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Reformatory CP - November 2002
St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 17 November 2002
Acting On Faith
Reform Schools Find A Haven Here
Missouri requires no state license for faith-based child residential centers. The schools say their time-tested approach to righting troubled teens works.
By Matthew Franck
Teens are sent to religious reform schools in Missouri from all over the nation by the hundreds, but no one knows exactly how many. They are confined for months or years on at least a half-dozen remote, rural campuses, but no one knows the precise number of schools that dot the state's woods and farmlands.
The teens are plunged into a regimen of Bible discipline - where some say they are paddled daily for misbehavior, where several schools ban them from dialing a phone, and where workers screen all outgoing mail.
Many have emerged years later to recount stories of mistreatment and ridicule; others praise the ministries for reclaiming them from the despair of street life. But state authorities can't know how all these teens are treated. And that's how Missouri lawmakers want it.
Missouri is one of a handful of states that do not require faith- based child residential facilities to get a state license. So unless officials are investigating a report of child abuse, state authorities cannot inspect the reform schools, monitor their quality or know how many they enroll or where they are.
As a result, Missouri has become a magnet for a breed of strict schools that could not operate in most other states. In fact, several of the reform schools have come to Missouri after being exiled elsewhere.
Chief among them is Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy near Patterson, Mo., a ministry that shut down in Mississippi in 1986 after years of abuse allegations, legal proceedings and a court order to remove all of its students.
More than two dozen former students interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say they were mistreated by the ministry. Some -- particularly those who attended in Mississippi -- recount heavy paddlings, and many women say their menstrual cycles were interrupted at the school, presumably because of stress.
"Your inner self is destroyed from the moment you walk in the door, " said Collin Poetting, who attended Mountain Park from 1994 to 1996.
Still, Mountain Park has prospered in Missouri. Parents praise the school's strict approach for rescuing their children when no one else could. "Our child met Christ at this institution," said David Schock of Grand Haven, Mich., whose son attends the school. "In terms of changing his life, it was close to a miracle - no, it was a miracle."
Mountain Park and similar schools have for years been able to defeat legislative efforts to regulate them. By citing religious freedom, the schools have counted on the support of a legislature that is hesitant to interfere with faith-based institutions. That hands-off approach stood even after a student at Mountain Park was killed in 1996 by three others, apparently in a plot to take over the school.
Since then, the unregulated teen reform industry has boomed in Missouri. In the past six years alone, at least four rigid reform schools have opened in the state, attracting hundreds of teens from across the country. Among the larger new schools are Agape Boarding School, which enrolls 125 boys near Stockton; Thanks to Calvary Boarding School, with 65 boys and girls near Devil's Elbow; and Heartland Christian Academy, with about 150 boys and girls near Bethel.
And judging from the expansion plans of several ministries, the state's faith-based teen reform industry is thriving. Thriving, because the schools have tapped into a niche market of desperate parents, many of whom got results and spread the word. Thriving, because those parents are willing to gamble as much as $14,000 a year on the hope that strict discipline will rescue their uncontrollable children. But thriving most of all because year after year Missouri lawmakers have rejected legislation that would require the schools to obtain state licenses.
Here, the schools have friends in the Legislature who passionately defend the ministries and their religious rights amid continued allegations of abuse. Here, the schools have found a safe harbor.
A shared formula
If Missouri's unregulated reform schools have anything in common, it's seclusion. The schools are set up in the far corners of rural Missouri, and many can be found only by traveling down obscure gravel roads.
Mountain Park, for example, is so remote that even the postal worker in nearby Patterson struggles to give meaningful directions. The isolation is intentional, and the schools' low profiles are protected under state law.
An unlicensed program in Missouri is not required to register with the state or even present proof that it is a faith-based institution that should be exempt from regulation. "Even knowing where these homes are would be a start," said Carmen Schulze of the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies. "But I can't even get a list."
Four of the larger unlicensed schools - Heartland, Mountain Park, Agape and Thanks to Calvary - follow a remarkably similar formula. Each requires that parents enroll children for a minimum of a year. Students adhere to a strict schedule that includes hours of worship and chores. They are told that their problems are rooted in sin, not diagnosable illnesses. And they are punished for failing to memorize passages of Scripture or for having the wrong attitude.
