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The Shadow Penal System for Struggling Kids

The Shadow Penal System for Struggling Kids

In the mornings and evenings, the staff often dimmed the lights in the living room and played Christian music. Emma found herself letting go of her inhibitions. “I’d be on my knees, bawling, and then the other girls would start doing it,” she said. “It was presented as if we were becoming vulnerable to God—I was told I had a gift for worship—but I think it was actually all of us feeling overwhelmed and oppressed and stuck. It was a collective cry session.” Sometimes Emma would speak in tongues, a practice encouraged by the Assemblies of God. “It made me feel free and powerful, but I also knew that I was being watched,” she said. “It was, like, ‘Please see this. Please validate that I am experiencing God, and He is real.’ ”

Every week, at different churches, Emma was asked to give her testimony, the story of her son’s adoption, in the form of a poem. She told the story so many times that the plot points no longer seemed connected to her. “To give him the best life, adoption is the only way,” she recited. “I was the one who was the prodigal daughter / But I turned right around and went straight to my Father.” After her performance, a collection plate was passed, the proceeds of which went to Teen Challenge. Other students selected to share their stories typically had personal histories involving rape, murder, or dramatic abandonment. Shea Vassar, one of Emma’s classmates, told me that she was rarely asked to give her testimony. “I was just some depressed kid who didn’t want to go to school,” she said.

Early Newspaper

In the past decade, there have been several lawsuits against Teen Challenge. One mother sued for negligence, because her son was abruptly discharged from a Teen Challenge, in Jacksonville, for breaking a rule, and died of an overdose that night. This year, a student named Amaya Rasheed filed a lawsuit against Teen Challenge of Oklahoma, alleging that she was “physically restrained against her will” until she couldn’t breathe, and was denied medical care. (The director of Rasheed’s center said, “We remain confident that our actions are consistent with our First Amendment rights to honor our Lord and our legal obligations under Oklahoma and Federal law.”) Former employees have sued, too: a staff member in Georgia alleged that he was fired after he revealed that he had been hospitalized for depression; an employee in Oregon sued because she was terminated, on the ground of “moral failure,” for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

But these lawsuits almost never go to trial, because staff and residents (or their parents) sign a contract waiving the “right to file a lawsuit in any civil court.” Instead, the contract says that their “sole remedy” for any dispute will be “Biblically based mediation” or Christian conciliation, a type of legal arbitration. A Times investigation in 2015 found that religious-arbitration clauses, like the one used at Teen Challenge, have created “an alternate system of justice” that is often “impervious to legal challenges” and obstructs families not only from suing but from gathering facts.

Cartoon by Navied Mahdavian

Teen Challenge has been in operation for more than sixty years, but there is little public record of what occurs in its facilities. A kind of collective amnesia is fostered not only by the contract but by the culture. Once students leave some programs, their friends are not allowed to refer to them by name. Jasmine Smith, who worked at the Lakeland Teen Challenge until last winter, told me, “We had to refer to people who left the program as ‘a past student’ or ‘a past staff.’ ” Fitzpatrick, the former staff member, said that she was forbidden to communicate with employees who had resigned or been fired. She had to unfriend them on Facebook. Fitzpatrick worries that Teen Challenge will prevent her from getting new jobs, and she told me, “Even doing this interview, I’m shaking—I didn’t realize the fear.”

In May, 2020, Naomi Wood, a student at the Lakeland Teen Challenge, died. She had been throwing up, almost constantly, for more than twenty-four hours. On the last day of her life, Naomi, who was born in Liberia and adopted by a family in Vermont, stayed in bed, and the staff left her alone for long stretches without checking on her, according to students and staff I interviewed. She was found in her bed, having fallen into what appeared to be a coma. A staff member called an ambulance, but on the way to the hospital she died after having a seizure, though it’s still unclear what led to it. “Medical evaluation is consistent with delay in seeking care and medical neglect,” a report by the Florida Department of Children and Families read. After Naomi’s death, her closest friends said, they were put on Relationship Restriction. Fitzpatrick, the former staff member, told me, “We weren’t allowed to have memorials for her, because they didn’t want the girls reflecting on the past.” Smith said, “It felt as if her passing was swept under the rug.”(A lawyer for Teen Challenge denied that students were discouraged from discussing the past, that Naomi’s friends were put on Relationship Restriction, and that employees couldn’t communicate with former staff members. He also said that Teen Challenge doesn’t restrict students’ eye contact, or their distance from one another, and that the Florida centers do “not use this concept of ‘Silence.’ ”)

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office investigated Naomi’s death, but no charges were brought. The current directors of the center, a young couple, Dan and Holly Williams, who had taken over after the Del Valles left, responded to the death by creating the position of medical coördinator, which Holly, who graduated from a program that prepares people for leadership positions at Teen Challenge, is filling. Dan Williams had no comment on the finding of medical neglect. Naomi’s death was “an inexplicable tragedy,” he told me, adding that he encouraged students to talk about it during counselling sessions. “Our hearts are encouraged that she had a relationship with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” he said. “Even though her time on this earth ended prematurely, our hearts are filled with gratitude for the time we did have with her.”

