Written by S. Bowyer

 

Kidnapped for Christ

 

    For $62,000 a student can attend Harvard to secure their future, or parents could spend $72,000 and purchase their troublesome teenager a disappearance and re-training at Escuela Caribe. Founded by Pastor Gordon Blossom who was once a deliquent himself, the aim was to create an out-of-society experience for young people in the hopes of rehabilitating them from the ungodly lifestyles they had chosen. Kidnapped For Christ is a documentary that features their work, created by Katie Logan, who was a film student wanting to research behaviour modification programs. 

   "I never thought I'd become part of this story," Logan says, in hindsight. 

     Logan attended Escuela Caribe as an onlooker, as someone who wanted to feature the benefits of Christian behaviour modification programs, being someone who attended Christian college and had been involved in ministry work. However, once she had settled in, she felt compelled to question the unusual practices she saw. One such time she heard screaming, and thinks she saw someone digging a hole. After which, she moves to a location outside of the school grounds and decides to just visit the school to take footage. As she was introduced to the students, she began to hear their shocking stories and how the staff of the school played part in it.

 

     While the documentary covers several emotional journeys of the students, the focus is on David. At the time of recording, his friends in America had no idea where he was, being told different stories, David explaining to us that he was kidnapped overnight with a belt secured around him. He explains that he is gay and did not get along with his parents at the did not accept his sexual preference. David talks about missing his music back home, being able to freely sing, and calling his friends when he's needing help. David also comments that he feels it's unfair to be in the facility and taken out of school, when schooling was so important to him. He speaks about turning eighteen and what it should mean to making his own choices.

      "All I can do now is trust God," he says.

     David further states that while at the facility, he has to wear the Oh, I'm not gay mask, and is hurt he can't express himself. Days later, he is under disciplinary action for discussing sexuality with a student. David explains that another person came to him stating they were bi, and another student must have heard them speaking, as the school's staff found out. He was summoned to the office, where he had to come out to the group leader, teacher, and House Father.  

     "It was probably the most humiliating moment for me," David admits.

     He then went on to explain they were unhappy him touching and infecting the doorknob of the room, and they had scolded him for his nervous hand twitching during the conflict. At that point, he spies a camera and states he's deathly afraid to talk. 

     David's punishment for his "infraction" is he loses ranks. Logan soon learns that life in the program is all about ranks. All students are given chores and roles in the house, of which they must meet to perfection. Their room inspections are almost military-like, with strict rules, such as shoelaces can not touch when tucked in, and pillows must be a certain distance from the top of the bed. Students are then given a rank based on their compliance. 0 is rebellion; 6 is excellent. The papers are signed by House Fathers, and the student's week planned accordingly. 

     "0 level students. . . they get treated like 6 year olds. They have to be told or they have to be asked what we want them to do," a staff member states.

     Student ranks determine how long they are allowed to go to the bathroom, if they're allowed to walk outside, how much manual labour they must complete for the week, if they are allowed to leave campus, and if they are allowed to speak to other students or staff.

     Other punishments include having items taken away, physical exercise (squats), having hair cut off (for girls), getting the paddle (spanking), or in extreme cases, the "quiet room", which is a dank, cold room, where only a thin mattress and bucket for toileting is provided. While there is no evidence, people talk about the noises that sometimes come from the "quiet room."

     For more information, Logan speaks to Julia Scheeres, author of Jesus Land. She and her brother attended Escuela Caribe because of a bad upbringing. 

     "This school is not a nice place. It really hurt both my brother and I," Scheeres begins. "Let me give you an anecdote. . . One day I saw a counsellor punch my brother in the stomach -- completely unprovoked. At the time we weren't allowed to communicate and just the feeling of utter hopelessness I felt seeing my brother being physically abused by a teacher at this place and not being able to do anything to help him. That's the kind of sick feeling that I took away from this place. Believe what we believe or else we'll be violent to you."

     The interview sparks Logan to ask more about the procedures in dealing with difficult children and what happens in the quiet room. Counselling staff member, Cindy Hundley, speaks to her. "We all have our perceptions. . . we are not a perfect organisation. There are things that have happened here, and will happen here in the future, that shouldn't happen."

     None of the staff deny such things happening. They briefly confirm it has happened, or avoid the subject.

     Logan asks how the facility deals with sexuality, with David in mind. 

     Hundley explains. "We really don't even look at that. A lot of our kids have been hurt sexually by people and so many as we go through counselling have come to understand that the reason they have enjoyed this same-sex relationship is because they can't trust the other sex."

      "The whole issue is what's the deeper issue? And you have to get to the root. Then they see that, "oh, I'm so glad that I'm not a homosexual."

     "We can take a child so far, but there's a spiritual aspect that God has to take over."

     Later during her stay, Logan attends a hike that the school organise for the students. Around the campfire, she attempts to talk to the students, however, is suddently cautioned about recording the interviews by the staff. Putting her camera down, she records from a distance covertly, to shrug the suspicion off her. The interview continues, the student giving their impression of how the system works. She speaks of her beliefs that sometimes students are held in the program longer for monetary gain. At this point, Kate tells the viewers she's finding it hard to watch the students so unhappy and keeping secrets from the school's staff members.

 

Katie Logan

 

 

     Logan soon leaves the facility, with a letter from David to his best friend. We learn that mail incoming and outgoing is monitored by staff, so David could not send to his friends sooner, leaving them not knowing where he is. Returning to America, Logan gives the letter to his best friend, Angie, who sounds the alarms. The letter is David begging they get him out of the facility. That is easier said that done, we find out, as the documentary continues. As David stated earlier, although he is eighteen, it appears his choices are not entirely his.