They can receive phone calls only from their parents, and even then only for a few minutes every two weeks. Letters they write are screened by staff, though many former students of Mountain Park say they also were censored.
And because the schools are unregulated, they can operate almost entirely on their own terms. The schools hire whomever they want, regardless of credentials. They shun modern psychotherapy and require that children empty bottles of Ritalin and Prozac before enrolling. They control a youth's mode of worship, communication and behavior in a way that no licensed program or even juvenile detention center could.
But that's not to say the schools have completely skirted government involvement. Because the schools are still subject to child abuse laws, officials have the authority to investigate reports of mistreatment. And several schools have been stung by allegations.
A limited view
At Hope Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, a small school that had enrolled fewer than a dozen boys in St. James, a pastor is facing felony abuse charges for repeatedly paddling a student. And at Heartland Christian Academy, several workers were charged with criminal child abuse for forcing youths to shovel in deep manure as a punishment and for excessive paddling. But nearly all those charges have been dropped or dismissed by juries.
Administrators of the schools say the abuse inquiries illustrate that even though their operations are not licensed, the state has enough authority to keep their ministries in line. "The state has every law it needs to inspect a school like this," said Jim Clemensen, who operates Agape Boarding School. Heartland founder Charles N. Sharpe is more critical of the state' s intervention. He describes those who have investigated him as "evil."
And like many pastors at the state's reform schools, Sharpe blames society and its public institutions for destroying youths. He said he's merely trying to clean up the mess. "Abuse is kids on drugs and alcohol, and it's 13-year-olds getting pregnant," Sharpe said.
Heartland, along with Agape and Thanks to Calvary, allowed a reporter to visit and interview students recently. Inside, numerous teens praised the ministries and could be seen hugging and laughing with school leaders. "I know I'm changing, but when I first got here I was at my worst, " said Leigha, who has attended Heartland for over a year.
The visits also turned up signs of the reform schools' rigor. At Heartland, several boys said they have been paddled nearly every day for bad behavior. Others said they would escape if they could, even if it meant being sent to the harshest juvenile detention facility. Getting a complete picture of how reform schools truly operate is impossible.
Because the newer schools have been open for less than six years, they have few graduates who can speak freely of their time there. Some of the schools are so young, in fact, that most of their original students still are enrolled in the program. But Mountain Park is different. Mountain Park has hundreds of alumni who have sorted through experiences for years. Mountain Park has a history.
A troubling history
The school's past is relived today by numerous former students who say they were mistreated at the school. Mountain Park administrators would not grant interviews or allow the Post-Dispatch to tour their facilities and meet with students. The school did provide a list of supportive parents and alumni who in interviews dismissed critics as a vocal minority.
But the school's detractors have congregated by the dozens in Internet support groups. Their accounts are consistent with one another and span decades of the ministry. They also are backed by numerous former students who are quoted in court documents and news articles. Each attended either Mountain Park, which opened in Missouri in 1987, or Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys, which were operated by Mountain Park founders Bob and Betty Wills from the early 1970s to 1987 in Hattiesburg, Miss.
Some former students told the Post-Dispatch of severe corporal punishment, including so-called "board parties," where they said several students received as many as 50 swats. There is some evidence the school has curtailed its use of the paddle in the past few years, but the school's tactics continue to come under fire. This summer, a suit filed by Jordan Blair, an Arkansas teen, claimed the school abused him by cutting off communication to his lawyer, limiting him to two bathroom visits a day, and administering various forms of corporal punishment on boys at the school.
Those kinds of allegations date nearly to the ministry's inception in Mississippi. In 1982, civil rights lawyer Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, became aware of a pregnant 19-year-old who claimed she was being swatted and denied the right to leave. In the court proceedings that followed, several students would testify of abuse. A medical expert also testified that nearly half of the female students had menstrual complications because of intense stress. Court documents include accounts of a girl who was reportedly swatted 25 to 30 times. Her offense: slashing her wrists in an apparent suicide attempt.
Dees' efforts resulted in a court settlement in which the school agreed to tone down its use of corporal punishment, allow students to communicate freely through mail and telephones, and report any menstrual problems to parents. The agreement came with no admission of wrongdoing by the ministry, and no employees were charged with criminal child abuse. But Bob Wills refused to abide by the settlement and was convicted of contempt of court.
