The year was 1986. I was a somewhat normal sixteen-year-old enjoying the Southern California summer weather, trips to the beach and preparing to start my junior year of high school in Orange County. However, my puberty driven rebellious behavior was brought to a screeching halt on the morning of September 1st of that year. What was supposed to be a family outing to the San Diego Wild Animal Park was actually a carefully executed plan by my family to deliver me into what would be the worst experience of my life: a year in a locked-down, all-girl, unlicensed, unregulated fundamentalist Baptist reform school. The isolated facility was called Victory Christian Academy and was located in the desert town of Ramona, California. The chain link twelve foot fence surrounding the former FBI bunker, and the fact that the facility was in the middle of nowhere, made it the perfect place to hold teens undetected with no state oversight or accountability. I was immediately dragged through the front doors and to a back dorm where I was placed against my will in a small walk-in style closet they called The Get Right Room. This solitary confinement room was where they put you if you swore, gave the staff any problems, rolled your eyes, refused to eat, or refused to get saved and convert to their version of fundamentalist Christianity. Most of us got acquainted with The Get Right Room upon our arrival.
During my year at Victory, I witnessed extreme mental, emotional and verbal abuse not just directed toward me, but toward most of the girls who were there. What our parents saw when they went up to look at the facility and when they would come for monthly visits, was not the abusive reality we girls encountered on a daily basis. There were girls who were bi-polar, had eating disorders, had severe depression and anxiety disorders, there were drug users, alcohol users, victims of precarious living situations, victims of sexual abuse, prostitutes and run-aways. Then there were the girls who had been placed there simply because mom and dad didn’t like their rock music, their friends, or didn’t approve of them slipping away from the Christian upbringing that their parents deemed so important for entry into an adult life.
The cure-all for each problem I mention above was the Old Testament; six hours a day of indoctrination. We were told each day that we were worthless sinners and that we were a disgrace to God and our parents. We were told that all the sin in the world was caused by Eve and that this is why girls have a menstrual cycle and painful childbirth. We were told that a woman’s place is in the home, not a classroom, and that God had intended us to bare children, which according to the preacher, should be our lot in life. It was all about submission and subjugation. We were not allowed to wear pants. It’s no wonder that we all walked out of there with no self-esteem and immediately started to make bad choices.
We were completely isolated from the outside world. We were voiceless, with all of civil liberties and freedoms stripped away. There was no phone for personal use, no TV, no reading material or books (except the Bible), no music, no medical or dental care, no licensed therapists, no college degreed staff, no normalcy of any kind. We were not allowed to talk about our problems. There were intercoms and floor alarms everywhere. We could only talk and use the restroom at certain times. Vegetarians were forced to eat meat and girls with eating disorders were psychologically abused with regard to food. We were forced to watch movies about the rapture. Most of us had nightmares often.
The facility was operating illegally and was not licensed by the US Department of Education to teach school. The Christian booklets that I did that were supposed to count as my junior year of high school were deemed later by a proper school counselor to be sixth and seventh grade work. I ended up getting my GED, as many others ended up doing.
The preacher’s hatred toward anyone who did not share his radical right wing views resonated loud and clear from the pulpit each night in chapel. His divisive intolerance did not in any way teach the loving side of religion, or any form of spirituality that I wished he would have focused on. Had he taught love and acceptance instead of fear and hate, I may be writing something very different about my experience.
At Victory Christian Academy, only one version of religion was taught and tolerated. Science was considered hogwash. The Old Testament was taken as literal truth and embraced as law, and logic and reason were seen as the devil’s tools on every level. Girls who had previously been diagnosed with emotional disorders were told that the devil was controlling their minds, and if they were depressed, it was because they were not letting go and giving their problems up to God. The owners did not believe in any form of professional counseling. Psychotherapists were going to hell too, yep, for lying and having a college degree.
