AUSTIN, Texas — While reporting recently on abuse allegations at a home for troubled teens, I realized that the article I was writing had been written before.
Sure, nobody had written about the Anchor Home for Boys, founded in Corpus Christi in the 1960s and reopened as Anchor Academy in Montana and then Missouri. Nobody had written about the boys who accuse the school of forcing them to spend hours exercising in freezing conditions with improper clothing, of barring them from speaking to anyone but a direct superior, of giving them nothing but peanut butter sandwiches to eat, of sleep deprivation and group beatings.
“Put your back against the wall and put your leg at a 90-degree angle and raise your arms,” one young man told me of a punishment he saw meted out. “If you drop your leg I’d punch you. If you drop your arms I’d punch you. If you say ‘no’ I’d punch you. I’d say that’s torture.”
But I wasn’t the first one to find these sorts of stories, not by a long shot. Over the past two decades, dozens of unlicensed residential facilities for teens struggling with drug problems and various behavioral issues have been accused of physical and sexual abuse. A handful of these programs are based in Baptist thinking about the necessity of physical discipline in correcting a sinful path. (“Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them,” Proverbs 13:24). The Anchor Home for Boys was one of many homes founded by a magnetic Baptist preacher and radio personality named Lester Roloff.
A tall, skinny man with a warm smile and soulful voice, Roloff clashed with the state of Texas throughout the 1970s over licensing and oversight for his children’s homes. After his death in 1982, his successors continued to fight regulation. Over time, Texas grew inhospitable, homes directly or indirectly tied to Roloff’s legacy sprouted in Missouri, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.
If you’ve ever heard of Roloff’s homes, it may be because of a wave of news coverage between 1999 and 2001. A newly elected President George W. Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which aimed to “eliminate unnecessary legislative, regulatory, and other bureaucratic barriers that impede effective faith-based and other community efforts to solve social problems.”
A mouthful, yes, but in plain terms this often meant leaving church-run treatment centers to operate without much state intervention.
Opponents of this idea found ample ammunition in the stories coming out of Roloff’s homes, which Bush, while governor, had invited back to Texas. In the Washington Post, Hanna Rosin reported on Roloff’s Lighthouse, where two boys spent more than 10 hours digging in a dirt pit after being tied to a truck and dragged through brush.
In Texas Monthly, Pamela Colloff wrote about Roloff’s Rebekah Home for Girls (the sister school to the Anchor Home), where one girl was beaten, chained in a room alone and forced to listen to Roloff sermons. In The American Prospect, Maia Szalavitz wrote a column called “Why Jesus is not a Regulator,” in which she described how some children had died in poorly regulated facilities, and many more suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those stories faded away as 9/11 took over the news cycle. Then, a few years ago, they reappeared. In Mother Jones, Kathryn Joyce wrote about torturous punishments at the Roloff-inspired New Beginnings Ministries. The Tampa Bay Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune published long investigations on schools in their states. On CNN, Anderson Cooper ran a segment called “UnGodly Discipline.”
In almost every instance, administrators at these schools who go on the record argue that some physically demanding discipline is necessary to work with the most difficult-to-reach young people. At the Anchor Home for Boys and Anchor Academy, I heard numerous stories from young men who had a great time and believe that the abuse allegations are trumped up by men who, in the words of one former staffer, “never woke up to adult responsibilities.”
Though attitudes about appropriate disciplinary practices for children have certainly shifted over the last decade and a half, the debate on them is hardly closed. It is part of a permanently unfinished conversation about the best way to help children, one that reaches far past questions of state and federal oversight.
Urging that conversation forward, there will be journalists digging around, documenting stories of abuse. The homes of Lester Roloff will long be a place for them to look.
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