Ultimately, the state decided in 1986 to remove from the home 117 teens, dozens of whom described some form of mistreatment. That final act sent the Willses to Missouri, where friendly laws gave the ministry a new start. Dan Wise was the interim youth court judge who ordered the state to remove teens from the Mississippi schools. When he learned that the schools' founders planned to move to Missouri, he sent documents to Missouri officials warning of the schools' history. But Wise and others say Missouri had no interest in the information. "We were told real quick that Missouri can take care of itself," said Erik Lowrey, a lawyer who worked for years to close the Mississippi ministry.
Today, Mountain Park and similar reform schools are flourishing in Missouri. And they have the support of federal and state courts, which have historically supported parents in their right to raise and educate their children almost entirely as they see fit. Parents pick the school and pick the church, and when their child gets out of control, they decide whether to turn to a therapist or to a member of the clergy.
That fundamental principle has long been a key legal defense of religious reform schools like those in Missouri. Lawyer David Gibbs III has defended numerous religious teen programs nationwide. He said the fact that teens at the schools are compelled to worship a certain way or spend hours memorizing the Bible isn't relevant. If society didn't allow parents to make decisions against their children's wishes, few would attend school.
But Gibbs acknowledges that while a teen's rights are limited, a parent's rights are not limitless. Parents, he said, cannot legally send children to a place that abuses children. The question is what constitutes abuse.
Bob Schwartz, who heads the Juvenile Law Association in Philadelphia, said there's "no clear line" when it comes to determining how much liberty can be taken away from a youth before he or she has been abused. "Those boundaries are not precisely drawn," said Schwartz, whose nonprofit group defends the legal rights of children.
What is clear is that teens at reform schools have far fewer rights than children convicted of crimes by the courts. Teens in a juvenile detention center have access to legal representation, and the system is structured to make sure children are placed in the right kind of program.
Reforms have failed, most recently a bill that would have merely required the reform schools to register with the state. Some credit the political influence of Sharpe, who is one of the state's leading political contributors. But others say the resistance roots from a more general distaste for regulation among Missouri lawmakers, especially when those regulations deal with faith-based institutions.
"Something mentioned in the name of religion is held in high esteem and sacred trust," said state Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis, who has favored regulation for years.
Mountain Park's legislative supporters include state Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, who was pictured in a recent school newsletter and defended the school's track record in a Missouri Senate hearing this year. Foster said in an interview last week that he has visited Mountain Park several times and has spoken to numerous parents and students who praise the ministry. "I would not try to protect anybody," he said. "I say it like I see it."
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, said he has yet to see a reason why the reform schools should be licensed. "You would have to make a compelling case for them to be regulated, " he said. But Kinder said he was unaware of Mountain Park's history in Mississippi. When told of the allegations of abuse from former students, he said he would be open to investigating the issue and would not rule out favoring some sort of regulation.
A suit filed this summer seeks to change how Mountain Park does business by asking a federal judge to mandate reforms. That legal technique ultimately shut down the Mountain Park ministry when it operated in Mississippi. But something else was happening in Mississippi that ultimately led to the closure of Bethesda. Over the years, as teens escaped the Mississippi home to tell of abuse and mistreatment, local authorities grew suspicious. So when runaways were picked up, the local sheriff eventually stopped taking them back to the school. Instead, they wound up in Lowery's office, and the lawyer often would win their release.
Students run away from Mountain Park, too, into the deep forest or toward the neighboring small towns. Wayne County Sheriff Larry W. Plunkett guesses his officers pick up a few a year. They complain about the school, he said. But he hasn't heard anything that would lead him to believe they are being abused. Teens with their background, he said, are bound to complain about rules and discipline. So the runaways are rounded up in a squad car and hauled back up the long gravel road to Mountain Park, leaving their stories of life inside to be told another day.
St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 18 November 2002
The Graduates Are Divided Between "Survivors", Supporters
Acting On Faith -- Reform Schools In Retrospect
Detractors Allege Destruction Of The Individual, While Backers Claim New Leases On Life
By Matthew Franck
Nearly 20 years later, Cheryl Wright and Cindy Tindle Restivo remember the swats that never seemed to end, and with each stinging blow, the required reply of "Thank you, mama." Linda Morrison Carlyle was spared the paddle in the early 1980s but saw the grapefruit-size bruises on her classmates' legs and backs.
