Other Survivors Speak:
Candice Aiston | Dan Crall | Tabitha Wood | Sara Polvinale | Heather Dennison | Amanda Croft | Jarynna Chua | Maggie Harris | Michelle Thibodaux | Danielle TenBrook
The Investigators and Experts Speak:
Shelby Earnshaw, International Survivor’s Action Committee (ISAC)
- Mollye Barrows, Florida TV Reporter who produced "Secrets In The Schoolhouse"
The interviews and statements that follow have been generously given to me by former "students" of reform schools. They have kindly given me permission to use this information for publication. My deep gratitude goes out to them for having the courage to speak out about this very emotional incident that took place in their lives.
My name is Candice Aiston. I attended Victory Christian Academy in Jay, Florida from June 19, 1992 to June 4, 1995. Before I attended VCA, I was not overtly religious, although my parents baptized and raised me in the Catholic faith. I was sent to VCA because my parents felt that they were desperate for help. I had been expelled from two private schools, had been arrested for shoplifting, and had used illegal drugs on a few occasions. I had severe emotional problems and depression due to the death of my biological mother and my subsequent adoption, and was seeing a psychiatrist.
My parents were worried that I was on a downhill path and turned to Mike Palmer for help on the recommendation of a friend whose daughter was in the school. Speaking with Mike Palmer increased my parents’ fears, leading them to believe that if they did not send me to VCA, I would probably die. In fact, he told them stories about girls who died after their parents decided against sending them to his school. My parents were so desperate to get me to this school that they tricked me into getting on the plane by telling me that we were going to look at boarding schools in California and Florida (which I was willing to consider), and that we were also going to visit Disney World.
My First Experiences at VCA
June 19, 1992 was the worst day of my life. When we got to VCA, we went into Mike Palmer’s office. He asked me right in front of my parents whether I was a druggie and a slut. I felt violated, but responded that I had tried drugs and that I had been raped a few months earlier. I don’t know why I decided to have a tell-all right then. I hadn’t told my parents or anyone. He said that with the crowd I had been hanging out with, he wasn’t surprised, as though it was my fault. He knew nothing about the crowd I hung out with. Then he informed me that my parents had enrolled me in the school. With that, I was taken by two “helpers,” age 15 and 17 to take a shower. When I was in the shower, they took my clothes and gave me horrible thrift-store rags to wear. None of the clothing I had brought was acceptable under VCA rules. I had mostly jeans and T-shirts. They told me that it was a sin for women to wear pants or anything above the knee. They took all of my jewelry because friends had given them to me. They told me to forget about my friends at home. I would not be allowed to talk to them at all, or even be allowed to talk about them. I never saw my best friend ever again. I never got to say goodbye. It still brings tears to my eyes as I write this. She moved away a few months after I left Hawaii. Palmer told my parents to throw away anything relating to old friends, so when I finally got home, there was no way to find her.
This place was so foreign to me, with all its rules and people my own age telling me what to do. Right away, I was told a series of rules, mostly words I wasn’t allowed to say, including: yeah, pants and cool. We were not allowed to talk about our problems, which was exactly what I needed to do at that time in my life. We were not allowed to talk about anyone outside the school besides our immediate family. We weren’t even allowed to talk about famous people. There were also rules that said I couldn’t talk to or look at certain girls. There were only two people in a dorm of about twenty to whom I could speak. I cried the whole first weekend I was there, and was given no sympathy by the staff. Some girls that I wasn’t allowed to talk to would look at me with pity, but the girls I was allowed to talk to just sort of brushed me off.
I had been a vegetarian for a few years, and was forced to eat meat my first day. I either had to eat what was in front of me or let it sit in the refrigerator until I ate it all. I ate the same gross meat for three days, which is probably a health code violation. A few times that I was there, a new girl would be forced to eat such a large amount of food that she would throw up. I’ve seen Palmer catch a girl’s vomit and shove it into her face.
Church was the most shocking part of my first few days. There was a lot of yelling and Palmer would bang his Bible on the pulpit. He would single girls out that he thought were “wolves” (as opposed to “sheep”) and humiliate them. He would call certain girls whores and tell personal stories about them, such as instances in which a girl was raped. He would make it clear that she was to blame for what happened to her. He would ask a girl if she had a boyfriend and if she said yes, he would say that her boyfriend didn’t love her and that he was only using her for sex. He would keep saying it even if she cried, and he would make fun of her for crying. I’ve seen Palmer throw hymn books at girls and hit girls over the head with his Bible. I’ve seen him yell in a girl’s face so that he was spitting on her. I’ve seen him sit girls up in the front of chapel facing the congregation and humiliate her. Palmer is a horrible man. He gets a thrill out of power-trips and hurting people. I’d read the Bible, and I could see no correlation between Jesus' principles and Palmer’s principles.
Most of each day revolved around the Bible. Here is the schedule for Monday through Thursday as I remember:
6:00am Wake up/pray
6:05-6:30 Brush teeth/get ready
6:30-6:45 Read Bible
6:45-7:00 Devotion (Bible lesson by another student)
7:00-7:15 Share “blessings,” then form group circle: sing Christian song, recite Bible verse, pray
7:30-8:30 Clean up/free time (ALLOWED TO TALK)
1:00-1:25 Prepare lunch/free time (ALLOWED TO TALK)
1:25-1:30 Share blessings/circle: sing song, recite Bible verse, pray
1:45-3:00 Chores/free time (ALLOWED TO TALK)
3:00-4:00 Bible Memo (Bible lesson by staff)
4:00-4:30 Read Bible
4:30-5:00 Quiet free time
5:00-5:50 Free time/chores (ALLOWED TO TALK)
5:50-6:00 Share blessings/circle: sing song, recite Bible verse, pray
6:15-7:00 Free time/chores (ALLOWED TO TALK)
7:00-9:00+ Chapel - TBA Bedtime
The total time each day for Bible-related activities is at least 330 minutes, unless you count “school” in which we “learned” from the Accelerated Christian Education program, then Bible time is at least 430 minutes per day. Sometimes, evening chapel lasted well beyond 9:00 p.m., until as late as midnight. On those days, there would be over 600 minutes spent on Bible indoctrination. Meanwhile, girls were afforded only a maximum of 255 minutes of time in which speaking was allowed. However, most girls had jobs to perform during the times in which speaking was allowed, so some girls were afforded no speaking time at all.
Friday, we had quiet time the entire day. Then at 5 p.m. we started our Friday night. We didn’t have to go to chapel. We usually had a pretty good meal and candy. Then we usually watched a movie. The only movies we were allowed to watch were Disney movies and movies about Jesus. We watched a movie once about another school like ours. I think it was about one of the Straight programs. I think it was supposed to teach us that we weren’t so bad off after all, but it seemed exactly the same, except we had a fundamental Baptist theme.
Saturday was a day of chores. There were chores every day, but all of Saturday was spent doing chores. We didn’t have dinner on Saturday. Then we had chapel in the evening. Sunday was a full day of quiet time. It was the only day we got to drink real milk instead of powdered milk. It was church day. We went twice. In between, we had lunch and a four-hour period in which we had to stay on our beds. Sunday night was when there would be “rap” sessions, in which the staff and helpers would criticize different girls for everything from being annoying to being a phony Christian.