When I first began speaking with Emma, last spring, she assumed that she was the only student at Teen Challenge who had been forced to give a child up for adoption. But, in my interviews with more than sixty former students and staff, it became clear that her story was not unique. Help Unfortunate Girls, Inc., had been run by a Republican socialite who, according to a 1995 article in the Tampa Tribune, had often boasted about “how many babies they had ‘saved.’ ” When Teen Challenge took over the property, it seems to have continued the mission. (The lawyer representing Teen Challenge said, “The program has no records” of Emma’s being forced to give up her child for adoption, adding, “Teen Challenge does not provide counsel regarding adoption. Any concerns related to youth pregnancy are handled by the parents with their child.”)

Deanna Doucette was the first pregnant girl to attend the home after Teen Challenge took over. She arrived in 2001, when she was fourteen. A few weeks from her due date, she snuck out of a window and ran away to a gas station, where she called her boyfriend, the father of her child. But before help arrived the police showed up and returned her to Teen Challenge. In the car, she told the officers, “Don’t take me back—they’re forcing me to give away my baby.” Five months were added to her program at Teen Challenge, for running away.

Several months after giving up her child, Deanna was assigned a Little Sister, Amber Foster, who was seventeen and pregnant. Amber had been ordered to the Lakeland Teen Challenge by a court, for “runaway behavior.” She was aware that her Big Sister had given up her child for adoption, but, she told me, “I never knew what her intention had been, because there was no conversation about it, even in the whispers of the night.” Amber was determined to keep her baby, but she said that the directors at that time—they are now the directors of a Teen Challenge in Seale, Alabama—told her, “Just like Mary gave up her son, you’re making this ultimate sacrifice.”

As soon as Amber surrendered her son, she tried to withdraw her consent for the adoption. But her movements were so controlled that she was unable to mail a form that allowed her to revoke her consent up to five days after relinquishing her rights. Seven weeks later, she left Teen Challenge—she had turned eighteen, and the juvenile court no longer had jurisdiction over her case. She immediately tried to file a petition with the circuit court that had handled her adoption, saying that she had given up her son “under duress” and “by means of deception.” By the time her petition was received, though, the window for challenging the legitimacy of the adoption had closed. “I still think about it every day,” she told me. “My child was stolen from me.”

Five years later, Samantha Oscar, a student at the Lakeland Teen Challenge, watched her best friend go through the same experience. She is still haunted by the way her friend sobbed after returning from the hospital without her child. “They had told her, ‘If you don’t give up your child, you are bringing shame on yourself,’ ” she said. “Once she did, they just tried to act like it didn’t happen. It was, like, ‘Move on, forget your daughter. She’s not yours.’ ”

Every year, Emma writes an e-mail to her son on his birthday. She isn’t allowed to contact him—his adoptive parents did not end up permitting a relationship, as she had hoped—but she has created a Gmail address to which she sends her letters. After her son becomes a legal adult, she plans to give him the password to the account, so he can read all the messages. In the e-mails, she expresses her love, reminisces about how he responded to her voice when he was in the womb, and jokes about which subjects in school (writing, not math) she might be able to help him with. When he was four years old she wrote, “I wish I could describe to you what it’s like to miss someone you’ve known only for a brief moment.”

As soon as Emma graduated from Teen Challenge, she joined a church affiliated with the Assemblies of God, becoming a worship leader. “I was stuck in this mind-set of doing whatever Teen Challenge thought was the right thing,” she said. She repeatedly applied for jobs at Teen Challenge, but she was never hired. Instead, she supported herself by working as a florist and at a call center. She and another leader at church got married and, in 2015, when she was nineteen, she discovered that she was pregnant. She contemplated an abortion, but, when she told her friends from church that she didn’t feel equipped to raise a child yet, they told her, “Well, no one is ready to have a kid.”

After she gave birth, to a daughter, she fell into a suicidal depression. “My daughter was the sweetest, smartest, fieriest little thing, but I didn’t feel a bond with her,” she told me. “I had gone through this experience of completely extinguishing all my maternal feelings, and I felt like I was incapable of love.” In a letter to her son, she wrote, “I don’t think there is a single soul I know that understands how I feel. Caged, incapable, silenced.”

A therapist who was trained as a Christian counsellor recommended that she tackle her depression by going to an adult Teen Challenge, in Davie, Florida. Emma called Brittany Hotte, her closest friend from Teen Challenge, and asked if she could borrow money for the program. Brittany told her, “For the love of God, you absolutely cannot do that.” A few years earlier, Brittany had graduated from a Teen Challenge leadership program, but she had become disillusioned by the cultlike aspects of the organization. When she eventually left, she realized that she had no formal education or training, and, because she felt shunned for her decision to exit Teen Challenge, she couldn’t even ask her former teachers for a job reference. She felt that she had been a “pawn in their industry,” she said. But, she added, “at Teen Challenge, I had very vivid experiences where I felt I encountered God, and that’s been the most complicated part—untangling what I actually believe.”

Emma met with Greg and Essie Del Valle, the directors of Teen Challenge when she was there, and asked for their advice. “Greg put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I equipped you to leave a warrior. Why are you being defeated right now?’ ” she told me. She felt as if she was being blamed for her depression. “I walked away from that meeting feeling like I knew nothing,” she said. “I was doing everything they wanted me to, and I was still miserable. That was the start of feeling like, These people don’t care.”

The Shadow Penal System for Struggling Kids