Escape and suicide attempts were common. I did not witness any deaths while at the facility but one did occur about a year after I left. 15-year-old Carey Dunn, who had already been at the facility for two years simply because her parents did not like her boyfriend, died when a stack of lumber fell on her head while she helped with a construction project for the preacher and his wife. Carey’s death prompted the State of California’s Department of Social Services to take a closer look at the school and the preacher, who owned the facility. After many attempts and court battles, the school was finally ordered closed down by a San Diego judge in 1992. Evidence of abuse and neglect had been found by authorities. The Fire Marshal had concluded that the facility was a death trap and cited numerous serious safety violations. The solitary confinement room was also illegal. Some girls were in that blacked-out room for several days, or weeks, at a time.
The Year is 2008
I am a woman of 38 years, a single parent, a college student, I'm raising a teenage daughter and living in Portland, Oregon. I’ve had quite a lot of time to think about my life experience, and have made some clear decisions about what’s important to me. One is a commitment to call out these kinds of facilities for what they promulgate in the world: immoral thuggery, degrading behavior akin to spiritual rape, divisive intolerance, and the worst kind of arrogant and illegal abuse of power. There are thousands of survivors of such institutions, and many of them are not doing well in the world. I would consider myself to be among the more fortunate, in that I maintain an independent and fulfilling life, but there is not a day that goes by in which I do not relive the traumatic effects of the treatment I received more than half my life ago at a center supposedly devoted to the work of God. My commitment goes deeper than naming the kind of abuse that I and others experienced at the facility. My commitment is to place a spotlight of public awareness directly on such institutions, for there are many located in many states. They need to be identified. They need to be forced to adhere to basic standards of supporting civil liberties, freedom of speech, and equality, or be closed down.
It is difficult to obtain a complete and comprehensive count of how many of these facilities are in operation around the country because they are not licensed or regulated by any state or federal accrediting agency. Based on watch lists and survivor chat groups found on the Internet (e.g. yahoo), one can safely assume there are dozens of these facilities in operation today, maybe hundreds. They get funding through the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives, tax payer money, churches, and from parents who place their teens in the facility. Some of these programs cost as much as an Ivy League college education, though most of these facilities offer inadequate education.
It is important to note that the religious facilities are not accredited by the Department of Education. They use the Accelerated Christian Education Program. Victory Christian Academy used this method of teaching. The booklets were called “PACES” and consisted of pages of Bible verses that we were forced to memorize. We were told that if it was not in the Bible, it simply didn’t happen. The only history we learned consisted of Old Testament doctrine. Dinosaur bones were a hoax created by liberals was the answer I was given when I asked questions about evolution and fossils. As punishment for questioning the story of Adam and Eve, I was given hundreds of lines of scripture to write out of the book of Genesis. Blatant attempts by owners of these “schools” to deprive teenagers of a proper education should not be tolerated in a democratic society.
These facilities have had some friends in high places. When George W. Bush became president, he created the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. The purpose of the Centers was to eliminate regulatory and contracting obstacles for faith-based and other community organizations. This made it possible for religious reform schools, like the one I was in, to avoid becoming licensed and regulated leaving those inside no protection. It began when Bush was Governor of Texas. Texas’ legislature passed the Faith-Based program there in 1997 allowing deregulation for faith-based reform schools. The legislature then passed a bill allowing the creation of alternative accreditation programs in which faith-based childcare centers could forego state licensing and instead receive accreditation from one of these newly created private agencies. Deregulation was an essential component of the faith-based initiative because it ensured that more faith-based providers would be eligible for government funds. This plan created new licensing laws for religious facilities; self-regulation that substantially reduced health and safety requirements and oversight.
