How Christian Reform Schools Get Away with Brutal Child Abuse
Thanks to the legacy of a Texas pastor named Lester Roloff—and a glaring lack of oversight from state and local authorities—religious "schools" for troubled teens often operate with impunity.
Art by Lia Kantrowitz
Kimi Cook was 15 years old when she arrived at Lester Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi, Texas. Eager to end the teenager’s relationship with an older boyfriend, her parents pitched the place as an accelerated boarding school. Cook—who had previously done well on tests despite cutting classes at her San Antonio public school—eventually agreed to a month-long trial period.
Within hours of arriving, Cook learned she was no longer allowed to wear jeans, listen to rock music, or use tampons. She would also be required to attend church daily, memorize and chant from the Bible, and scrub her room early each morning. Disobedience was met with strict punishment ranging from revoked snack privileges to receiving “licks” with a wooden paddle, being put in an isolated closet, or being forced to kneel on linoleum for hours on end.
When she was allowed phone calls, Cook pleaded with her family to save her from what she remembered describing as a “jail” and “prison camp.” But three months in, she learned that no help was coming. As Cook recalled, a relative “explained to me that by signing the admittance paper, I had signed myself over into the care of the Roloff homes.”
By the time Cook started there, in 1983, the Southern Baptist Rebekah Home for Girls had already been the subject of state investigations spanning the previous decade, instigated in part by parents who witnessed a girl being whipped at the facility. In fact, Roloff had already temporarily closed the school—and the other homes he operated in Texas—after being prosecuted by the state on behalf of 16 former Rebekah Home for Girls residents. (Roloff grew even more notorious for exclaiming in court, “Better a pink bottom than a black soul.”)
After losing his last Supreme Court appeal in 1978, the Rebekah Home for Girls became the site of the “Christian Alamo,” where religious leaders formed a human chain around the place to defend against attempts to remove girls from Roloff’s care. The issue was eventually “resolved” by Governor Bill Clements, who Roloff himself had campaigned for. With an ally in office—Clements once said the closures amounted to “nitpicking” by his predecessor—Roloff transferred ownership of the homes from Roloff Enterprises to Roloff’s People’s Baptist Church; under this religious auspice, a state court ruled Roloff’s homes could operate without a license.
Roloff himself died in 1982, but by then he had established a strong tradition of exploiting the religious freedom loophole to shield suspect youth residential facilities from outside scrutiny. Somehow, that same loophole still exists across much of America today.
Cook escaped the school she hated when her older brother was killed in a car accident 11 months into her stay. The home was closed again in 1985 following pressure from the state, but reopened yet again in 1999, after Governor George W. Bush introduced religious exemptions for youth residential home regulations. The school operated until 2001, when a supervisor at Rebekah was convicted of unlawful restraint; finally, Texas laws were changed to require licensure for all youth homes—including religious ones.
Rebekah closed permanently in 2001, but at least some of its ex-employees helped found the New Beginnings Girls Academy in Missouri. This residence remains in operation despite state investigations into allegations of abuse. (VICE was unable to reach New Beginnings officials in connection with this story.)
Though Texas laws were changed amid the Roloff saga, many other state governments around the country lack the legal power to oversee religiously affiliated residential schools. Unlike personal religious exemptions, where an individual might argue that a law requiring, say, medical intervention, vaccination, or anti-discrimination violates his or her religious freedom, these facilities don't need to apply for special treatment. In many states, such exemptions are written directly into the laws meant to regulate residential youth facilities—that is, religious schools are never subject to the rules in the first place.
“The state passes the law for the regulation of residential facilities, and then they put, within that statute, a religious exemption,” Liz Sepper, a religious liberty expert and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. “You don’t need to apply, go into court for the exemption. The law never applied." Thus, many states allow religiously affiliated boarding schools to operate without registration, educational standards, background checks, or instructional certifications—even when institutions have long histories of abuse reports alleging Roloff-esque whippings, isolation rooms, and Bible memorization.
In 2010, Clayton “Buddy” Maynard’s Heritage Boys Academy in Panama City, Florida, closed following allegations of racial discrimination and severe corporal punishment. When the prosecution lost witnesses in 2011, a criminal case against Maynard was dropped; in 2012, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Maynard was once again housing children at Truth Baptist Church in Panama City. This past May, a GoFoundMe page raised $500 in support of Maynard and the “Maynard Family Children's Home.” Currently, he appears to operate the Truth Baptist Church in Panama City and, according to his Facebook profile, a “Truth for Troubled Youth Ministries.” (VICE was unable to reach Maynard for comment for this story.)
The same whack-a-mole pattern of scattershot oversight can be found across much of the country. Bobby Wills’s Bethesda Home for Girls in Mississippi closed in the 1980s following allegations of beatings with wooden boards, with operators moving on to the now closed Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy in Missouri. Alabama’s Reclamation Ranch was raided a decade ago following allegations of torture, yet founder Jack Patterson—who, according to his Facebook page, is a proud disciple of Roloff—continues to run an addiction-focused rehabilitation facility under the same name, now associated with Lighthouse Baptist Church. (Patterson has denied allegations of abuse at his facilities.) Yet another Baptist pastor, Michael Palmer, battled legal oversight over multiple decades and across multiple state and country-wide jurisdictions: In 1991, Palmer closed Victory Christian Academy after the state of California pushed for licensure.
