All in the Name of God: The Multibillion Dollar Troubled Teen Industry and the Christians Who Profit from It
I was a scared and confused twelve-year-old when the idea of sending me off to a school for girls was whispered about. A family member tried to convince my parent that this would be the best place for me after an agonizing season in my life. My decade-long abuser had just been put in prison. Sending me away would help silence all the gossip surrounding our family in our small faith community and remove the small spotlight shining negatively on our church. I can’t help but wonder now if sending me away would also have been a way to punish me for telling the truth and “tearing the family apart.” Because I had testified about what was done to me, I was seen as rebellious.
As an Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB), born and raised in this strict religious movement, I knew that so-called “rebellious” children were seen as a threat to the community that must be subdued and contained. A multibillion dollar industry that critics now refer to as the Troubled Teen Industry (TTI) arose as a way to cash in on this perceived threat. The fringe group of Christianity I grew up in still profits off the severe abuse and mistreatment of minors. All across our country, there are “homes” for wayward and rebellious children and teens. I was one of the fortunate who didn’t get sent away, but countless others can’t say the same.
Hannah Kay was only thirteen years old when she was legally kidnapped in the middle of the night and sent away to Lighthouse Academy, an Independent Fundamental Baptist home for “troubled” teens in Florida. She would spend a total of four years in this program where forced silence was one of the many harsh tactics used against students. The spiritual abuse was constant, with staff pointing to every aspect of students’ behavior as a sign they were somehow not Christian. Lighthouse Academy manipulated children with fear of eternal damnation.
“Being Independent Fundamental Baptist generally takes you to an extreme of Christianity with strict beliefs surrounding morality as well as beliefs in salvation,” Hannah Kay told me in an interview. “I have severe anxiety and panic disorder that is all connected to a fear of dying and going to hell. They would tell us horror stories of anyone who mocked God and how they would scream in terror about ‘flames’ in freak accidents that caused their deaths.” She believes that if she been in a nonreligious and non-Independent Fundamental Baptist facility, she would have a plethora of other issues to combat, but the spiritual element in these programs was an especially devastating form of torture. “Fear of your soul is just a different beast,” Hannah said.
This spiritual abuse is often combined with physical torture. The Troubled Teen Industry believes in “spare the rod, spoil the child,” and practices such as “Godly Discipline” are euphemisms for literal physical beatings of children, sometimes referred to as “breaking-the-will sessions.” Because of lax laws about corporal punishment, much of this abuse is unregulated or even legally protected. Corporal punishment is currently legal in private schools in 48 states.
The modern Christian Troubled Teen Industry began in 1968 when IFB preacher Lester Roloff started a home for “wayward” teen girls called Rebekah Home where girls were routinely whipped, beaten, and locked in solitary confinement. Lynn Beisner, daughter of a staff member, was only fourteen when she witnessed some of the severe mistreatment of young girls there. “I remember when they used to put girls in a room alone with nothing but a bucket toilet, mattress, nightgown and Bible. Roloff’s sermons were played on the intercom 24/7. [The girls] would stay in there for weeks at a time.” One of Lynn’s most vivid memories was looking down from the second story of the school and onto the tarmac situated between the school and the home, watching a top staff member put an arm around a girl who had just been released from the room this student had been isolated in. “I have never seen a person so broken.” Lynn shared she has so much survivor’s guilt all these years later even though she was just a child herself. “I used to lie awake at night and think of what I could or should have done differently.”
Roloff’s violent practices made headlines, but he fought to leverage his religious beliefs to evade accountability. Though Rebekah Home was temporarily shut down in the 1970s for failure to comply with state licensing laws and Roloff was arrested multiple times, he successfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court on the grounds that it was unconstitutional to subject a religious organization to state regulations. The legal battles continued until a law was passed allowing religious organizations to opt out of state licensing laws. Over the years, Rebekah Home and other institutions in the Troubled Teen Industry have often been able to operate with impunity by claiming that their organizations are protected by the principle of religious freedom.
Allen Knoll, survivor of two Independent Fundamental Baptist troubled teen industry homes and author of the self-published book Surviving Bethel: A True Story, says he believes IFB religious teachings and doctrine play a big role in aiding the abuse and mistreatment of minors in the industry: “They are above the law, because they’re using God’s law.”
Independent Fundamental Baptists have a literal and strict interpretation of “God’s law,” the Bible. Bans on secular music, immodest clothing, dancing, and pop culture are things might seem quaint or funny to the outside world. But the more disturbing aspects of this isolated fundamentalist environment are the commands for members to be legally separate from the rest of the world. Like many other conservative religious groups, they believe the government should have absolutely no say on how they run their churches, K-12 Christian schools, colleges, and homes for troubled youth. By claiming religious exemption, they have successfully claimed the right to abuse children.
Eric Skwarczynski, founder and host of the Preacher Boys Podcast, a podcast “shining light on decades of sexual, physical and mental abuse in the Independent Fundamental Baptist movement,” says from talking to survivors of the Troubled Teen Industry, specifically IFB-run programs, that the stories he hears are very similar. “The IFB is inseparable from the Troubled Teen Industry. Lester Roloff obviously had an incredible influence, and he was responsible for several of the homes that are even still active within that world.”