Casie Compton's duty seven years ago was to accompany a 13-year-old who was paddled regularly until she stopped crying for her mother. They are, by their accounts, alumni of the same nightmare. And they are haunted not just by the strict discipline, but the control, and with it the loneliness of being trapped where letters home were censored, where friendships were cut off and where you couldn't talk about your past, your struggles and your hurt.
Yet, many of their classmates tell it differently, recalling a loving ministry that saved them from the dangers of youth. "I'm glad I went, I needed to get away from where I was," said Erin Allen of Stockbridge, Ga. "It completely changed my life."
Each is among the hundreds who have enrolled at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, near Poplar Bluff, Mo., and other teen reform homes run by Bob and Betty Wills and their family over the past 25 years.
Throughout its history, the ministry has been praised by satisfied families and condemned by former students and government officials.
In 1986, abuse allegations led a judge to remove teens from reform schools operated by the Willses in Mississippi. Today, Mountain Park operates in Missouri free of regulation, and many say their children were reclaimed by the school's mix of Bible teachings and corporal punishment.
Supporters say the work of separating teens from a dangerous and even deadly lifestyle can't always be pretty, and they dismiss critics as a loud but small minority who refused to accept the help the school offered them. Many happy alumni maintain close ties with school administrators. They send them Christmas cards, wedding announcements and baby photos.
But for other former students, Mountain Park is a dark trench they can't climb out of. They call themselves "survivors." They huddle on Internet support groups by the dozens. They pay therapists to treat their stress. They bemoan the fact that no one -- not even their loved ones -- can seem to fully understand what the school took from them.
Mountain Park's stated goal, in a nutshell, is to separate teens from the ungodly. The ministry dates to the 1970s, when the Willses operated the Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys near Hattiesburg, Miss. Over the years, the reform schools have typically enrolled about 125 to 200 students at a time, about three-fourths of whom are girls.
Few teens go willingly to Mountain Park, unless they are tricked. Some are taken by force by bodyguards or transport services that take teens from their beds and drive them across the country in sedans with safety locks.
Carrie Nutt went reluctantly to Mountain Park in 1994, but she wasn't bound and forced to the school. She hoped the place might bring peace to what had been a troubled adolescence. She wanted an end to the screaming fights with parents over curfews, her marijuana use and sexual activity. She was weary of the counseling that went nowhere, and the dead-end treatment programs.
So when her parents had come to the end of their rope, when they had picked a boarding school with a tranquil name hundreds of miles from their home in Seattle, Nutt relented. As she approached the school for the first time on an August morning, she even got a little excited, envisioning the serene intellectual setting of a New England college-prep school.
Today, she can recount each detail of her rude awakening. She remembers the heavily perfumed lobby and dainty flowered wallpaper that didn't match her image of a preppy boarding school. She remembers seeing the word "Baptist" in the school's name for the first time and wondering why her nonreligious parents would drop her off at a religious school.
She remembers being escorted downstairs to a dorm room where she asked girls in culottes and T-shirts lots of questions. Some refused to engage in conversation, others offered rehearsed takes on the sinful world outside, leaving little doubt about what life inside the school would be like. When Nutt panicked and tried to leave, the other girls gained control of her with the methodical orchestration of bees in a hive.
She was told she had 60 seconds to say goodbye to her parents, which she used to scream and beg to go back home. As her parents walked away, she ran after them, before being restrained and brought inside. Nutt said she was taken to the shower. She and other former students say they were observed by workers as they shed their teen fashions, trading pants for skirts, and halter tops for modest blouses. Nutt said she was criticized for her "worldly" underwear. And with that, Nutt was introduced to Mountain Park's time-tested formula for treating resistant teens.
The school's parent handbook outlines the basics. All new students are placed on orientation, where they cannot be more than a few feet away from their student guide. For the first few weeks, students can speak to virtually no one and their communication with family members is cut off. After three weeks, their parents can call, but even then only for 10 minutes every two weeks. Parents cannot visit the school for three months, and students cannot go home for a year.
