Exposed: Child Abuse Epidemic at Christian Boot Camps

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The Christian Conservative movement is well known for evacuating its children to special “camps” should they show the slightest inclination of defying the family traditions, over things like their sexuality. A whiff of rebellion and they are disappeared for anything from a semester to a year. Newsweek has this week covered the story behind Escuela Caribe, a Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic that’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary called Kidnapped for Christ -which reveals an epidemic of child abuse at these camps.

Like so many of these ‘schools’, Escuela Caribe is viewed as a sort of last resort by many parents whose children are failing to embody the fundamentalist Christianity they espouse — a faith where homosexuality, depression, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders are frequently written off as “rebellion” or “demonic possession.”

This is not a place where children are helped, its a place where they are broken.

The stressful environment coupled with no true accountability or regulation often creates an environment of systemic abuse, as the Newsweek report indicates:

By her second day at the school, [Deirdre] Sugiuchi’s image of a nurturing Christian boarding school was shattered when her “house father” made her perform exercises for hours.

“According to him, I had ‘an authority problem’ at home. He made me do bear crawls, pushups and duck walks. He had me hold my arms out balancing books until I cried from pain,” she wrote on a website dedicated to collecting the stories of survivors of the school. “We had 24-year-old male house fathers in a house full of teenage girls. I had a house father that used to watch me change clothes. I was constantly either being abused or seeing people be abused,” she tells Newsweek.

Swatting, or being struck on the rear with a wooden paddle, was among the disciplinary practices at the school, along with a “quiet room” where students deemed particularly insubordinate would be isolated for days with only a thin mattress. A system of points based on obedience kept students on different levels, and low-ranking students would be forced to ask permission to perform any task, and supervised at all times by higher-ranking students, including in the shower, Sugiuchi says.

“When I was there, at 17, I was a high ranker, and it was my job to make sure [low rankers] were properly washing their private parts in the shower. I had to make sure they soaped. That was how I spent my senior year,” she says. Phone calls to parents were recorded, and written letters were monitored. “They would do anything to keep you there.”

Although Escuela Caribe was closed in 2011,it  is but one among a host of New Horizons Ministries schools under scrutiny for abuse, as alumni have taken to the web to report their abuse. One such site, The Truth About New Horizons Youth Ministries, states its purpose as:

We are a group of former students who have reconnected through the Internet and wish to share our collective experience at New Horizons. We range in age from our teens to our late 30s, and attended “The Program” between the mid-1980s and 2002.

New Horizons Youth Ministries Inc. purports to help adolescents through “Christian milieu therapy” but in fact does more harm than good. Most of our complaints center on Escuela Caribe, the boot camp located in the Dominican Republic, where we witnessed and experienced physical and emotional abuse, were subjected to young, untrained staff, and had our communication home monitored to keep us from divulging the truth to our families.

This is another tragic facet in the growing evangelical child abuse scandal, and producer and director Kate Logan deserves merit for getting this important documentary funded and out in the public eye.What is most important though, is that theses camps are dismantled and consigned to history – yet with the Christian Right an ever-growing political force in the US, we face the more likely reality of their expansion.