Rachel Aviv, a writer for The New Yorker, has produced a stunning piece on Teen Challenge, a fundamentalist organization that claims to help young people overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol but, in reality, seeks to indoctrinate them in its version of Pentecostal Christianity.
Americans United started paying attention to Teen Challenge in earnest during the presidency of George W. Bush, who was a big fan of the group. Bush sought to funnel federal aid into the organization, which alarmed AU. We argued that Teen Challenge was essentially offering an extended Bible study program and that its “treatment” was anchored in fundamentalist Christianity. (The group is affiliated with the Assemblies of God denomination.) We asserted that government has no businesses supporting a wholly religious program like this.
AU was also concerned that the group wasn’t being honest about its work. Teen Challenge claimed an 80% success rate in helping young people beat addiction. That would be remarkable if it were true, but it’s not. The group cooked the figures with fuzzy math.
As Aviv’s story makes clear, there are a host of other problems with Teen Challenge. Its centers are loosely regulated (if at all) in many states, and sometimes parents send teens there not because they have addiction problems but because they’re being difficult at home or are suspected of being LGBTQ. Conditions are prison-like, and young people have limited ability to talk to family members. (In the story’s headline, The New Yorker calls Teen Challenge a “shadow penal system for struggling kids.”)
Aviv profiles a young woman named Emma Burris, whose adoptive parents sent her to a Teen Challenge center in Florida when she was 15. Burris had no addiction issues but was, according to her parents, acting out and being too aggressive at home.
Burris was pulled from her bed at 3 a.m., forced into a car and taken to a facility three hours away. Her cell phone was seized, and she was placed in a room with four other girls. Internet access was forbidden, the girls’ days were closely regimented and their brief phone calls home were monitored. Parents who send their children to Teen Challenge sign a contract relinquishing their control over the child; from that point on, all decisions about what happens to the teens are made by Teen Challenge.
When Burris began getting sick in the mornings, she suspected she was pregnant. A test confirmed she was. She requested an abortion and was told that was not an option. Instead, Burris was compelled to carry the child, a boy, to term and give him up for adoption. The adoptive parents have allowed her no contact.
Aviv notes that Teen Challenge, which has more than 1,000 centers in the United States, has “received tens of millions of dollars in state and federal grants.” But despite this taxpayer-funded largess, attempts to hold the group accountable have been lacking. In the 1990s, Texas regulators attempted to shut down a Teen Challenge center in San Antonio after it failed to meet state licensing and training requirements. Bush, who was governor at the time, intervened and spiked the effort.
Aviv’s story should be a turning point. Teen Challenge is serving a vulnerable population, which is all the more reason to apply reasonable forms of oversight. And while we’re at it, let’s shut off the spigot of taxpayer aid that has been flowing to this group for way too long.
Photo: A Teen Challenge center in New York City. Photo by Timothy Shields via Creative Commons