The Accelerated Christian Education program is a useless go-at-your-own-pace learning system. There are 12 paces for each subject for each year. So ideally, a student finishes 60 paces each year. Each pace is about 20-40 pages long, and consists of a few paragraphs of information followed by a few questions about the information, then more paragraphs and questions, and so on. The answers to the questions are found verbatim in the preceding paragraph. In each pace, the student is required to memorize a Bible verse. There is also a cartoon throughout each pace in which Ace, the main character throughout the PACE series, and his friends learn a lesson about Bible values.
At the end of each pace is a three-page “test.” The “teacher” (I use that term loosely, since they are not licensed or even college graduates) tapes the pace together except for the test portion so you can’t look at the information inside the book. Honestly, if someone needed to look back to pass the test, they probably have some sort of learning disability that should be addressed. The questions on the test are the exact same questions from the problems in the pace. Nothing is taught in any subject which may contradict the Bible. Since the program was so easy, I was able to graduate when I was sixteen-and-a-half, then had to stay and take extra courses until just after my 17th birthday. I was valedictorian, which, for all practical purposes, is unimpressive. Extracurricular activities at VCA include: nothing. I was into track, cross-country, and soccer before VCA.
My biggest complaint about VCA is the emotional abuse. Examples:
- I was told my parents were going to go to hell since they are Catholic and that it was my job to make sure they “got saved.”
- I was forced to watch videos about “the rapture,” in which non-Christians and non-fundamentals were portrayed as evil Satan-worshippers and were ultimately sent to burn in hell after all the Christians were taken to heaven. Even people who thought they were saved had been wrong and were left behind. It made me seriously question whether I was saved or not. I tried to get re-saved almost every single day I was at VCA and for months after I left. I had nightmares about hell every night.
- I was forced to listen to “fire-and-brimstone” preaching. I was called a whore and a druggie. I was repeatedly told that I was a bad person. I was criticized for being too smart.
- I was not allowed to speak for weeks at a time.
- I was forced to eat meat when I was a vegetarian.
- I was forced to eat large portions of food, or risk being force-fed.
- For punishment, I was deprived of food and made to sit and watch others eat.
- I was given lines to write for violating rules that didn’t exist or were unknown to me. For example, I was given 1000 lines to write for accidentally throwing away an elastic cord that was there to hold a trash bag in the trash can. I didn’t know the cord was there. I just lifted the trash bag, and the cord went in with the trash. By the way, 1000 lines are nearly impossible to write in the allotted 24-hour period. If you don’t finish them on time, they double. This happened to me. My lines doubled and doubled until they reached about 10,000 and I was placed in “detention.” When you are in detention, all you do all day is sit and write your lines. You are not allowed to talk, your food portion is cut in half, and you don’t get dessert. They take away any stuffed animals and pictures of your family. You are also not allowed to participate in Friday night activities. Instead of watching a movie and eating a good meal, you have to sit with the other people in detention, or people who got more than 14 demerits that week, and you write lines. I was in detention a month that time.
If I didn’t behave in conformance with the staff’s expectations, I was ridiculed in front of the entire school. Every week, we would have a “rap,” in which girls were encouraged to say bad things about the other girls in front of everyone. Staff would bring up that they thought a girl smelled bad or something embarrassing in front of everyone. Preachers would also single girls out in chapel to harass and intimidate. Girls were ridiculed for having a bad attitude or crying. Some had personal stories told about them in front of everyone, such as how they had been raped because of their own fault. Frequently, Palmer would have a girl bring her chair up to the front of the chapel and sit facing the crowd while he humiliated her. He would yell at her while standing no more than an inch from her face, sometimes pointing his finger into her face so that he was actually poking her. Sometimes if a girl seemed to not be paying attention, he would throw a hymn book at her or hit her over the head with a Bible.
I had no access to a telephone. I also had limited access to communication with my parents, period. The staff read all incoming and outgoing mail. If a girl tried to tell her parents about something going on in the school, the staff would either throw the letter away of black out parts they didn’t want the parent to see. The staff also blacked out things from our parents that they didn’t want us to read. We were not allowed to write letters to friends or other unapproved family members. My parents told me that the staff would write notes in the margins if I tried to report instances of abuse or bizarre rituals. They would write that I was lying and trying to manipulate them. My parents feel that they were coached into thinking I was lying about everything. They believed the staff so much that every time the staff said I wasn’t ready to come home, my parents made me stay longer. I stayed three years in all.
When I left, the staff tried to convince my parents to make me stay for even longer. They said I wasn’t ready to go home yet. I thought I would never leave. I told my parents I would kill myself if I had to stay any longer. I was completely serious. There was a picture board at the school that showed how long each girl had been there. They saw that I had been there about two years longer than everyone else there and finally decided to take me home.
Sometimes, when a girl complained in a letter to her parents, Palmer would bring the letter to chapel and read it to everyone. Then the girl would be ridiculed, and other girls were encouraged to participate in humiliating her. Girls who did not accept the Palmer’s form of Christianity were denied privileges until they caved in and either succumbed to the brainwashing or faked it for the sake of survival.
If girls in the school became best friends, they were put on “separation” in which they were not allowed to talk to one another, look at one another, or even talk about one another. I was put on separation from approximately ten girls in my three-year stay for no other reason than being best friends with a girl. You can imagine how adept my social skills were after I left VCA.
We were not allowed to touch in any way, except while holding hands in a prayer circle. No tapping a shoulder, no hugging a sad friend, no friendly pat on the back. If you accidentally touched someone, you would be given a demerit - 500 lines that would say, “I will not touch girls,” or a Bible verse relating to homosexuality. I still flinch a bit when someone so much as taps me on the shoulder. After all, it was three years that I lived with this rule. Some girls were sent to the school to be “cured” of homosexuality. These girls would be called “queers” and “dikes” by Palmer in chapel. He would preach about how they were an abomination to the Lord. It was extremely cruel.
Racist language was used all the time. I’ve heard the following in chapel: nigger, beaner, chink, jap, towel-head, and sand-nigger. We had girls at the school who were Black, Mexican, Asian, Indian, Persian, Hawaiian, and others. Some staff let their beliefs be known that God did not approve of interracial relationships even though we had girls there who were biracial.
When I had been at VCA for two years (I was 15), I had a relationship with a girl who was 18 and a staff member (she had been a student before turning 18 and was sent to the school by her parents to cure her of homosexuality). I wasn’t a homosexual, but I think I needed some sort of affection after going so long without it. A girl in the school found out about it and told Mrs. Palmer. The staff member was fired, but was rehired after I graduated. The staff never told my parents, and I believe the reason they didn’t was because of liability issues. They made me feel like they were doing me a favor by not telling my parents, and that my parents would be completely disgusted with me if they found out. I never told anyone what happened until just a few months ago. The staff member no longer works at VCA. Her parents now run the school - the Cookstons.
About Rebecca Ramirez
When I had been at VCA for about four or five months, Palmer began acting very strangely. He lost about fifty pounds and started preaching almost every single day in chapel (usually, the male staff took turns). All of Palmer’s “sermons” were about love and romance. He preached from Song of Solomon and Esther. He spent two days describing what Esther looked like. The weird thing about that is that he described Rebecca Ramirez while looking right at her. He even described her body, which was creepy. He also called Rebecca into his office a lot and she stayed for long periods of time. Rebecca is a gifted piano player; Palmer would sit and watch her play for hours.
Around November of 1992, Rebecca was put back on buddy by Patty Palmer. Mike Palmer put her back at helper right after, and Patty left for about a week. She came back when Rebecca left. Then Palmer left. He was gone for about six months. We weren’t supposed to talk about what happened, but I found out from staff and helpers that Patty Palmer accused Rebecca of seducing Mike Palmer, which was ridiculous because he is absolutely disgusting. She blamed Palmer’s strange behavior on his drastic weight loss. It was obvious that it was he who was sickly enthralled with her.
