thought maybe Anne would go there and hide out and pull herself together," said Jeannie Marie. "We thought it was a safe place to go and we wouldn't have to worry...We trusted our church."

Anne left the school in January, but said the punitive approach left her with no self-worth and anxiety attacks so bad she cannot breathe.

New Beginnings charges $10,300 a year, according to its admission application. On a signed form, parents agree to "corporal discipline," which is spelled out in their mission statement as up to 15 "swats" with a wooden paddle in each 24-hour period for misbehavior.

The school's mission also prohibits, "bringing civil lawsuits against other Christians or the church to resolve personal disputes."

Submission and obedience -- children to parents, wives to husbands and parishioners to "God's people," pastors and deacons -- are the tenets of Christian fundamentalism, according to Kathryn Joyce, author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

"These groups know what the outside world thinks of them and that some of it is considered abuse, but they consider it Biblical," said Joyce.

Missouri does not require its faith-based facilities to get a license and the state attorney general, "does not have any authority over them," according to AG spokeswoman Nanci Gonder. If there are allegations of physical abuse, parents are told to contact law enforcement.

Similarly, neither the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education nor the state board of education regulates or monitors faith-based schools under the home schooling law.

The Department of Social Services said the schools were not within their purview and only allegations of abuse and neglect that "meet statutory definition," are investigated.

The federal government, however, has shown concern about teen residential programs -- not all of them faith based -- and has pushed for more regulation.

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