Biblical Reform School Discipline: Tough Love or Abuse?

Two Missouri mothers say their daughters were traumatized at reform schools.

ByABC News
April 6, 2011, 1:19 PM

April 12, 2011— -- 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.

In 2008, an investigation by the federal Government Accountability Office revealed thousands of cases and allegations of child abuse and neglect since the early 1990s at teen residential programs throughout the country. The report also found major gaps in licensing and oversight.

The report found untrained staff, ineffective management and operating practices in these facilities.

"In the most egregious cases of death and abuse, the cases exposed problems with the entire operation of the program," according to the report.

Congressman George Miller, D-California, introduced the Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2009 to establish minimum health and safety standards, but although the bill twice passed the House, both times it failed in the Senate.

"You can't deprive kids of food and water," one Democratic aide to Miller told "You have to treat them humanely."

Just last year in Hiland Park, Fla., police removed 17 children from Heritage Boys Academy, a military school that taught fundamental Christian doctrine, arresting three, including the pastor, and shut down the facility.

Child welfare authorities said the children were often hit with sticks that were "nine fists long," and were sometimes choked or held down and beaten with fists.

The school officials plead not guilty to one charge of aggravated assault and five charges of child abuse, but the case has not yet gone to trial. A motion by the defense to dismiss is being heard on Friday, according to the clerk for the Bay County Courts..