 

      Katie Logan

     Logan begans to research the success rate of the school. Despite her feelings that their treatments are on the verge of being abusive, some belief systems could deem them warranted if they are harvesting positive outcomes. Forbes magazine estimates that the troubled teen industry is worth 2 billion dollars a year, which warrants the interest into if these extreme programs actually work. She catches up with Tai and Beth, who were both attending the program during the documentary. 

      Beth was sent to Escuela Caribe because she suffered panic attacks, was running away from school, and tried to commit suicide. She shares that she is now claustrophobic from her times in the quiet room. On reflection, she states that she understands she got punishments because she messed up, and she misses the structure the school provided. Her belief is the program saved her life and she hates hearing negative things said about it -- she thinks more about positives now. 

      Tai was enrolled because her mother married without telling her, so she began to separate from her family and expressed her anger through stealing and doing drugs. She says she still has nightmares about the facility, and she's very angry the staff are excusing how they treat the students. She says when she returned home nobody remembered her, and she didn't wish to speak about her experiences with others when she got home.

     http://www.nhym-alumni.org/ is a website of testimonials from ex-students of Escuela Caribe and connected facilities. Searching through some of the past student's comments, there is a rich range of opinions, from recent and far-back students now in their middle-ages.

     "I think the program was very corrupt from the top (the Blossoms), and has gotten worse over time. There were a few good staff, but they don't last, it's a disillusioning and unnatural environment. It is not Christian as it claimed to be." -- Chana Cortez, 47

      "This is an awkward question because I believe every day was a violation of my person. I was required to ask to pass through doorways, supervised in the bathroom, forced into manual labor, as were all students. That is humiliating and abusive. In addition to these things were the special little tortures like being "swatted" or beaten with a leather strap on my bottom while bent over a chair, holding the low rungs with my hands. There was an occasion where I was hit so hard that instead of the usual blood-blisters, my skin actually broke. I was kept on a diet where I was allowed only one serving of food. I wasted to 121 lbs on my big boned 5'5" frame. My bones stuck out. I slept on a 1" foam pad with 3 slats because I was ranked lowest in the house. I got bruises from the slats on my hipbones. I was forced to do exercises until I vomited and my body gave out, then punished for not doing more." -- Lisa Brown, 35

     "Please, please, please parents really consider before you send your kid to EC. I have sooo much emotional baggage because of the traumatic instances. I love a lot of people there though." -- Danielle Lane, 19 

      "I think there may be kids who need the program. Criminals, abusers, etc. I think normal kids with the typical parent/child issues or other insecurities need to try counseling before being shipped off an housed with said criminals and treated as such." -- Allision Poche, 40

      "I was on silence and notebook support and I was thrown around on a regular basis. Pushup support was kind of funny to me at first and then it got real old real fast when it got up to 20. My most favorite were sessions. (note the sarcasm.) Another was one night the guy that I shared a bunk with and I closed the slats because the security light shined right in our eyes and made it hard to go to sleep. One of us closed the slats and another student kept opening them. He and I got up at the same time to close them and another student got the house fathers attention and told him we were going to jump the first student. We were both in push up position for an hour then got thrown around and put back into push up position and then given swats that night. If I remember correctly we had a session with Mr. Redwine about it as well and got more swats. My bunkmate was handcuffed to the sink and made to sleep on the floor that night and they threatened to do the same to me but I was so tired I didn't even put up a fight when they put us back into the room." -- Craig Shell, 27 

      "The program needs to address (if it has not done so) a system of transition for students as well as some type of support for aftercare. Although NH did help me and make a difference in my own life, I felt that some type of follow-up would have been beneficial." -- John Maitland, 43

      "I do not hate New Horizons or its staff, and I am not angry at my parents for sending me there. Rather, I resent how ill-prepared for life The Program made me. I learned to effectively curtail any real emotions, to just smile and keep going. I gained no real life skills at New Horizons, learning instead to plod along and ignore the absolute mess in which I put myself." -- David Hupp, 18 (attended at age 12) 

      "I was led to believe that my mother had permanently disowned me, while my mother was led to believe that I needed to be institutionalized for life. . . . My mother & I have long since forgiven each other for the hurtful mistakes we made in the past, but she has not forgiven herself for trusting Escuela Caribe. She spent $40,000." -- Tara Ketola, 28 (attended at age 15)

      "The program really drove me away from “Christians.” As a Jew, I was disgusted by NHYM's attempts to pound religion into students' heads. When I asked to practice Judaism, I was told not to make an an issue of it, or it would get rough. These experiences really gave me a negative view of Christianity." -- Gil Mayersdorf, 35 

      "The program did not change my behavior as I returned to drugs & alcohol immediately after each summer. In fact, a few of us used drugs while in Canada. However, I did learn how to better “fly under the radar” afterwards in my daily life." -- Mark Dewall, 47 ()

      In response to such programs and the abuse teenagers feel they've dished them, there are conventions for survivors in the US. Ex-students of behaviour modification programs meet, discuss, and share information. 

      Behaviour modification programs such as Escuela Caribe are not under federal regulation, despite there being thousands of them throughout America. Scarily, 157 teenagers have died in such programs since 1970. Despite pressure and the attempt to create a legal act to protect teenagers from abuse in Residential programs, America is yet to see any watch-dog or observatory measures.

      In 2012, New Horizons Youth Ministries closed Escuela Caribe. The property was donated to Lifeline Youth and Family Services, and the facility renamed to Crosswinds

     Kidnapped for Christ (2014) can be viewed on streaming sites and iTunes. See http://www.kidnappedforchrist.com/ for details.

 

 

 

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