With the dynamic of school, there would be no way out for Rebecca. His authority at the school was so absolute that I thanked God it wasn’t me. There would have been no one to tell, nothing to do; it would have been hell. It was hell for Rebecca. All the staff knew what happened, and no one did a thing. They all blamed Rebecca even though she was only about 15 or 16 and he was over 50. It was absolutely sick.
A couple of years later, some investigators from some department came to talk to girls in the school. We were told beforehand that they would be coming, and that they would tell what we said. They said we better not try to manipulate them by telling lies about the school. But I knew what that meant: We better not tell the truth about the school. When the investigators came in, they shook hands with the staff and it seemed like they knew each other. When I was called in, they said I should be honest, but I did not believe that for a minute. They asked if there was abuse, and I think they asked questions relating to Rebecca, but I just lied. I said, “Nope, no abuse here. I love this place.” I was not going to make my life more miserable, and I was not going to blow my chances of going home.
Life after VCA
I feel that this school was so emotionally devastating to me that it’s like a piece of me died there–the part of me that was still a child. I was emotionally damaged when I got there. I had the pain of being abandoned and rejected by my biological parents, the pain and humiliation of being raped, and then the pain of being abandoned and rejected again by my adoptive parents. As if I didn’t have enough emotional baggage on my plate, I had to be told every day how worthless I was and how all these things that had happened to me were my own fault.
I don’t want any girl to have to go through what I did. Yet, there are dozens of girls there right now. They’re being berated and humiliated. They’re being told they are worthless. They are being told they will go to hell. They are being told their parents will go to hell. They’re being held in a get-right room. They’re being fed their own vomit. They’re being denied access to medical care. Who knows? Maybe a girl is being sexually abused right now. You have no reason to know. The State of Florida has no reason to know. VCA is not regulated by the state. It is regulated by Florida Association of Christian Child-Caring Agencies (FACCCA). Palmer is FACCCA’s Vice President, which amounts to a clear conflict of interest. While I was at VCA for three years, no one from FACCCA ever came to check things out. FACCCA members may have come to visit their friends, the Palmers, but not to inspect the school. Even so, if someone had come and asked me whether everything was okay, you’d better believe I would have kept my mouth shut. My life at VCA was miserable. There was no way I would make it worse.
I have so many more stories, but cannot record them all in this statement. I could tell you about ten-year-olds who had to write thousands of lines. I could tell you about new girls being beaten up by several helpers and staff members at a time. I could tell you about all the girls I know who are emotionally broken–drug addicts, prostitutes, convicted criminals, mentally insane–because of VCA. I will do anything I can to get this school shut down, and at the very least subject it to state regulation. I hope anyone who reads my statement and the dozens of other VCA survivor statements will join me in this fight.
Statement of Dan Crall
Dan Crall is 28 years old and lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He attended Victory Home for Boys when he was a teen. Victory Home for Boys operated under the same type of hard-line religion as most religious reform schools. I thought it would be fitting to include the statement of a man who went through a similar situation. It's important to remember that girls are not the only ones who have been locked up against their will. Mr. Crall has graciously provided his story below describing his experience and feelings on this subject. I asked the questions and the answers below are his words entirely.
MU: Please describe your experience in a boy's reform school environment. Also, I'd like to know the following: Were you abused, and if so, how; when did this take place; where was it located and why did you have to go there?
DC: My experience at Victory Homes for Boys (VH) in Amberg, Wisconsin was a mixed experience. I had some good times, met some good people, successfully completed my eighth grade year and did learn some important lessons: I learned to control myself, and to get along in normal society without vandalizing property, always being in conflict with other people and in trouble at school.
Before VH, I was pretty hyper-active, destructive and annoying as hell, I would imagine. The most important part of the curriculum that VH wanted all of us to leave with was a new, devoted relationship with Jesus Christ. I left wanting anything but. While I was there, I was forbidden to talk about past "sins," we never watched movies that were not boring, PG or G-rated family/Christian films, we were not allowed to listen to any "Satan's music" (any music with a beat, or anything that was not Gospel/church music...even Christian rock was demonized, and called "worldly"). We were not allowed to do much of anything that was not in line with hard-line, fundamentalist principles. This really sucked because a lot of the things that were important at that time in my life were all made out to be grave sins, with no room for flexibility. All the teachings were Biblically based, but the only motivation to buy into what they said was fear.
It wasn't too interesting. We woke up with Bible devotions, went to school down the hill where Bible class was a significant part of the day, we had a chapel service every evening, we went to church 3 times a week in town at a boring, strict Baptist church... and all throughout the day, God was the topic of the leaders' discussion, at least 90% of the time.
As a form of punishment for 3 demerits or more during one day, we would have to write the same Bible verse over and over for an entire hour, filling at least 3 pages of paper, front and back. I usually had more than 3 demerits each day.
Along with many others at various times, I was put on "restriction" in which I would sit in a walk-in coat closet at a desk, not allowed to talk to anyone, though they were around in nearby rooms. When we went to church, those on restriction were not allowed to converse with anyone, aside from the VH staff.
While it was no fun at the time, I look back and don't consider this "inhumane" considering how bad some other people have been/ are currently punished at boarding schools. I was never physically abused, though I did have a weird encounter with the house-parent Mr. Baker, who once tried to give me a wedgie with this creepy smile on his face. This took place in the kitchen after dinner, and others were nearby doing after-dinner chores; it was something I walked away from quickly. Nothing of the sort ever happened again. I never reported it because it seemed kind of insignificant to me, and thought that maybe I was playing it out in my own perverted mind too much. It really didn't bother me at the time... and still doesn't today. It was just a little weird. I really don't think that he meant any harm. Maybe the devil got a hold of him momentarily.
As far as I know, nobody else was physically or sexually abused at the home. We were all subject to the stiff, legalistic ideology, preparation for a boring and sheltered life, and the brainwashing.
I was sent to VH because my mother was tired of the daily phone calls from the school principal; I never behaved at church, around town or anywhere. I had also vandalized many vehicles in my younger years, and on one occasion got caught by the owner of a junkyard, who assessed over $2,500 in damage. My mom was unaware of the legalistic practices and beliefs of this school. She had consulted with them and asked if they were followers of Jack Hyles (former Fundamental Baptist empire leader). They didn't subscribe to Hyles, or any specific Christian leader that I was aware of. They had many friends in the ministry, but their main source was the King James Version of the Holy Bible. My mom felt that this was what I needed.
MU: What changes would you like to see with these reform schools?
DC: My experience was different from many kids who have been sexually and physically abused. I was not abused, but I was brainwashed day in and day out. I do believe that boarding school curriculum should be monitored by competent officials. I am hesitant to say that state/govt. officials should be in charge, because many of them are simply incompetent. These places should be honest and up-front with their ideology and beliefs to the parents who are sending their kids there and the child who is going to the school should be aware as well. If they are hard-line fundamentalists, that should be disclosed, rather than just quoting a bunch of verses in their mission statement.
While trying to get these leaders to "cool it on the God stuff" is not an option, they need to know that brainwashing and forcing their ideals down one's throat never yields good results, unless the person they brainwash has a mind that accommodates fear and being controlled as the norm. As a side note, I truly am not aware whether or not VH was state-licensed.
