Abuse Allegations in Christian Homes for “Troubled” Youth

Yesterday I was asked this question [edited slightly for clarity]…

My pastor mentioned from the pulpit how ‘wronged’ the directors of Hephzibah House are….by women who are lying. So I read a lot of information on the internet about it to find out what I could for myself. From bits and pieces I have heard previously and what I saw online, the sense I had when reading the information is that the girls may well be telling the truth. What do you think?

Most of what I have written on this blog has centered on the issues of clergy sex abuse and domestic abuse within Christian families. However, my overriding concerns are two-fold – exposing abuse within the Christian religion and providing support for healing, and digging into the false theology plaguing many Christian churches — theology which leads to the prevalence of abuse in the church. As I’ve stated elsewhere here, I believe that abuse in the church is fruit from one tree – it all has the same basic roots.

There are other areas of abuse within the Christian religion which I’ve not even started to talk about, though they are on my radar. This would include the abusive nature of some homes for “troubled” children, Christian colleges, parenting philosophies, church structures, homeschooling philosophies, the courtship concept, and more. Please note: I said some! So don’t hyperventilate yet.

But to the question here, this does put the finger right on the issue of abusive homes for “troubled” children. I do not know the names of all the existing and former homes which qualify for the label “abusive.” I have heard of Hephzibah House, as well as Lester Rolloff’s various homes, including the former Rebekah House, home of his Honeybees. I knew two sisters who were in Rebekah House at the end of the 70’s/early 80’s. Actually, I was friends with their brother and met them once on tour with the Honeybees. At that point in my life, the powers-that-be loved Rolloff and his Honeybees, so all was rosy. I only started to wonder many years later as the generally abusive nature of the whole system became clear to me.

From what I have been able to discover, homes such as Hephzibah House are on a lower plane than Rebekah House. That said, I would say they both qualify as abusive based on some basic philosophical similarities.

I am quite sure most, perhaps all, of the allegations being made by former Hephzibah House girls are true. There are a few reasons why I believe this.

For one thing, the system believes in absolute authoritarian control. Authoritarian control always leads to abuse because it is exactly opposite to the role model of Christ and His stated design for leadership within the Christian church and within Christian homes. Authoritarian systems of Christianity are abusive to the “normal” people who fit in and submit. If you are familiar with the abuses of authoritarian church systems, look at what they do to anyone who dares to question the leadership — where they don’t have the power to attempt to force submission through physical force.

So what happens to the child who questions (because s/he is using the brain God gave him/her to attempt to learn), or is high-spirited, or fails to grasp they are to be “seen and not heard,” or has an irrepressibly outgoing personality? Or what if they have been sexually abused and are dealing with the very normal depression, guilt, and shame which results? These children are attempting to process their experience in an environment that expects them to just pray about it and never mention it again. These are all considered signs of “rebellion.” In one survivor story I read, the girl told of being sent to a home for troubled girls because she had been repeatedly raped by her father, who was no longer in the picture. But her mother didn’t know how to deal with that and with her. So she sent her to one of these highly-recommended homes for “troubled” kids.

Certainly, this girl was “troubled.” But here’s how Lester Rolloff described the girls who came to his homes, during his radio broadcasts… He said the Rebekah Home took in fallen girls from “jail houses, broken homes, hippie hives, and dope dives” who were “walking through the wilderness of sin…” In 1973, Attorney General John Hill… filed suit against Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises, introducing affidavits from sixteen Rebekah girls who said they had been whipped with leather straps, beaten with paddles, handcuffed to drainpipes, and locked in isolation cells, sometimes for such minor infractions as failing to memorize a Bible passage or forgetting to make a bed. Roloff defended these methods as good old-fashioned discipline, solidly supported by Scripture, and denied that any treatment at Rebekah constituted abuse (quoted from the same article linked above). Unfortunately, Roloff stood off the authorities on that occasion. Rebekah House was later officially closed, but the “ministry” continued in various locations and under various names – until at least the past year.