Despite their religious separatism, Independent Fundamental Baptists and other Christians in the industry have not hesitated to adopt techniques of abuse and control from the outside world. Lester Roloff and other leaders have used “tough love” and “attack therapy” approaches associated with criminal organizations like Synanon, an infamous drug rehabilitation program and residential community active from the 1950s through the 1980s that combined mass beatings with group therapy sessions in which all participants were encouraged to verbally criticize and humiliate each other. Although Synanon dissolved in scandal, its legacy lives on throughout the industry.
The TTI also participates in the discredited and dangerous practice of “conversion therapy,” which has been banned in 20 states but is still widespread in most of the country. James Swift, survivor of New Bethany Home for Boys, another notorious Independent Fundamental Baptist home for children, still lives with the scars. At just 15 years of age, he was sent to be cleansed of the “gay demon” inside of him by the Worldwide Church of God, a religious movement he was raised in that, similar to the IFB, believed homosexuality is an abomination. In Netflix’s Haunted: Cult of Torture, James shares his harrowing story. At New Bethany, James was hosed down, caged, fed dog food, made to endure physical beatings and sexual assault, and even electrocuted by staff. “I know firsthand the stress and self-hate that is forced upon these children because of their churches, pastors, church families and their own families,” he said. New Bethany has been closed for years now, but the torture it made children and teens endure still haunts survivors today.
Gabriel Gonzalez, survivor of the Lester Roloff-inspired Freedom Village USA and an advocate who helped cofound the We Warned Them Campaign, says that much of the public tends to trust the word “Christianity” and to give faith-based groups the benefit of the doubt. “They don’t understand these groups, like the IFB, are not the Christianity so much of us know.” He, like other survivors of religious institutional abuse, feel that part of educating the public on the Troubled Teen Industry is also making it known that most of the religious programs in the TTI don’t have genuine intentions of using their beliefs for good. They use God to abuse the children that have been entrusted to their care, claiming religious exemption to do just that.
In America, 50,000 of our children are kept in residential treatment centers every year in over 1,000 facilities. Many of these centers have religious affiliations. A call for accountability has been erupting around the country for years, and since Paris Hilton shared about her experience in Provo Canyon School in Utah, the public has become more aware of the harm done to our country’s youth. The Troubled Teen Industry is still an active threat to American children everywhere. But survivors who won’t be silenced about the injustices and trauma the industry is responsible for. They are raising their voices, sharing their stories, blowing the whistle in hopes of starting a conversation and preventing parents from sending their kids away to these programs. They are part of a chorus of protesters and activists who are pleading for change that includes legislation to create state and federal oversight over residential treatment programs in our country. On November 16th, 2020, they marched in the first ever Right for Rights Rally in Stockton, Missouri, protesting the industry as a whole and calling on the public to take notice of another IFB abusive home in Stockton’s own backyard, Agape Boarding School for Boys. That school has since faced legal repercussions.
“When a nail salon has more regulation than these programs our children go to, we have a problem,” Allen Knoll says, sharing his three-step plan in advocating for change in this corrupt industry, which includes awareness, political change, and rebuilding by providing healing for survivors. He says prevention really starts with parents though. “Keep your kids at home. Kids aren’t easy. Everybody is a unique individual. Parenting is not easy. If you love your child, this is not the best way to go. This is your child, do your research. Do whatever you can to stand by your kid.”
I left the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church as a young adult, but I’m still haunted by what I experienced in it. I can also speak to the censorship and ostracism that group members have experienced when they speak up, which is why it’s so important for the public to pay attention to what really goes on in these abusive programs and the way they turn pain into profit behind closed doors. Advocates estimate that in their research they have never seen a program charge less than $3,000 dollars per month. Allen Knoll puts it much more clearly: “If you are not doing your research, and you’re providing funding for abuse, then you are no different than those that do it.”
“These homes charge thousands of dollars per child per month and do not need your money,” Hannah Kay pleaded to current Independent Fundamental Baptists that donate to these homes that fundraise by passing through their churches and sharing their ministries. “These troubled kids will run as far as they can because they will associate abuse with the church. You must hold your brothers and sisters accountable for the souls they have lost. Do your research before you ever give money to these institutions. Or call me.”
Christian institutions have a long and infamous history of abusing young people, from the Magdalen Laundries for “fallen” women and girls in Ireland to the residential school system for Native and indigenous children in the US and Canada. So many have died or barely survived. And still the harm continues. It’s devastating to know that the abuse in the Troubled Teen Industry is ongoing, and it’s infuriating that so much of the violence is perpetrated in the name of God. Those of us who are lucky enough to have avoided these places have an obligation to survivors and to the children still held captive. We can’t stop until every child is safe.
Lydia Joy Launderville is a freelance writer in Ivor, Virginia, who covers an array of topics, including health and lifestyle, with a special focus on religious abuse and trauma recovery. She also volunteers for a nonprofit helping victims of religious abuse.