MU: Do you think these reform schools have a negative effect on teens who have been placed there against their will? Why or why not?
DC: I think it really depends on the school, the teen, and their lot in life. Some teens really need the discipline and structure that some boarding schools offer. Others do not. There should be a thorough assessment by the school's officials as to whether or not the teen needs their assistance, rather than assuming, "Everyone needs the Lord, and here's another body to put in the school." As for the troubled teens who DO need the rehabilitation, going to the measures of sending them to a boarding school may be the only answer. As for teens who are average, rebellious hormone-balls, there may be a better answer. Perhaps a shorter time of being institutionalized... for instance, a summer away can make a lot of difference, whereas an entire year can be too much. In my situation, 4-5 months (or half a school year) would have been plenty of time. A whole school year was too long.
MU: What would you say to a parent who is considering placing their teen in an unlicensed reform facility that forces religion and uses solitary confinement as a means to rehabilitate?
DC: If you are hoping that your teen will become a devoted Christian, in the process of rebuilding a troubled life, it's very important that you understand what brand of Christianity they are being subjected to. Hard-line, fundamentalist, all-or-nothing salvation is not the way to convert anyone, unless you simply want fear of hellfire to win them over. The leaders and mentors who taught me the fundamentalist view of Christ rarely had anything to say about peace, love, forgiveness and the joy that can come with being a Christian.
Or maybe they did, but they sure made it sound boring, guilt-ridden and unrewarding. They focused on how angry God is, and why sinners should beware. They were judgmental as hell, but once you turned the tables on them, they would quote, "Judge not, lest ye be judged." They had an answer in the form of a Bible verse for everything.
This brand of Christianity borders on dangerous, if not just spiritually devoiding. I know there are worse fundamentalists out there who use the Bible as a means to justify abuse, racism, violence and other TRUE evil sins. I got the kind that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and makes you hunger the "things of the world." This is not the way to convert anyone in a way that will be a lasting, productive change. Eventually, they will look the entire concept over and rebel against it. They may also come to the conclusion that religion sucks and not want any part of God...or any religious ideals for the rest of their lives.
MU: How did you feel when you were released from the boy's facility you were in? Were you angry at your parents? Did you suffer from depression?
DC: I was angry at my mom, for not taking me out of VH when I begged her to at the halfway point. I knew I had learned all I was going to learn, and was desperate to get out. After I returned home she was a lot more lenient with me, as far as allowing me to choose what music I would listen to, how I would dress, etc. (very important to me at that time of my adolescent/teenage life.)
She did try to get me into church when I returned home, and I wanted no part of it. I hated God, and all Christian activity like never before. I wanted to "feed my flesh" or give into "sinful" desires... though, looking back, the "sinful" desires I had were normal.
Listening to rock music, laughing at and telling dirty jokes, looking at girls, swearing... those were so demonized by Pastor Steve and his goons at VH. I now believe the real evil in this world (as mentioned before) is violence, hatred, racism, greed- but these were not the main focus when Pastor Steve discussed what went against God.
After I left VH I took in all the "filth of the world" that I possibly could, and to this day, still seek out ungodly, worldly spirituality, entertainment, etc. There have been times that I have actively chosen the "low road" just to go against the Christian way. I still have this very small part of my mind that thinks that deep down, the entertainment I choose is evil, and feel like I should have guilt over it. But, I don't allow myself to. There is also a part of me that realizes that Christ doesn't have to be the angry stiff I was introduced to. I also never evangelize anyone because I don't want to sound like those assholes at VH. I am hesitant to talk about Christ and God's love, because I do not want to identify with that brand of Christianity. I don't seek out Christian fellowship, unless I know the Christian has a good, liberal head on their shoulders.
I find a nice balance in Unitarian Universalism, in that it is a church without dogma or a creed. I am able to think for myself, have a responsible search for truth and meaning and look to many sources of wisdom in a community of like-minded people. The Unitarian Universalist Church was the first church I ever joined on my own free will. I rarely enjoy experiences at Christian churches because I still associate Christians with being strict and boring, or just plain dorky. I also don't feel that people who gather in the name of a religion that forsakes other religion to be open-minded. Open mindedness is very important to me in a church community.
I do feel a connection with God/Source/Spirit when I take solitary walks in the Oregon forest. Out there, I am able to communicate and listen to the Divine Being. During these times, I feel a sense of peace, and I want to go out and help others, love the unlovable and put out positive energy. This is not the same feeling I got while stuck at VH, being forced to subscribe to their unexciting way of connecting with God.
I am thankful that I can find that peace with God now. While I often struggle, I have faith and thankfulness to the God that has blessed me in many ways, and am happy that I can recognize that in my own way. THAT is true spirituality.
Statement of Tabitha Wood
My name is Tabitha Wood and I attended Victory Christian Academy from August 28, 1998 to June 17, 1999. I was sent there when I was 16 years old. Before I was sent to Victory, I had a nice life. I was the middle child of 5 children, on the honor roll, a cheerleader, on the track team, went to church regularly. I was raised in a Christian home and always knew right from wrong. My family always held a standard of “goodness” in the community. Yet underneath this I was hurting. My biological mother had left me, my 2 sisters and brother when we were just babies and my dad remarried my step-mom just a few years after that and had my baby sister. I couldn’t ever get over the fact that she wasn’t coming back. My step-mom and I fought a lot.
Sadly, like most teens do, I did choose to experience some of the “wrong” things. I grew up in a small town where parties on the weekend were the place to be. I started hanging out with the people who went to these parties. Not to say I didn’t make it out to one or two myself, but my parents kept a pretty tight chain on me and I didn’t leave the house much. I decided that smoking was “cool” and brought some cigarettes home that were later found by my dad. I ran away one day after school only to be brought home later that night by the police. I didn’t really run away for any particular reason, I think I just wanted to see what would happen. My parents started sending me to counseling once a week, but I didn’t like the lady who was counseling me so it didn’t last too long. I started cutting myself with pieces of glass because something inside me hurt so badly. When my parents saw the marks on my arms, they made fun of it like I was looking for attention and, in a way, I suppose I was. But they did nothing.
When someone asks me what I did to get sent to Victory, I don’t really know what to tell them. My first instinct is to say “Nothing, my parents just sent me there.” But I’m sure there has to be something so wrong and so bad that made me deserve to have my parents take me out of my home and leave me with total strangers, give them temporary custody of me and walk away. But even now as I sit here, nothing comes to mind. I have heard it told by my parents that they wanted to “save me from myself” and that I was “on a path of destruction.” I never saw it that way and still don’t. I was hurting and needed someone to help me and help was a far cry away for what awaited me at Victory Christian Academy.
I can still remember the morning I left like it just happened. Even when I replay it in my mind it seems surreal. Early in the morning my dad came to my room to wake me up. He opened the door and said, “Pack your bags, were taking you to look at a school in Florida.” I remember I said something like, I can’t, I have a test, or a game, and my dad said, “Don’t worry about that, we’ll be back on Sunday.” I remember packing with an attitude, like, “I’m not bringing anything, I don’t want to go look at a stinking school today.” The fact that my parents were looking at schools for me didn’t surprise me. They had been threatening to send me away for sometime. My problems were embarrassing to them. They simply told me they wanted to look at a specific school in Florida and wanted me to come with them. I slept on the ride to the airport, and when we got there I said I was going to find a restroom to put my makeup on. I got up and started walking away and my mom jumped up and followed behind me. At that moment, I got an eerie feeling like something was wrong. In the restroom, I asked her why she was following me and she said “To make sure you don’t do anything stupid.” I got a little scared. On the plane, I sat next too my dad. I asked him if they were planning on leaving me at this school and he said no. He even went so far as to show me my ticket home. I saw that ticket and felt relived. My family was not rich, in fact, at sometimes struggling and if my parents had shelled out for a round-trip ticket then that meant I was coming home. Stupid me.