For academics, the school uses a Bible-based curriculum called Schools of Tomorrow. Students study individually in cubicles at their own pace using workbooks and prepared tests. Many students said they never saw a teacher give a lecture. Those who don't go along with the routines are punished in a variety of ways. Some are given more chores, some are made to write out-lines, and others are paddled.
And the handbook leaves little doubt of the myriad ways students can fall under condemnation. Even if students memorize every verse, complete every chore and sing every hymn, they can be punished for their "sullenness."
Kathy Neville, whose son attends Mountain Park, said she knows the school's methods may sound severe. But Neville, who does not share the school's fundamentalist faith, said she had tried everything to turn around her son, including professional therapy.
Neville, of Grand Haven, Mich., is a lawyer and former social worker who says she has worked for years in jobs related to mental health. She won't discuss the specifics of her son's condition but says he needs an extraordinarily rigid environment, with hard rules and predictable routines. He also needs to be isolated from negative peer pressure, which is something state-run juvenile programs were unable to provide. "The kind of structure they have in their program is very consistent with good behavioral practice," she said. She and other parents also support the limits on communication.
Neville said she knows her boy and is certain his correspondence is honest and candid. He recently was allowed to visit home and never uttered a bad word about the school, Neville said. Some parents say the limits on mail and phone calls are rigid, but they ultimately help parents rebuild lines of communication that have been severed by years of rebellion.
"We had more communication with (our son) with letters once a week than we ever did before he went there," said Debbie Amsden of Indiana. "Before, he wasn't communicating at all." Amsden credits Mountain Park with turning her troubled, uncontrollable son into a loving, well-adjusted student at Purdue University.
Some former students of Mountain Park say they fought the school' s methods when they entered the school, but they recognize now that they needed the strict approach. Several question whether they would even be alive if there had been no Mountain Park. "It wasn't what I wanted, but it was what I needed," said Naomi Nelson, who graduated this year.
Many graduates are puzzled when they hear criticisms of the school, wondering whether detractors -- whom they knew as classmates -- are even describing the same place. But none of that surprises students like Nutt, who say that in a sense, there really were two Mountain Parks: one for those who found salvation in the program and one for those who suffered at the school's fringes.
Troubling track record
Court documents and news reports describe a darker side of the ministry -- one that dates back more than two decades.
Before Bob and Betty Wills founded Mountain Park in 1987, they were hit with a barrage of abuse allegations as operators of the Bethesda Home for Girls and Redemption Ranch for Boys near Hattiesburg, Miss.
Ultimately, the Willses left Mississippi after the state removed 117 teens from their schools. Today, several former students of the homes in Mississippi and Missouri say in interviews they were regularly paddled, and numerous women say they had complications with menstruation, presumably because of stress.
Students who left the school within the past few years say they believe the school has curtailed its use of the paddle. Still, the handbook asks parents to authorize swats, and Compton said paddling was the norm throughout her stay from 1994 to 1996.
Angela Collier, who attended Mountain Park from 1992 to 1994, says students who didn't accept the school's belief system were lost. Collier, of Tulsa, Okla., recently launched a Web page for Mountain Park "survivors." Through her efforts to close the school, she said she has met with more than 50 former students who say they were mistreated by the ministry. Several interviewed recall that girls who were deemed to "behave like a baby" were made to sit on a baby stool and wear a pacifier around their necks. Many recent former students say that kind of ridicule continues today.
Currently, the Willses' daughter and son-in-law, Debby and Sam Gerhardt, operate Mountain Park. Recent students say Debby Gerhardt regularly holds "powwows," in which she offers biting criticism of girls in front of others. "The more you hide in the background, the less you have to endure," Collier said.
Salvation at a cost
The driving force behind the punishments and ridicule, some former students say, was a constant pressure to accept Jesus and become saved before graduation. And curiously, even some who criticize almost everything about Mountain Park say that in their quiet moments of reflection, they were, in fact, spiritually saved.
Carlyle is among those who said she found Jesus in her isolation and despair. But she kept that private. "I didn't want the Willses to take credit for saving me," she said.
Supporters say the salvation is genuine for most of those leaving Mountain Park. More often than not, they line up at graduation in front of parents, pastors and civic leaders to testify about how Mountain Park reclaimed them from the ashes of their past. And those praises are repeated by students and parents in issue after issue of the school's newsletter.