Do I believe it? Yes, I do. Some of the parenting advice given inside the system included the admonition that a child should be paddled until he cried softly — even if that is 100+ swats. I have personally observed this being practiced upon more than one occasion, by well-meaning parents with children that didn’t come anywhere close to being “troubled.” And I’ve heard others describe the same thing happening in their homes. The concept is based on a few verses in Proverbs including:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Prov. 23:13

Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying. Prov. 19:18

If pain is supposed to bring submission, then turning up the pain is the only option for the child who doesn’t “submit.” This absolutely leads to abuse – even in a “normal” Christian home with average children who fit into the given mold. That doesn’t mean all Christians are abusive, but the ones who follow that advice will be. The ones who aren’t abusive usually either don’t go to the extremes because they naturally have enough sense not to and/or are allowing themselves to led by the Spirit to parent more completely, and they probably don’t think that’s really what the program actually means. But it does. I heard it taught exactly like that many times, with the teachers bragging about how they “won their children for Christ” by not surrendering to their tears, even if it took many, many swats.

This theory of parenting is supported with the explanation that a parent must break the child’s will. Why do we think it is necessary to break the will of the child? God gave him that will! Having a personal will is part of how we are created in God’s image and it is good. Our job as parents is to train them how to use it correctly, not break it!

Any punishment that breaks a child’s will is inherently abusive. We do not have the right to break something God created for good and which that child will need to use to follow and serve God fully.

So, in an environment that feels entitled to use physical force and limitless “spanking” to break a child’s will, what will they do when the usual forms of force don’t work to bring this person into submission? This is an environment that has no accountability and has carte blanche to treat children however they want. It is predicated on several fundamentally flawed ideas — children are born evil and it’s our job to beat it out of them, adults have all the authority and all the power and are not to be questioned, and verses in Proverbs about beating a child are taken extremely literally as license. It is a recipe for guaranteed abuse.

I know how abusive the college I attended was, and it didn’t have anything on these homes for troubled kids. We experienced a rigidly-controlled schedule, inadequate nutrition, constant criticism, hyper-vigilance to try to prevent perpetual accusations of wrongdoing, etc., etc. — and that was in a place where no one had a license to spank anyone. They told us constantly that we were the cream of the crop. During the time I was there, with only one exception, no student did anything that was actually on the “wicked” list (very small school – about 60 at its height), as far as I ever knew. I never heard a swear word, saw a cigarette or alcohol, heard anyone listening to rock music, knew a couple to sneak out after dark, etc. It was the cleanest, most serious, bunch of kids I’ve ever seen in one place. But we were always in trouble, accused of immorality, told we were rebellious, and on and on and on. How would this system treat kids who weren’t “the cream of the crop?” Nearly every girl who lived in the dorm at my school had female problems; several girls were anorexic. And that was nothing compared to one of these homes for “wayward” kids.

Unfortunately, within this system there is also an accompanying fear of government that goes with the whole package — the government is evil and is lying in wait to destroy Christian families. We have a right to spank our children but the government wants to call us all child abusers because we love our children enough to discipline them according to the Word. It plays like a martyr story. And everyone inside the system rises up to defend “separation of church and state,” using that as a banner to avoid accountability. Spanking is legal (at least most places) – but abuse is not. And unfortunately there is a whole parenting philosophy in fundamentalist circles that is built on an erroneous paradigm that leads to abuse. The government was given for our protection but when they do their job and Christians are the target the church wants to cry government interference with our faith — when it has nothing whatsoever to do with attempting to stop Christianity. In a case like this, they are doing their job and they are doing it right.

Here are just a couple links for you to read more about Lester Rolloff and his homes, and Hephzibah House (which was not associated with Lester Rolloff as far as I know).

From the perspective of the abused — http://www.isaccorp.org/newbeginnings/cameron3.pdf

From the perspective of those who still look up to Lester Rolloff — http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Great%20Men%20of%20God/brother_roloff.htm

Survivor stories from Hephzibah House – be prepared with a strong stomach because it will rip out your heart — http://formerhephzibahgirls.webs.com/survivorstatements.htm

Information about New Bethany — http://cafety.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&Itemid=2&id=92

New Bethany survivors — http://groups.msn.com/SurvivorsofNewBethany/yourwebpage.msnw