We arrived in Pensacola, Florida, rented a car and started driving out of town. I asked my mom why we couldn’t go to the hotel first and she said we had an appointment with the school and need to get there as soon as possible. We drove out of the city, past numerous cotton fields all the way to a tiny town named Jay. I remember pulling up in front of the school thinking we were lost because it looked like someone’s house.
Mrs. Palmer met us at the door and started talking about the school, how many girls were there, what a wonderful time they all had, etc. All the girls were in skirts and had really long hair and no make-up. I remember thinking how lost and sad they all looked. I knew I was going to tell my parents, No way, I was not staying at this school.
After taking us all around the property, Mrs. Palmer asked to speak to my parents alone. I sat in a chair outside her office and watched the girls. I noticed that none of them were looking at me. A few minutes later my parents came out, looked at me, and then just started walking away. They never said anything or even hugged me. Mrs. Palmer came out behind them and said she needed to speak to me. I asked her where my parents were going and she told me they had decided to leave me there. I don’t know why, but I didn’t try to run after them, even though my head said to, my feet never moved. I didn’t start crying or screaming, I wanted to, but I was motionless and just stood there. I went into her office and sat down. She told me that my parents felt like this was the right choice and I was staying at the school. The first thing I told her was I had no clothes or anything. She said my parents had packed me a suitcase and sent it days before. I have never felt so betrayed in my life. That’s when the tears started. Not hysterically, just slow, hot tears pouring down my face onto my lap. The next few days were a blur of tears.
First thing they did was strip me naked, in front of a total stranger staff member and 2 other girls, made me take a shower (even though I told them I had just showered, they said I would not get another chance to shower for 2 days) and dressed me in the most hideous skirt and pantyhose and heels. I felt so alone. I refused to eat dinner and was told that if I didn’t eat it tonight, I would be eating it for breakfast. You were made to comply with the rules.
I soon discovered that only one other girl was allowed to talk to me, and that was the only person I could talk to while I was on “buddy” which would last at least a month. It was awful. I was not allowed to go outside for 2 months. I was not allowed to go ANYWHERE without this girl following me. Including the bathroom. And where she went, I had to follow.
All the rules were laid on me in no particular order, and I was told there was no book to read with the rules and schedule because it would be too long and that new rules were added daily. I was not allowed to talk to my parents for three months and didn’t see them for seven. We could only take showers at certain time, certain days. I was not allowed to shave my legs for 6 months. Most of the rules were to more or less remind us that we had no control over our lives anymore. I remember my whole stay there thinking that any day, someone, anyone would find out what was going on and come busting through the door and rescue us. I wanted the police and reporters to bring this place to light and save me. But it never happened.
We wrote our parents (as it was required twice a week) and told them how much we had changed and agreed that we were little devils that need to be abandoned and were now ready to go home. Our letters were all read before they were mailed so you couldn’t ever tell what really went on. I remember begging my parents to let me go home just for the holidays only to have a staff member make me rewrite my letter to instead tell about our up-coming Christmas play. Food was the only escape and even that was monitored and used to control us.
Before I left a new rule was added that you were no longer allowed to talk about food. I saw girls so emotionally abused that they wouldn’t even get out of bed so staff dragged them into hallways and kept them there till they “got it right.” Other girls refused to eat, or to write home, or write their lines. All were placed either in a hallway or the “get right room.” Just the thought of being placed there kept most girls in line. Girls who didn’t behave were always the topic of Bro. Palmer’s sermons. He loved to pick out certain girls that were having a particularly hard time and make examples of how the devil was trying to stop his ministry. I saw him bring girls to tears telling them that their parents hated them and the only place they were going was to hell. He was brutal.
To sum it up, my stay changed me and not particularly for the better. I learned that I was not good enough to love. I did not deserve one on one time with anyone to talk about what was going on around me and inside me. I learned to say what my parents wanted to hear. It broke my spirit and my soul. It still hurts me today. I am 25 and I have two daughters of my own. I am a stay at home mom and have finally found what makes me feel complete. It has taken many long, hard roads to find out that I am ok. I have been in and out of therapy since I left the school trying to get a grip on what happened there and why my parents left me with strangers who only cared if I memorized my scriptures. I am still on medication for panic attacks that come on for no reason. My doctor believes it is related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I went through severe drug and alcohol abuse when I was in college and it has been a long, painful road to the place I am now.
I still have problems with trust and with churches. I am a Christian and still believe in God, I just found out the hard way that all Christians don’t love. Having children of my own makes it very difficult to understand how my parents gave up on me so easily. I have not talked to them about the school, and they have not asked.
The day before I was to leave the school I was placed on buddy for something I did not do and the staff told my parents that I need to stay at the school longer because of this. My parents couldn’t afford to leave me there any longer so they placed me in a Teen Challenge facility near Tulsa until I graduated. I have always felt that I lost a part of me at VCA. Now, with a family of my own, I move on, a survivor. I am part of a group of former Victory girls and we share stories and try to locate lost friends. We are also doing everything we can to get places like this closed. It has helped me get some sort of closure on that chapter of my life and realize that I am not the only one who was hurt by these people.
Statement of Sara Polvinale
I was threatened with going there for months and when I ran away from home, my parents didn't know what to do with me any more, so we took the drive up there and they decided to leave me there. I hated it from the second I got there. Everyone seemed pretty fake. I was there for a couple of days and I was feeling sick to my stomach, I thought it was just nerves...when the sickness stayed with me for a while; I went to Ms. Betty and told her I thought I was pregnant. She thought it was a ridiculous idea and gave me a pregnancy test. She said it came out negative.
A month and a 1/2 passed and I didn't get my period, so I went to her again. She insisted it was just because of a change of atmosphere. So on Christmas, I talked to my mom and told her. She talked to Ms. Betty; she said I just wanted to go home. I knew I was pregnant. So in February, was my first visit from my parents. I didn't say anything because I was afraid to go home. The staff told us we would never be anything if we went home. In March my parents came and had a concern about my sudden weight gain. Again, Ms. Betty reassured them I was lying. In April my parents had made me an appt. with a dr. since they wouldn't take me to the doctor up there. Sure enough I was pregnant, with concerns. I had begun dilating and my cervix was short. They didn't want me to even take the ride home. My parents finally took me home.
Brother Palmer told me I was a slut and I'm not going to amount to anything. Ms. Betty told me the same thing basically, but in a nicer way. I wasn't allowed to go say goodbye to my friends I made there, because they looked down on me. While I was there 2 girls ran away on Christmas Eve. They were found and brought back to VCA. They had so many scratches and marks on them; it looked like they were beaten. It was just a very hard time, being there knowing I was pregnant and they lied to my parents about it. I don't have a lot of memories from there. I remember we were on dorm silence like a total of 3 out of my 5 months there. It wasn't a good environment, and they didn't care about anything but money, why else would they have lied to my parents. When my parents found out I was pregnant, the staff at VCA still tried to keep me there.
Some questions I asked Sara; here's what she had to say:
MU: How old were you when you were taken to Victory Christian Academy?