But some former students like Carrie Nutt have praised the school profusely in the past as well. Not long after her parents left her at the school, she decided to fake it, to wear a smile, pretend she was saved and quietly mark her time until she could leave. At graduation, just like the others, she said what everyone wanted to hear about her rescued soul.
Nutt's parents kept her in the school for three months after graduation. Seven years later, she said she hasn't fully left the place. Not when the nightmares of being stuck inside continue to invade her sleep. Not when remembering how to interact in the real world is a struggle. Not when she still isn't completely sure where to invest her faith and trust. "You come out of Mountain Park confused and lost," she said, "because you don't know anything anymore."
St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 19 November 2002
Heartland Academy Is Winning Its Battle In The Courts
Child protection raids have been ordered stopped, a jury found that standing in manure isn't child abuse and other abuse cases appear to have stalled. Founder Charles N. Sharpe says the hassles have brought more teens to the program.
By Matthew Franck
Child protection officials have raided his Heartland Christian Academy. Prosecutors have thrown the book at his employees. But Charles N. Sharpe isn't budging.
Not from his plan to enroll hundreds more troubled youths at a 20,000-acre religious complex he built with his own wealth. And not from his belief that America's youths are falling prey to drugs, sex and violence because public institutions are godless and parents have spared the rod of discipline. As long as society fails its youth and helpless parents bring their children to his doorstep, Sharpe said, his ministry will flourish.
There's no sugarcoating how he regards those who attack the biblical refuge he has spent six years building. "They are evil," he said. "There's not another term for it. They hate us. They literally hate us." In the past two years, Sharpe said, he has spent more than $2 million defending Heartland employees against a long list of criminal charges, ranging from forcing kids to work in deep piles of manure to excessively paddling students. Several of his employees have been hauled into court, and investigators temporarily removed Heartland's 115 students last fall.
Today, Sharpe appears to have the upper hand. His attorneys have persuaded a federal judge to ban all future raids but allow the state to continue investigating individual reports of abuse. The judge even said he was disgusted by how the raid played out.
More recently, a rural jury needed only 18 minutes this spring to determine that working waist-deep in manure isn't child abuse. Other abuse cases appear to have stalled.
If anything, Sharpe said, all the hassles have brought more teens in. Many parents are so in need of help, he said, that they are relieved to learn about Heartland, even if through bad publicity.
Today, Heartland runs on Charles Sharpe's terms. And Sharpe runs much more than a school and a church. He acts as a sort of mayor of a city that cropped up in a cornfield -- one with a subdivision of brick duplexes, a hotel, two restaurants, a gas station, a private runway, 3,200 milk cows and one of the largest cattle operations in the state. All of it was built by money Sharpe made as founder of Ozark National Life Insurance Co. And all of it was built on the belief that drug addicts and former criminals needed a place to escape from the sins of the world.
Since 1995, Heartland has welcomed not only defiant teens, but adults and even entire families who come to work the ranch and farmland while they shed bad habits. Many cross the country based on what they have heard from a pastor. Day after day they arrive at Sharpe's office to learn the terms of their stay. Levi Craig came on a morning in August with his parents. As the 21-year-old recounted a string of drug binges, his mother wept for the times she locked him out of the house or refused to give him money. Then Sharpe set the conditions of his recovery program. All drugs, even tobacco, are to be abandoned cold-turkey. "It's like you died and just started over," Sharpe said. To enter Heartland, he said, is to commit to at least two years in the program.
"What if I break down and go crazy six months from now and have to leave?" Craig asked. "Then you leave now," Sharpe said. With that, Craig yielded up a cup of tobacco spit and surrendered himself to Sharpe's world. It's a world that Sharpe willingly opens to visitors. One of his employees does little else than provide tours to visiting pastors, families and members of the media.
Sharpe makes no effort to put a soft face on his rigid teen program. He openly admits that he relies on corporal punishment. But Sharpe said he wants to show outsiders the teens he believes have been reclaimed by the ministry. He recently allowed two journalists from the Post-Dispatch to observe the teen program with no restrictions on who could be interviewed. Many students -- even when speaking in private -- offered unabashed praise. Leigha, a 16-year-old who did not offer a last name, hugged Sharpe when she saw him in the school hallway. She said she's been to numerous programs to treat her uncontrollably violent temper. At Heartland, she said, "I have people here that care about me."