The state of Texas approved the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (TACCCA). The board of TACCCA was comprised of eight pastors, three of whom also operated homes accredited by TACCCA. The Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services (TDPRS) no longer held jurisdiction over these programs. Therefore, TDPRS could not investigate complaints of abuse. Also upon creation of TACCCA, then-Governor Bush invited the Roloff Homes to return to Texas, even though the State of Texas closed down the Roloff Homes in 1985 after numerous allegations of abuse. The State’s position was that the Roloff Homes should either comply with licensing requirements or close its doors. The Texas Supreme Court agreed and the United States Supreme Court dismissed the appeal from this decision (State v. Corpus Christi People’s Baptist Church, Inc., 683 S.W.2d 692 (1984) and Corpus Christi People’s Baptist Church, Inc. v. Texas, 474 U.S. 801 (1985). TACCCA was supposed to uphold the same standards as TDPRS. TACCCA, however, never conducted a single legally required surprise-inspection at any of its facilities (see letter from Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services to Rev. Davis Blaser, Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies (Mar. 8, 2001, on file with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services).
Although Texas was forced to abandon its alternative accreditation program in 2001, those who wished to avoid state interference were not left without options. The Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies (FACCCA) was created to do the same thing TACCCA did in Texas. After Victory Christian Academy (the place I was incarcerated back in 1986) was closed down in Ramona, California, FACCCA welcomed them to open up in Jay, Florida, where they are still operating today, despite rape and abuse allegation by former teens who have exited the program. Many complaints have been made against FACCCA’s facilities, but because FACCCA seems not to require the facilities to allow participants access to victims’ services, it is impossible to provide statistical data about the actual occurrence of abuse. The allegations that have been made, however, indicate the absence of any real regulation by FACCCA.
Deregulation systems such as those in Texas and Florida are unconstitutional. Deregulation violates the program participants’ Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection rights by placing them in a less protected class than children in state-regulated programs. Deregulation also violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause by allowing special treatment for religious groups. Also, at these unregulated FACCCA-run reform schools, a staff member’s background goes unchecked and they rarely have anything but a high school diploma making them unsuitable candidates to work with kids who have mental health issues. All they have to say is that they are a ‘Christian’ and they are deemed suitable to work in the facility with the kids held there.
What to do
A letter to Congressmen George Miller (D-CA) may do some good. Mr. Miller had tried for several years to conduct an investigation into these reform schools but the Bush Administration thwarted his efforts. It was not until the Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 that he was given the opportunity to launch an investigation into the abuses he had heard so much about in relation to these types of facilities, which included boot camps and wilderness programs in remote areas of the United States. Mr. Miller held a full committee hearing in October 2007 that investigated and heard compelling testimony from parents who had lost their kids in some locked-down programs that were intended to reform them. It was a huge step forward in exposing abuse, and deaths, in alternative residential treatment facilities, some licensed and some not; some religious, and some secular. Write to Mr. Miller and remind him to keep this issue in the forefront and to mandate laws that will hold the owners of these facilities accountable for their abusive actions. (If you’d like to view the hearing, please visit www.ReformAtVictory.com.)
It is imperative that the public, parents especially, are aware of what goes on behind locked doors at these unlicensed facilities. Parents are under the assumption that they have taken their troubled teens to a loving place, when in fact, many of us who have exited these programs have had similar stories of abuse, have been diagnosed with PTSD, and struggle for years to overcome the low self-esteem incurred from the experience. If you know anyone who is thinking of putting their teen in one of these locked-down facilities, convince them to do their homework and check to see if the school is licensed, has a clean record with the Better Business Bureau, and has no pending investigations with the Department of Social Services. It is also critical that they are licensed by the Department of Education to assure that the curriculum is up to benchmark standards. You can also check to see if the facility is on the watch list at www.isaccorp.org. Facilities that do not allow prospective clients to talk with, or interview, those inside the program, should not be considered. This usually means there is something the owners wish to hide from parents who are considering enrolling their troubled teen in the program.
After many years at the keyboard, my memoir is published. Reform at Victory is a non-fiction account about my year of confinement at Victory Christian Academy. The experience was an abusive one and I feel a responsibility to speak out. My goal is to alert the public about these facilities that abuse teen girls in the name of treatment, and use extreme and illegal behavior modification methods to break those inside into submission.
More info at http://www.reformatvictory.com/
Link to this article as it appears in Alternatives Magazine: http://www.alternativesmagazine.com/48/ulriksen.html
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