MU: What did your mom think when she found out you were pregnant and your pleas to go to the doctor were ignored?
SP: My Mom was really mad. She felt that they knew I was pregnant, but lied to her every time she would ask about my appearance and my pregnancy test just to get more money out of her.
MU: Did you suffer problems during your pregnancy as a result of being denied a doctor visit?
SP: Yes, I was on bed rest for the 4 months and was dilated due to excessive forced activity.
MU: What did Palmer talk about when he preached at Chapel?
SP: He talked about how getting your GED is a cop-out, and I remember this one time a bunch of girls went home for visits around Christmas and I guess they all saw each other on their visits and one girl had sex with a guy. Brother Palmer told the whole school and humiliated her...it was so sad. I felt bad for her. He talked a lot about how we are all going to hell if we don't do what they say is being a Christian.
MU: Did other girls ever complain about anything in regard to the way the home was being run?
SP: Many girls were unhappy and didn't like the way it was run. There were rats in my dorm.
MU: How is your life now? How old are you now?
SP: My life is great now, except for miserable memories from there. I try to put it in the past, but at the same time I want people to know so they don't put their child in a program like VCA. I think we were treated like prisoners...yellow shirts and you can't talk to anyone about your problems; how is that suppose to help you move forward?
I'm 19 now and Palmer said I'd be working a McDonald's the rest of my life. I did get my GED, I'm in college to be a teacher and I work full time. I have my own place and pay my own way and I'm engaged and I have a wonderful son. My son got to experience VCA with me and that's what got me through; knowing I wasn't alone. And the reason for my change has nothing to do with VCA, it's because of my son. I think this is a great thing you're doing and I hope your book reaches a lot of people.
Statement of Heather Dennison
I spoke with Heather in January of 2007. I asked her about Carey Dunn who died while helping with a construction project at VCA. Here is what she had to say:
Carey Died On September 23, 1988; I remember the date because I wrote it down in my bible and still have it. I had only been there for about 25 days. We were building a church big enough for 250 people - there were 90 girls there at that time and growing so as you can imagine they needed a lot of room for our Sunday visits with parents and a lot of outsiders that were members of the church. A stack of lumber fell on top of Carey causing severe head trauma she died at Palomar hospital. My buddy’s name at the time was Allison she was also a helper - I only remember her first name and that she was blond, a lot of my first days I blocked out because they were terrible. The day Carey died I was in the all to famous ‘get right room’ hand cuffed to a wooden chair an d my face completely duck taped I remember hearing the helicopter and thinking thank God someone knows what they are doing to me and they are here to save me. Nobody came for me the helicopter was for Carey. I saw a lot of Carey before I had been stuck in that room she was the animal helper and Alison and her were friends they use to talk out by the chicken coop she was really pretty long ash brown hair and a very pretty smile. She smiled at me and she wasn’t supposed to because I was still on buddy. I remember thinking that she had the best job there - Celia and Maui the chow dogs gave her a lot of love that she probably wasn’t getting from anyone else. It’s ironic how we had very little adult supervision yet they were in complete control of all of us. We were all victims. Shortly after Carey died they let me out. I was still on buddy for longer than a month. I think there was a lot going on within the fence like threats of being closed down. In devotions, Miss Virginia said that they would not get a license because then they would have to hire gays and heathens. Within a week after Carey died the whole school and staff took busses to Hesperia which is were she lived before victory. We attended her memorial service. Palmer actually held it. I kind of think that her parents thought it to be God’s will. I remember the staff hugging her mother and family - it was so sad. After that we were bussed quiet frequently out to Poway to a church with no food or anything. The staff was so on edge we sat in that church forover 13 hours. We found out licensing had gone to inspect with the fire marshal’s and a warrant. They wanted to interview girls that had witnessed the accident so they hid us down the hilluntil the coast was clear.
I was at victory for a total of 19 months. While there I developed a condition called Psoriasis. An onset of it is usually caused by stress. I have social anxiety disorder and have dealt with severe depression on and off for the last 20 years so I’d say Victory caused a lot of damage to a lot of young girls
Statement of Amanda Croft
After six years, the memories of Victory Christian Academy are still fairly fresh in my mind. I think about it constantly. Sometimes I wonder about what I would be like if I didn’t go to VCA. Would I be dead? Maybe, but maybe not. Knowing that girls are still being tortured there makes me sick to my stomach. Someone’s got to stop them.
I had just turned 15 when I arrived in Jay on March 24, 2000. I had been child-safety locked into my dad’s Durango the entire drive from Orlando. When I arrived at the school the SUV was surrounded by 8 staff members to drag me out and into the building. “This can be done calmly, or you can make this painful and hard, it’s your choice,” they said as 4 people held on to my two arms and yanked me out of the car like some raccoon caught by Animal Services. I was in shock, I had no idea what was going on, and I couldn’t think of what I had possibly done to get me here.
They took me immediately to a small bathroom located in the house portion of the school where I was stripped by “helpers” (students with responsibilities), and pushed into a cold shower to wash away whatever they thought we might have on our skin. Then, the helpers searched you to remove piercing, jewelry, find tattoos, and ask you personal questions to make sure you weren’t pregnant, or didn’t have any diseases. During your shower, the staff members went through any luggage you had. Photos of friends, boyfriends, or anyone not in your immediate family was stored, clothing they deemed inappropriate was either stored or thrown away. They even went as far as to throw away a stuffed animal I brought with me that my boyfriend had given me. Then you were put into what we liked to call “Victory Approved Clothing” – which for new girls is a dress or skirt, stockings, and pumps and is typically items left behind by other girls (yes, including underwear) who have left the school.
Your first day is the worst. It does get easier, but only because you are forced to do things the way they want every girl to be. After your shower, and getting dressed, you are allowed to have whatever may be left of your personal items. They look me to Mercy dorm, which was located in the upstairs portion of the old house. My new “buddier” was Mary. While on buddy, you are only allowed to talk to the helper you are assigned to or other senior helpers, unless she passes you on to another helper to watch you and you are not allowed to speak to other girls who aren’t helpers. Mary told me what the daily schedule was and informed me of the simple rules as I ran into the situations. Only 5 things on your dresser, bed must be made a certain way, quiet time, Bible readings, meal and sleep schedules. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without her standing over me.
The property itself was pretty, with a fountain in the front, freshly cut green grass and a large southern style brick house. It’s when you entered into the gates of hell that you realize how unbelievably trapped you really are. There were 5 dorms. Mercy dorm, my first dorm, held 16 girls (8 sets of bunk-beds). The 3 other dorms were located in the newer addition to the main house. Love, which was the largest dorm, holding about 36 girls, and Faith which held 8 girls and Joy which held 6. Mercy had its own shower since it was all alone in the main house. Love, Faith and Joy shared the shower area of 6 shower stalls that are about 4 feet wide by 4 feet deep. You were allowed only 8 minutes to shower. The shower helper sat outside of the shower and counted down the minutes with a timer. When the time was up, you had 3 minutes to be dressed and out of the shower for the next group of girls. There was also a shower schedule. You were only allowed to take a shower during your scheduled time, and times were changed once a week. Laundry was done by dorm. All laundry was put into baskets which were taken down to the laundry room where there were 5 washers and dryers and the laundry crew did your laundry. Before the additional building was built the summer of 2000, chapel, and meals were held in the same room. We would have to carry heavy folding tables and a hundred chairs back and forth in between activities.
