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Reformatory CP - September 2003

Corpun file 12046

St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 25 September 2003

Suits, arrest renew reform school debate

By Matt Franck

A felony abuse charge and two recent lawsuits - including one filed Thursday - have revived criticism of a strict breed of religious reform schools that are unregulated by Missouri.

A lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Cape Girardeau accuses Mountain Park Boarding Academy, near Poplar Bluff, Mo., of abusing and falsely imprisoning students. The suit seeks damages totaling $36.9 million for five former students and two sets of parents.

Meanwhile, a similar school operated by a former Mountain Park employee also is under investigation.

Nathan Day, who operates Thanks to Calvary Baptist Church and Boarding Academy near Waynesville, Mo., was arrested in July and has since been charged with a Class B felony of child abuse in a case involving an Illinois teen. A lawsuit filed against the school last month accuses the ministry of abusing the teen to the point of rendering him catatonic.

Thanks to Calvary and Mountain Park are among at least six teen reform ministries in the state that are exempt from state licensing. The schools share a similar adherence to corporal punishment and Bible-based discipline.

Several parents credit the ministries with rescuing their children. Supporters include Andrew Allen, of Stockbridge, Ga., who said Thursday that the recent lawsuit does not alter his positive view of Mountain Park. "Our experience was that Mountain Park provided a refuge for our daughter," Allen said. "She was not mistreated at the school."

Despite that kind of testimonial, ministries like Mountain Park have long attracted critics and abuse inquiries.

Oscar Stilley, a lawyer from Fort Smith, Ark., said the lawsuit he filed against Mountain Park should give more credibility to those seeking to close the schools.

"I think we've got enough pieces here to show the true picture," he said.

Stilley sued Mountain Park last year on behalf of a 17-year-old Arkansas boy. That suit is pending, but Mountain Park officials have rejected it as being based on the allegations of one rebellious child, whose parents continue to support the school.

The lawsuit filed Thursday includes complaints from four parents, who accuse the Mountain Park administrators of misrepresenting the school's austere discipline.

Doug Hoover, of Lewisville, Texas, said in an interview Thursday that his stepdaughter tested positive for the psychotropic drug Thorazine a week after leaving Mountain Park.

Hoover said he picked the Baptist school, in part, because he was told they did not use drug therapy.

His stepdaughter, Erika Teasely, 15, said she was given a white pill regularly throughout her four-month stay at the school this year. "They told me it was for a bug that was going around," she said in an interview.

The 60-page lawsuit includes dozens of allegations of mistreatment, including censored mail, medical neglect and excessive paddling.

Marilyn Lueken, of Freeland, Wash., said she paid $1,250 a month believing she was sending her daughter to a loving environment. She withdrew her daughter last summer after two years at the school when she began to suspect mistreatment.

Lueken said her daughter, Shari, 17, has since said she was dragged around a running track by her hair for refusing to run laps. The lawsuit also said she and a staff member would engage in acts of self-mutilation together.

Lueken said her daughter is now in a 24-hour residential treatment center.

The lawsuit claims the school denied one student her hearing aids and forced her to beat up a classmate for disobeying the school's rules.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Jamie Kaufmann Woods, 20, of Summit, Ill.; Tracey Brazil Ozuna, 20, of Kuna, Idaho; and Jessica Deboi, 22, of Nampa, Idaho.

Sam Gerhardt, who operates Mountain Park, could not be reached for comment Thursday, nor could John. L. Oliver Jr., a Cape Girardeau lawyer who has represented the school in the past.

Meanwhile, Al W. Johnson, a St. Louis lawyer representing Thanks to Calvary Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, said he believes state officials are unfairly targeting the teen ministries.

Johnson said criminal charges against his client, Nathan Day, are meritless and are based on a campaign by state child-protection workers to shut down the ministries simply because they believe in corporal discipline.

Day is accused of paddling Christopher Jensen, 16, of Marseilles, Ill., until he developed deep bruises on his legs and buttocks.

A civil lawsuit filed by his mother, Deborah Stedman, claims that the punishment placed the boy in a catatonic state which has required hospitalization.

Stedman's attorney, Tyce Smith of Waynesville, Mo., said the boy likely will require continued treatment.

Johnson, however, said the boy was healthy when he was removed from the school as part of the investigation. "At the time he was taken from Calvary, he was not showing any signs of physical or mental stress," he said.

Johnson said investigators interviewed 70 students at the school and could not find other cases of abuse.

Johnson has defended Heartland Christian Academy, where workers were charged two years ago with forcing children to stand in deep manure as a punishment.

But most of those charges have been dismissed. Heartland has since sued authorities claiming child-protection workers unfairly removed children from the school. A judge is expected to rule on that case soon.

Johnson said he believes the teen ministries he has represented have a far better track record than state-run institutions that treat youth.

"I think they are holding them to a much higher standard than the state facilities," he said.

Missouri is one of a few states that exempt faith-based institutions from regulations governing residential treatment centers. As a result, several ministries that have faced regulatory hassles elsewhere have relocated to Missouri. For example, abuse investigations in Mississippi caused the founders of Mountain Park to close their doors there.

Legislation to license the reform schools has failed the past several years in Missouri, with lawmakers concerned the bill would infringe on religious liberties.

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