Nearly a decade ago, in Greeley, Colorado, two strange men woke David Wernsman in the middle of the night and told him he had to leave his parents’ home. When he resisted, confused and terrified, they pulled a belt around his waist and dragged him to a car.
The men took Wernsman on a plane to a secluded compound in the Dominican Republic, where 30 or 40 other kids were living in prison-like bunks. Wernsman, then 17, stayed at the compound for seven months, doing menial, pointless chores all day, memorizing Bible passages and enduring random, frequent beatings. “I was forced to bend over a chair,” he said. “These guys would hold your belt up to give you a wedgie and then just beat the shit out of you.”
Wernsman’s abduction and subsequent abuse came at the hands of Escuela Caribe, an evangelical-run organization that was one of an untold number of so-called “residential treatment programs” that promise to instill discipline, responsibility and personal change in “troubled” youth. All of the kids had been sent there by their parents. Some didn’t know exactly why they were there. Wernsman, though, had a pretty good idea: About a year before his kidnapping, he'd told his parents he was gay.
On Friday, Wernsman joined a group of advocates to announce a sweeping effort to regulate the industry of residential programs that claim to help such teenagers. Since these programs are not licensed, it's impossible to say how many of them exist. Nor are there any statistics tracking whether or not the programs ever help the teens in their care -- or how badly these teens have been harmed. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has reported that in 2005 alone, 1,619 program employees in 33 states were involved in incidents of abuse. GAO also found that untrained staff, lack of adequate nourishment and reckless operating practices had all contributed to the deaths of teenagers in these programs. According to Survivors of Institutional Abuse, an advocacy group working on the new campaign, more than 300 deaths have been linked to these programs.
“It’s outrageous that neighborhood nail salons are more regulated than the industry of residential schools, camps and wilderness programs that are entrusted with the lives of kids,” said David Garcia, director of public policy for the Los Angeles LGBT Center, another group working on the new campaign, according to a press release on Friday.
Garcia, Wernsman and Jodi Hobbs, one of the founders of Survivors of Institutional Abuse, hope the campaign will raise awareness of the problems at these facilities, which typically present themselves to parents as a wholesome way to help their children. They're also hoping to pass state and federal legislation that will require such programs to obtain a license from the Department of Social Services and ensure that facilities be held accountable for incidents of child abuse or deaths. In California, state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D) has introduced the Protecting Youth from Institutional Abuse Act, and in Washington, D.C., Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is working on similar legislation at the national level.
Other bills of this type have been introduced twice before in the last decade, but were not successful. Still, those involved with this latest campaign say that there has never been such a concerted push to raise public awareness of the issue. Furthermore, organizers say, LGBT groups have never been a part of this movement before. There are no statistics available about why kids are sent to such programs, but according to Hobbs, many are sent because their parents discovered they are LGBT. Others are sent because of drug abuse or depression, or simply because their parents or foster parents no longer want to deal with them.
“We expect California’s legislation to set an example for the rest of the country, but state legislation isn’t enough,” said Jim Key, a spokesperson for the L.A. LGBT Center. “When the abuses of these organizations are exposed in the media, it’s common for them to close and re-open in another state, often under a different name. And parents frequently send kids to programs outside their home state.”
When Wernsman’s parents sent him to Escuela Caribe, little was known about the program. That changed when Kate Logan, a film student from a Christian university in California, visited the facility -- intending only to make a project for school -- and discovered that the kids were beaten, held in solitary confinement and forced to perform punishing physical labor. Logan began filming what would become the 2014 documentary "Kidnapped for Christ," which told Wernsman's story.
A few years after Wernsman's time there, Escuela Caribe shut down. But since then, a program called Crosswinds, which also promises to help troubled youth, has taken over its grounds. On its website, Crosswinds claims to be a “completely separate organization” from Escuela Caribe. Crosswinds did not respond to The Huffington Post’s request for comment.
Today, Wernsman’s parents have accepted his sexuality and even welcomed his boyfriend to their home. And although Wernsman's relationship with his parents has been deeply damaged, he eventually found a way to forgive them.
“Parents are victims too," he said, "because once you get in contact with this sort of facility, they’re a cult and they’ll draw you in, make you believe that you need this."
Survivors say it can take decades to recover from the experience of being in one of these programs. Hobbs was sent to one more than 25 years ago. “I have anxiety, I have self-esteem issues, I have depression, I have post-traumatic stress disorder,” she said this week. “I still deal with my trauma daily.”
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