The girls in the school, which at one point during my stay reached 67 girls total, were totally out in la-la land to me. There were so many rules I didn’t think I’d be able to remember them all. They all looked so confused. After being there for a while I began to understand why they were the way they were and I became that too. By the time I was a helper, I had been there 5 months. I was shower helper first, then laundry helper, then finally just a dorm helper. I had become what they wanted, someone to just be there and take “control” over the other girls. I had responsibilities then. I had to make girls write demerits for not following the rules, I had to participate in helper meetings to speak about issues we are having. It was awful. Some of the girls used that time to ruin other girls. The staff was useless. Their whole role was to make sure we were quiet, obedient, and on a short leash. They never wanted to hear our problems. They just wanted us to walk around like zombies.
Rules. Rules. Rules. Was there anything else to this school? Everything was so scheduled we would announce time with just the minutes. Instead of saying it was 3:36 in the afternoon, we would simply say 36. If you were there long enough you’d know the hour based on what we were doing at the time. Our days were scheduled meals, school work, Bible reading and chapel every night. Saturdays were our cleaning days spent in the dorms, showers, laundry room, and pool area doing our chores and Sundays were spent in morning and evening chapel then the rest of the day was free quiet time.
You weren’t allowed to talk to your family for the first three months except in letters. At your 3 months, you were allowed to have a phone call for 30 minutes, in which the staff listened in on. At 6 months you were allowed to have an in-house visit from your family or a phone call. At your 9 months, as long as you were approved by the staff, you were allowed at at-home visit or a phone call. It was ridiculous. They monitored everything we did.
Getting into trouble, or doing something they deemed unacceptable, resulted in demerits, or silence. Demerits had to be written in cursive, and could be as long as twenty words per sentence. Girls that ran away or “rag dolled” (when you become motionless and refuse to be moved), you were put into the hallway or sat on and restrained by helpers or staff. One of the girls I saw sat on while I was there, refused to eat, and rag dolled on her first day. They had a staff member - I won’t specifically name, but she weighed at least 400 pounds – sit on her for 2 hours. The girl screamed she couldn’t breathe, but they wouldn’t let her up. It was a quick reminder for all of us who saw this that we shouldn’t attempt anything. They had certain things they did to you for certain things. If you didn’t eat all of your food at every meal, that meal, or whatever was left of it, would be saved for the next meal, and the next, and so on until you ate it. They would save it for days, maybe a week. Monday through Friday the meals were basically normal. Saturdays were a small breakfast, huge late lunch and a peanut butter sandwich for dinner after the helpers meeting. Sundays were a bagel and juice for breakfast, average lunch and no dinner. We weren’t allowed to take showers on Sunday either.
Some girls ran away while I was there. During those times, the entire school was put on silence until they were caught or the staff could make up an excuse. If you were found being around the same people every day, you were placed on separation. When on separation you cannot sit or stand near, talk to or about, or look in the direction of the person(s) you’re on separation with. It was hard for the girls who had multiple girls she was on separation with because she would literally have to sit alone and face the wall in order to avoid those people.
Girls who left after their year were okay to talk about after they left, but like me, I left December 24, 2000 – exactly 9 months later. The girls who knew me during my time there weren’t allowed to talk about me after I left. For whatever reason, the staff believed that if we didn’t finish at least a year in their little program, we weren’t what they wanted in the first place and they would say things like, “She’ll be back. You just wait.” We weren’t allowed to get phone numbers or addresses of our friends we made there. Sure, we found ways around it, but they searched you and your luggage before you left to make sure that you weren’t “smuggling” things.
I think about my time there everyday. I was mad at my parents for a long time, and part of me still is. At the time though, the information about the Palmer’s wasn’t out there. I told them lots of things, or at least I wrote it in letters, but the staff wouldn’t send out the letters written about the things they did. By the time I saw my parents’ for a visit, I had already been brainwashed. It’s awful that girls are still going through this. I don’t understand how the Palmers and Cookstons sleep at night. They aren’t helping girls. There were no clinical psychologists or therapists there for us to talk to. No doctors roaming the halls. These people are taking money from parents who feel they have no other option. No other way that they can think of that will help bring their teenage girl back to what they were before. They feel stuck, but no matter how stuck you think you are with your child, you may permanently damage or even kill her if you send her to Lighthouse of Northwest Florida – FKA Victory Christian Academy.
Statement from Jarynna Chua
There was real trauma in the VCA experience for me. I had just come out of a psychiatric ward and got thrown into this environment. My parents left me in a place where I could not communicate with them for months and then when I could it was under such close supervision, there was no way I could tell them what was really going on. I saw girls emotionally tortured on a regular basis. I have been thinking back to some of the insane punishments that staff would inflict, they locked me up in the GR room overnight my first night there for being suicidal. I pounded my head on the floor out of anguish; they came and yelled at me for making too much noise. They made one girl sit in the corner for months; literally with her face in the corner day after day. They made one girl walk around with a dog leash around her neck because she was gay.
There were all sorts of cruel and unusual things they did to us to take away our pride. There was this sense that my parents had abandoned me and left me and there was no way out. There was always this feeling they gave us that we were completely worthless and totally horrible beyond repair and that they were convincing our parents of this fact, too, so if we were going to tell them anything negative about the school they had prepped our parents into not believing us anyway. I remember when they used to read the letters of new girls out loud in chapel and have helpers sign the letter saying it was a lie. There was the constant fear that I lived in of being found out, that they would realize I didn't really feel like I believed in "that" God. I don't remember how many times I got saved while I was there because I couldn't tell if I really felt "saved" or not.
There was this overwhelming state of shame that I lived in for years. Shame of my body, shame of my feelings, shame of my past. This was all shame that did not belong to me, but was placed on me for years of my adolescence. VCA was extremely damaging to me and my sense of well-being. I left there feeling worse about myself and less entitled to be alive than when I had gotten there. I left VCA with no sense of self, no ability to make decisions for myself, and fear of a God that hated me. I was told every day for years that I was a sinful piece of crap and nothing I could do would change that. The damage that did, along with watching other people be humiliated, was traumatizing to my psyche and my heart.
Statement of Maggie Harris
My name is Maggie and I wanted to give you all some insight as to why
and how I started my journey to Victory Christian Academy.
I was 16 and out of control. I never really did any real
drugs, except weed. I constantly ran away from home, ditched
school and stole a car once. I was also fighting at school.
My parents had already put me through a psychiatric facility for up to
a year when I was 14 and 15. At the time of my capture I was a
runaway living with my boyfriend; he was 19 at the time. My parents
were waiting for me to come back to school so they could take
me to VCA.
I started my day. It was June 9th 1991. I was found
playing craps at the flagpole. I was taken into the office, were
later my father showed up to take me home (that is what I thought).
He asked me if I wanted to go and see my mom before we were to make a
delivery for the small family business that my parents started in
1983. My father tried talking to me and telling me things that I
wanted to hear like they were going to get me a car and pay for me to
have my own place. I should have known then that that was a lie.
We turned onto a dirt road (something in my mind was telling me
to jump from the car and run). We pulled up to the
large gate; it was a Friday around 1pm. There were girls outside
running at the time. I did not know what they were doing
but I noticed they were dressed like nerds. My dad got out the car and
asked me to come in with him. I told him that I did not want to so I
stayed in the car. Five minutes later a little white man with some
glasses thicker than a wall said, “Come on in here, girl." I got
out the car and went into a small office. I will never forget
this day. I sat there and the man said told me his name was Pastor
Palmer but that everyone called him Brother P. He continued to tell me
that I would be required to stay with them in this facility for a
period of one year. I started to cry. I turned to my father and said "I can't believe
you lied to me." Pastor Palmer said, “And how many times did you lie
to your parents, girl?”