Joshua Melton, 18, resisted Heartland's approach when his uncle, a Heartland attorney, suggested he enroll. Today, he works with other young men on the cattle ranch and feels his life is in order. "Milking cows and praising God," he said. "It's awesome."
But a visit to Heartland also leaves little doubt to its severity. During lunch, several boys in the cafeteria said they knew of only one boy who had not been swatted for acting out. One boy said he had been swatted every day for weeks and expected to be swatted daily for the year or more he anticipates remaining at the school. The boy didn't offer his name, but several of his classmates backed up his claim.
Throughout the day, there are frequent signs that Heartland is ruled by the swat. Students can be seen re-enacting their last paddling and trading advice on how to flex the right muscles to brace for the next hit. In an office, several employees worked through the scheduling conflicts of doling out numerous swats to a boy in several sessions. Those kinds of tactics haven't entirely gone unpunished. In December, the father of a 17-year-old student pleaded guilty of child abuse for taking part in spanking the boy more than 30 times. But for the most part, accusations against Heartland and its employees have been batted down by Sharpe's legal team.
Sharpe also appears to have all the support he needs in Jefferson City, where the Legislature has repeatedly defeated efforts to require Heartland and other faith-based programs to submit to regulation. Sharpe has flown several lawmakers on his private jet to tour Heartland, and he ranks as a leading contributor to the Republican Party. ...........
Sharpe still believes he's under assault from those who would take Heartland away from him. But he knows that he has only begun to tap into what seems like a limitless reserve of troubled teens and frustrated parents. So when he walks through the halls of his pristine school -- which enrolls 150 teens from his reform program -- he sees room to grow. "We're looking at having 500 students in the next two years," he said.
=== ACTING ON FAITH: A THREE-DAY SPECIAL REPORT
SUNDAY Reform schools find haven here.
MONDAY Reform schools in retrospect.
St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 19 November 2002
Dale Knowlton Sent His Unruly Son To A Religious Boarding School, But He Now Regrets That Decision
A Father's Choice
Parents contract with faith-based programs for various reasons: They're believers, they can't afford other options or sometimes as a last resort.
By Matthew Franck
The two men Dale Knowlton hired to abduct his 16-year-old son showed up as planned at his home near Kansas City at 4 a.m. sharp.
Because Knowlton was nervous, because he wanted the regrettable work over and done, he met the men in the middle of his yard, before they even reached his doorstep.
As the father greeted the near strangers who would take away his defiant and suicidal son, he felt crushed by failure. That it had come to this. That he really was out of options. That no one -- not therapists, not insurance companies, not the juvenile justice system -- gave him any choice but to have his son taken by force to a religious reform school across the state.
Knowlton had sought out the men from California after he first heard of "escort services" that do nothing but transport problem teens to treatment programs. He was relieved that the obscure industry could help but devastated to be one its clients. "It was the most horrendous decision of my life," he said.
Several days and $2,500 later, he was letting the men in his home and going over the protocol they had discussed in numerous phone calls. He took them directly to his sleeping son, turned on the light, and repeated a rehearsed line that went something like: "Corey, I love you very much, but we both know that you need help. These guys are here to help you." Knowlton left the house immediately, mainly because he was instructed to do so beforehand. But he also needed an exit from the protests and biting words he suspected would erupt from his son. "It's almost like you are witnessing your own failure as a parent," he said.
Within minutes, Knowlton and his girlfriend were at a restaurant, wondering about Corey and his five-hour car ride to Hope Baptist Church and Boarding School, in St. James, Mo. The torturous wait ended when one of the men from the escort service called to say Corey had arrived safely. By midday, Knowlton once again hoped that his son, who had seemed to fall through every crack in the system, finally would get some help.
He would keep that hope alive right up until Corey jumped through a window after being paddled by the school's operator, the Rev. Joseph Intagliata. The broken glass left Corey with dozens of stitches in his arms, hands and legs. The pastor is facing criminal abuse charges for excessively paddling Corey.
