December 2021 Church & State Magazine - December 2021

Challenging Teen Challenge: A Fundamentalist Christian Recovery Program Receives Taxpayer Aid With Little Oversight. Is That About To Change?

  Rob Boston

For years, Americans United has opposed taxpayer funding for Teen Challenge, a nationwide fundamentalist Christian 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.

The organization has many fans in high places in government. In the early 2000s, for example, President George W. 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 business supporting a wholly religious program like this.

Americans United 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 AU quickly learned that it’s not. The group cooked the figures with “fuzzy math” (a Bush cliche for statistics supporting conclusions favorable to other causes he didn’t like) – chiefly by not counting the youngsters who dropped out of its program.

Although AU was successful in ending some forms of public funding of Teen Challenge, serious issues remained. In many states, for example, Teen Challenge is loosely regulated, if at all. The group cites its religious ties as an excuse to dodge any form of accountability and oversight.

Teen Challenge is not alone in seeking to avoid scrutiny. Organizations – religious and secular – that run facilities that claim to rehabilitate troubled teens pull in an estimated $50 billion annually, but they resist oversight. Although the tactics of these groups can be controversial – many of them pull children from their homes in the middle of the night and subject them to harsh discipline, isolate them and deny them basic human rights – the industry has so far avoided serious scrutiny.

That may be about to change. In October, The New Yorker ran an in-depth article by staff writer Rachel Aviv that put the “troubled teen” industry under the microscope. Much of Aviv’s story focuses on Teen Challenge.

As Aviv’s story makes clear, there are a host of problems with Teen Challenge. Its centers are lightly 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 called Teen Challenge a “shadow penal system for struggling kids.”)

In her story, Aviv profiled 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. Parents are told to disregard any complaints their kids make about the program because that’s just a ploy to get back home.

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.

In Missouri, a similar group called CNS International Ministries (aka Heartland), which operates boarding schools for teens, filed a lawsuit in federal court in late October, asserting that a new state law that provides oversight of facilities for teens violates its religious freedom.

Missouri’s new forms of oversight are hardly onerous. They require that the schools must notify the state that they exist, conduct background checks on employees and follow health and safety inspections, reported The Kansas City Star.

Officials in the state took action after allegations of abuse, including sexual assault, were leveled at a number of facilities that serve teens. Critics charged that the operators of some of these homes chose to come to Missouri because its law formerly exempted religious institutions from licensing requirements.

“History has shown that we cannot leave these types of institutions totally unregulated with the problems we’ve seen in the recent ones and the abuse the children have endured,” state Rep. Rudy Veit (R-Wardsville), one of the sponsors of the law, told the Star. “Heartland may be a perfectly great school, great institution, and may do many good things, but we cannot assure that for every entity. And that’s why we need some oversight.”

In its lawsuit, Heartland highlights its religious character, writing, “Heartland’s goal happens to be the belief that Jesus is the answer to every issue individuals face – including addiction, anger, broken homes, and financial crises. Heartland’s vision is a Jesus-centered, sustainable, intentional com­munity of hope for the hurting built around a vibrant local church, cultivating individual, family, community, and global transformation through the power of the gospel.”

Teen Challenge uses similar terms to describe its approach.

“The biggest difference between Adult & Teen Challenge and a traditional recovery center is our focus on Christ,” the group’s website reads. “Our programs depend on the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s word to provide our students with a guiding light. Treatment is important, but transformation is key. Through our Bible-based curriculum, students learn how to apply God’s Word to their lives. They also learn to recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives, invite God to help them overcome their life-controlling problems, and become more like Christ.”

Teen Challenge has always been infused with fundamentalist Christianity. The organization was founded in 1961 by David Wilkerson, a Pennsylvania pastor who moved to New York City and began preaching to gang members. Wilkerson authored a book about his experiences, The Cross and the Switchblade, and founded a church. A few months later, Teen Challenge opened its first residential treatment center. Despite the support it often receives from government entities, the organization does not hire people who disagree with its theological outlook.

Groups like Teen Challenge may be in for increased scrutiny. A movement has been launched by adults who were sent to these facilities as teenagers. They’re telling their stories and pushing for reform. (See for more.)

They also have a high-profile spokes­woman. Reality TV star, actress and model Paris Hilton recently made a documentary, “This is Paris,” detailing her experiences in four “troubled teen” facilities she was sent to.

“At all four facilities I was sent to in my teens, I endured physical and psychological abuse by staff: I was choked, slapped across the face, spied on while showering and deprived of sleep,” Hilton wrote in an October op-ed for The Washington Post. “I was called vulgar names and forced to take medication without a diagnosis. At one Utah facility, I was locked in solitary confinement in a room where the walls were covered in scratch marks and blood stains.”

Hilton added, “Sadly, this industry has thrived for decades thanks to a systemic lack of transparency and accountability. An estimated 120,000 young people are housed in congregate-care facilities at any given time across the country, many of them placed through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But there is little oversight. State inspections are typically minimal, and there is no federal or other organized data tracking placements, reporting critical incidents or monitoring quality of care.”

Hilton called for enactment of a federal law to guarantee that “[e]very child placed in these facilities should have a right to a safe, humane environment, free from threats and practices of solitary confinement, and physical or chemical restraint at the whim of staff.” She also recommended that states “create comprehensive reporting systems for incidents of institutional abuse” and “establish standards for best practices and staff training. It should also require states to prove that children’s basic rights are being protected.”

Many of the centers in the troubled-teen industry are secular and for-profit, but plenty of others like Teen Challenge have a religious cast. In light of that, attempts to bring oversight and accountability to this industry are bound to meet stiff resistance and claims that any attempt at regulation violates “religious freedom.”

The discussion of whether it’s appropriate to shuttle troubled teens into these facilities, however, has at least gotten under way. For many of the people who survived time in these programs, that’s long overdue.         



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The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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