One former student who attended Victory Christian described extended abuse at the school, including something called the “Get Right Room,” a small space where girls were punished with a version of solitary confinement. “You were brain-washed into thinking the abuse was good because the staff and the Lord loved your soul,” recalled Cherie Rife, now a holistic health practitioner in Irvine, California. Alleging that she was singled out for being a lesbian, Rife pointed to the religious justification that loomed above it all: “[Their] Baptist interpretation was used for fear and control and shaming.”
Palmer later helped found Genesis by the Sea, a facility located in Baja California that was closed in 2004 by the Mexican government; though the ensuing investigation asserted that claims of abuse were unsubstantiated, the school never reopened. Instead, Palmer redirected his attention to the Florida Panhandle and yet another residential reform home for girls: Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, which he closed in 2013 following an investigation into allegations of rape at the facility.
As Newsweek reported, Restoration Youth Academy in Prichard, Alabama, was yet another home operating under a modern incarnation of the Lester Roloff approach until 2012. The facility remained free from oversight until Charles Kennedy, the now retired captain of the Prichard Police Department, received a phone call from the mother of a boy who said he’d been abused at the facility. When I spoke with Kennedy, he recalled what he found at the home: a naked boy locked in a closet, widespread allegations of physical abuse, severe exercise, and sadistic mind games. Staff had even encouraged a suicidal student to shoot himself with a gun he didn’t know wasn’t loaded, Kennedy said.
Once the cop uncovered the dark history behind Restoration Youth Academy’s instructor William Knott—that his Bethel Boys Academy in Mississippi had been closed after a federal lawsuit alleging abuse—and obtained written statements from the boys, it took four years and reports to multiple local and statewide agencies for anything to be done. By then, Knott and Pastor David Young had closed Restoration Youth Academy and opened another facility in nearby Mobile County, Solid Rock Ministries. It’s a common move by religious leaders who know law enforcement have no way of monitoring the facilities, tracking their leaders, and compiling abuse allegations across jurisdictions, according to Marc Stern, general counsel at the American Jewish Committee and a leading expert on religious legal advocacy. “There’s a strong political tradition in the United States, for better or for worse, that education is a local matter controlled by local officials, and only extraordinary circumstances justify federal control.”
After Solid Rock Ministries was subject to its own allegation of abuse, a 2015 police raid found isolation rooms, deplorable conditions, and signs of corporal punishment at the Mobile, Alabama, facility. Earlier this year, Knott, Young, and counselor Aleshia Moffet were convicted and sentenced to 20 years each on aggravated child abuse charges. It was the only instance I could find where operators of religiously affiliated residential schools wrapped up in abuse allegations actually went to prison.
Kennedy has since dedicated his career to using that case as a precedent for nationwide reform; in the years following the prosecution of Knott and his accomplices, Kennedy partnered with Alabama state representative Steve McMillan on HB-440. The bill passed this past May and was signed into law by Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, on July 29. It’s a rare example of increased government regulation of religion in the Trump era—the new law imposes regulations on residential facilities and does not exclude religious institutions.
As Kennedy described it, the war he’s waging here is not against religious freedom, but for basic standards of human rights. “[The facilities] can operate here, and we’re not going to charge [them] a nickel,” he said. The new law requires facilities to alert the county Department of Human Resources upon admittance of new students, conduct background checks on employees, accurately describe programming to parents, avoid restraints or abusive punishments, provide medical care, feed the children sanitary and nutritious meals three times daily, allow residents to practice their own religious beliefs, and more. “We’re just saying that if you take children into your care and custody for more than 24 hours, we should know that they are in a safe place,” Kennedy told me.
Kennedy, who views this saga as a “national disgrace,” has set his sights on changing laws in Missouri next, and plans to battle for regulation across the country. Though he faces opposition from those eager to exploit the religious freedom loophole, the pattern of abuse begs the question: How does hiding behind the law to abuse children represent Christian ideals?
Actually, plenty of Christian leaders say it doesn’t.
“Carefully considered partnerships between government institutions and religious institutions can assist the government in meeting one of its highest duties: protecting children,” Jennifer Hawks, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, told me. “Religious freedom does not require—and should not claim to support—exemptions that harm the state’s duty of protecting children.”
Kimi Cook has returned to the site of the Rebekah Home for Girls two times since she lived there more than 30 years ago; most recently, she visited with two of her three children this past September on the tail end of Hurricane Harvey. Along the way, she found a clue into her past: a copy of the 1983–1984 yearbook, covering the period during which Cook lived at Rebekah. Upon locating her photo, she was overcome with emotion: “It was not revulsion, it was not upset, or sad, or angry. It was almost like finding a lost piece of myself,” she said. Today, Cook continues to struggle with the trauma inflicted upon her at Rebekah—but hope comes in the form of support from her family, and, now, a chance at finding long-lost friends listed in that yearbook.
She’s one of a growing number of survivors of abusive religious reform schools left to their own devices over the course of a long tradition of official neglect. Organizations like HEAL and Fornits offer online record-keeping of abuse allegations against religious youth homes, resources for parents who might be considering these institutions.
Perhaps most important, they serve as confirmation for people like Cook that they are not alone.
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