When I was fifteen, my parents sent me to Escuela Caribe, a fundamentalist Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. At this school students were forced to exercise for punishment, sometimes until they vomited or collapsed from exhaustion. Students were beaten with a leather strap for minor infractions. Staff members would slam students into the wall if they thought we were out of line. It was a school where students of color were punished more severely than white students, a school where it was taught that homosexuality was immoral, equated with pedophilia or bestiality, and a school where we girls were taught that having sexual feelings meant we were whores.
I had never been in trouble with the law. I was well-liked by my teachers and grandparents. Yet the Republican platform, which supports “the rights of parents to determine the proper medical treatment and therapy for their minor children,” would support my parents’ decision to send me away.
You would think a place like this couldn’t exist in 2016, but even now, 27 years after I was sent away, the troubled teen industry is not regulated. Furthermore, Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence is directly tied to Escuela Caribe, a school which, due to negative publicity arising from Julia Scheeres’ memoir Jesus Land, has been since reorganized and is now known as Caribbean Mountain Academy. Pence appears in a fundraising video for Crosswinds, the parent organization of Caribbean Mountain Academy, thanking the audience for “standing behind all the vulnerable families…and behind this extraordinarily important ministry.” He encourages the audience to reflect deeply on the work that Crosswinds does, and to think of ways they can become more involved.
Pence doesn’t just fundraise for Caribbean Mountain Academy. Pence’s former deputy finance director and one time assistant to Indiana first lady Karen Pence is Brenda Gerber Vincent. She is now Vice President of Development at Crosswinds. Pence also appointed Mark Terrell, the director of Crosswinds, to Indiana’s Allen Superior Court Judicial Nominating Committee. This panel selects judges who may decide what kids to send to Crosswinds’ boarding schools or to its detention center, the Pierceton Wood Academy.
Understand, even though Caribbean Mountain Academy initially kept five of Escuela Caribe’s staff members to assist in the takeover, it is not the same organization as Escuela Caribe. Based on interviews with former students, CMA is not overtly physically abusive. However, it is located outside of the jurisdiction of the United States, it operates on a level system, and it restricts communication between students and the outside world, all warning signs of abusive programs. Most disturbingly, to be employed as a houseparent at Crosswinds, which entails supervising several “at-risk” adolescents on a daily basis, one only needs a personal relationship with Christ, references attesting to this personal relationship, and a high school diploma or a GED.
Having untrained staff leads to abuse. One alum reports of being sexually assaulted by Crosswinds staff and then being blamed for it. Another told me about a fellow runaway student who was captured by Dominicans wielding machetes and taken back to campus in the trunk of a car. Both incidents happened in 2014. Abuse like this happen because there is no oversight at off-shore facilities like Caribbean Mountain Academy in the Dominican Republic. No one is there to speak up for the children when abuse occurs.
When I think about the children enrolled in Crosswinds and in faith based schools, and when I think of all the faith based schools for troubled teens which would be empowered to open under a Republican administration, schools which are to this day unregulated by Democratic administrations, I feel overwhelmed. Tough love tactics such as isolation, humiliation, and emotional attacks are regularly employed at troubled teen institutions, even though most psychologists agree that these tactics should only be used as a last resort. In-state facilities have little oversight. In 2005 alone, the last year statistics of abuse at troubled teen facilities were recorded, over 1,500 children in 30 states reported abuse. At least 28 states had deaths occur in one or more facilities the same year.
In the years that followed my graduation, I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. I spent years silent about the abuse that happened to me because I was ashamed, because I felt like no one would believe such abuse could happened to me at a Christian institution. I’m not alone. Many of the thousands of graduates of the troubled teen industry suffer long term trauma. Sometimes when I can’t sleep I read accounts of former students on message groups, alumni wondering “Does it ever get better?” Alumni wanting hope not just for themselves but for their children.
I moved to a supportive community and created a wonderful family and a fulfilling life. I have scars, but consider myself to be lucky. Yet I worry about the children, children who are caught in the crossfire of a country with leaders like Mike Pence, who prioritize strengthening an authoritarian concept of families as opposed to actively protecting children.