Knowlton is among the hundreds of parents who send their children to Missouri's religious reform schools from across the country. Here, the schools are unregulated and a few have a history of abuse allegations. Many parents seek out the schools specifically because they offer a biblical solution for their child's behavioral problems. Those parents aren't interested in professional therapy, preferring to turn their kids around with a mix of tough love and doctrinal teachings.
Nikki Cherry of Kingwood, Texas, sent her daughter to Mountain Park near Poplar Bluff, Mo., because she believed her teen would find the Lord and turn her life around. And that's exactly what she said happened.
But many other parents have little in common philosophically with the strict reform schools they pick for their kids. Administrators of the schools in Missouri say the vast majority of their clients do not share their faith.
Several of those parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say the faith-based approach was the right fit for their children and they have been delighted by the results.
But for others the religious reform schools aren't a first choice. They sign up with trepidation because they feel they have no other options.
The parents occupy what mental health advocates describe as a no man's land when it comes to services for teens with behavioral problems. The parents are turned away from the juvenile justice system because their kids have not committed serious crimes. Their health insurance covers only a few counseling sessions. Government mental health programs are no help, because they serve mostly children in state custody. And the parents can't get public schools to offer much more than a few special education classes.
So the parents go it alone, seeking out whatever programs they can afford, making compromises along the way. That's where Knowlton found himself two years ago when his son began what he describes as a sudden but sustained fit of defiance.
At first, Corey missed curfews, then he began to steal from the family. Soon he stayed away all night and then for days at a time. Finally, in two separate instances, he attempted suicide.
Initially, Knowlton turned to his health insurance and was able to get Corey both inpatient and outpatient counseling. But his benefits ran out. Like so many other parents, he tried the family courts and state mental health programs with no luck.
Then he heard of a pastor who operated a home for a handful of boys. Knowlton, who has been a public school teacher for 25 years, opposes corporal punishment. But by the time he had placed Corey at Hope Baptist, he was willing to sacrifice that objection. He talked to Intagliata several times on the phone and deemed him to be a sincere man who genuinely wanted to help. "You hit dead end after dead end, and then there's this little beacon of hope, so you take it," he said.
Experts in the field of adolescent mental health say they sympathize with parents, who often fear their defiant teens are threatening the safety of themselves and others. Parents "are absolutely desperate," said Vince Hillyer, who heads Missouri Boys and Girls Town, a licensed facility. "They are in a crisis and they can't think clearly."
If Knowlton had $5,000 a month for a professional residential counseling program, he would have spent it on his son in an instant. But he did what he could, rounding up the $1,100 a month that Intagliata charged to enroll a teen at Hope Baptist. "There was nowhere to go," Knowlton said. "At least he was willing to help."
Intagliata has repeatedly said he is innocent of the felony abuse charges. He said he paddled boys only rarely and with little force. After disciplining Corey Knowlton, he said, the boy flew into a rage and jumped though a window. Nearly all the injuries were from broken glass, though state records also cite deep bruising on the teen's backside.
Intagliata said he would proudly stack up his record treating teens against any state-run or state-licensed program. Several parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch have praised the pastor's work. But the pastor said he realizes Corey was probably the wrong fit for his program. That's not to say Intagliata believes there were better options. "There are no other alternatives out there," he said.
Intagliata's reform school was initially barred from enrolling teens after the criminal charges were filed. He has since been allowed to reopen but has yet to do so. But Knowlton said that doesn't solve a thing. It certainly didn't help his son, who returned to his same destructive habits when he came home. He said prosecutors and child protection workers have been eager for him and his son to help convict Intagliata of abuse. But no one seems to take an interest in helping Corey.
As a result, Knowlton said he's more frustrated by a broken behavioral health system than he is by the mistakes of a pastor who may have gotten in over his head. "I have no malice toward him at all," Knowlton said. "I have more malice for those that won't help Corey."
The father has worked to mend his tattered relationship with his son. Today, Knowlton said, he's on good terms with Corey, who is living nearby with a cousin and seems to be more stable. But Knowlton knows his son still needs help. He knows the reform school left more than physical scars. He knows because on a long drive recently, Corey turned to his father and asked if the road trip was a trick. "You're not taking me somewhere again, are you?" Knowlton recalls his son asking. "No, Corey, I'm not," the father said. "That was a mistake. I'm not doing that again."
Copyright 2002, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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