One minute later a large woman later to be known as Ms.
Connie came in to the door. Brother P continued to tell me about the school.
I told him that I was not going to be staying there and that there was nothing they could do about it. He started to laugh. A second later Ms. Virginia came in the
room and told me it was time for me to get ready to meet the other
girls. She grabbed me by my hair, and she and Ms. Connie and dragged me to a bathroom that had a shower. She told me to go in the bathroom stall and take off
my clothes. They were laughing in the background and she called me a
little bitch. I was so angry! I took a shower and they gave me some
of the ugly clothes the other girls had on; dorm clothes and big underwear that looked they were not even clean.
They next took me to the school room and I was told to read a
Bible for the time being. I told them that I could not read. So I guess my
dad was still there and he of course told them that I was lying. They came
back and told me to read so I said no. Then again Ms. Virginia came
and pulled me by the hair and took me to the Get Right Room. They
pulled my clothes off and pushed me in the room. They blasted tapes
of preaching. I will never forget. It was called the Ever Dying
Fire. I could hear them outside of the room with the small peek hole
laughing at me. The school was full so when I was finally let out of the cold cell with the light on the ceiling and no carpet, plywood walls, I was told to sleep on the floor. We were not allowed to look out the windows. I cried myself to sleep for the first couple of months. I thought the worst of it was over but was I ever wrong.
They read my letters to my parents in front of the whole school
of girls and staff. I was put on detention was told to face the corner
(called the chicken coop) I wrote 1000 lines a day "I will learn to obey the rules."
There were others in detention. One girl rebelled by pulling her hair out. She was going bald on top. Another girl was only 12 and they treated her like crap.
Ms. Virginia used to pick on her the most. I thought of running away
very often. But it was unlikely because of the walls and secluded
I remember the Raps they used to have. This was a way girls
could vent there anger onto newer girls who were not doing as
well as expected. In this rap they accused girls of being gay.
It was humiliating. Ms. Virginia was always head of the group. She said
you better not have an attitude girl, saying this pointing her finger
in my face. I hated the school on my first visit. I fought my
parents to come back. They overpowered me and held me down in the
car. I was put back on buddy after my visit. I still have nightmares about the school and wake up drenched in sweat.
Statement of Michelle Thibodaux
I was there from 88’-92’, 3 different trips there. The last one was the worst. My first day back the last time I was there was the darkest and loneliest day of my life. That time I really didn’t deserve to go. It was abandonment in its rawest and harshest form.
I was a good girl and went to that Pensacola Christian College near VCA in Jay. At the end of my first semester I called my Mom and asked to come home, I was almost 18 and had been at VCA since I was 13. My Mom said ok and that she missed me too. She said she would buy the ticket and have Miss Virginia pick me up and take me back to VCA until the travel arrangements were finalized. I was so excited to go home but had no idea how I would adapt. Miss Virginia came and got me. We chit-chatted on the drive back. I didn’t feel nervous, just a little anxious about getting home; after all, my mom seemed so sincere on the phone.
We got back and she walked into the office with me and said those fateful words… “Michelle, take your clothes off and your earrings out, your parents are putting you back in the school” I can’t put into words how I felt that moment. To say I was devastated would be minimizing it. A few weeks later my best friend from the years before at VCA came back too. Of course, we were put on separation. Somehow just knowing that she was there thinking of me and loving me made it easier, even though no words were spoken and no eye contact was ever made. 19 years later, this person is still one of my greatest friends.
One girl sticks out in my mind constantly, to this day. I have a sinking feeling that she may be dead now. Christina D, she’s from the Ramona days. They tore her down layer by layer. It was relentless. I had to buddy her for some God awful amount of time. But that wasn’t enough. They made me walk her around with a leash. I would have to tie her to the bed or to a chair when I stepped away. They would duct tape her wrists together. She and Brother P would get into full on brawls. I loved her so much and couldn’t understand why she just wouldn’t conform. Unlike most of us that had our spirits broken, Christina’s spirit was down right shattered, drained of emotion and lifeless.
There was another girl there that I didn’t know very well, her name was Allison. Allison was another one that they berated day in and day out. Mrs. P had a soft spot for her. I remember seeing her curled up in fetal position in Mrs. P’s lap, too drained to even cry anymore.
I remember if a girl claimed that she was sick and wanted to stay in bed they would make her drink caster oil, just in case she was faking it, the caster oil would really make her sick.
I remember Brother Palmer telling us about your roommate killing someone and that that’s exactly what would happen to us if we left there and listened to the devil’s music and wore pants. I remember that like it was yesterday.
I was so brainwashed that I was convinced that the Pastor of the church that my parents attended was the Anti-Christ. I got saved a thousand times, I got baptized a hundred times, but if I thought about my favorite Motley Crue song then I wasn’t really saved because when you get saved you become a new creature and the old creature dies and you change….instantaneously.
I remember the blood in the shower from the new girl. I remember the girl drinking bleach. I would swear that girl was Christina. I remember the powdered milk. I remember the grits every Tuesday morning for breakfast. I remember some jackass donating an entire truck load of strawberry applesauce to us. We ate that shit twice a day for more than a year. Thanks.
I remember the dogs Celia and Maui. I remember the sheep and goat. I became animal helper and that was my saving grace. I remember Kristi and her epilepsy that sent her home early. I remember Tammy with turrets and how she would blurt out obscenities during prayer and even though she couldn’t control it, damn it…it was sinful.
I remember sweet Ol’ Miss Lucy being so senile that I had to write 1500 lines because I bleached Bro P’s shirt like she asked me to and then had forgotten that she told me to. I remember walking in on Bro P holding Trisha’s mouth open while Miss Virginia force fed her. I remember the day before my first 6 month visit and Bro Browne walking into the dining room while were all eating and announcing that there was a phony among us. Everyone’s countenance changed. He went on and on and on about this phony and when he finally revealed who she was I was physically ill when he yelled out my name. Oh no, he didn’t stop there. I got to sit in a metal chair facing all of the girls in chapel that night. It was the “Puke Seat”. There I sat knowing deep down in my heart that I really was a puke. I got saved again that night. That was far worse than the other “pet” names they gave me, Afghan hound and Komodo dragon.
I remember a black girl that peed in her bed all the time and how they draped her dirty underwear all over her bunk. I remember when we were told that Christy’s boyfriend killed her and that’s just what happens when you turn your back on God and fornicate. I could go on forever.
My nightmares lasted for 13 years. For the first couple of years out of VCA I would have to chant to myself every night before bed that I was 18 now and they couldn’t take me back. They stopped all together in 05’. The self-sabotaging behavior of catapulting myself into bad situations, or bad relationships, or bad decision making have lasted a lot longer than I would like to admit. That stinging feeling of fear that we had when we first got out of not fitting in anywhere and feeling embarrassingly and abnormally different still haunts me sometimes.
Today, when I finished reading your book, that feeling came at me like a Mac Truck. It took me most of the day to pull myself together just to do my every day things. I was shocked at how it affected me. I remember VCA like it was yesterday but reading your book reminded me of some things that I had totally forgotten about. I laughed, I cried, I rolled my eyes remembering the absurdity of their rules. I often think about the girls I was there with, the girls before me and after me. I wonder if they’re ok, some of them I wonder if they’re even alive, especially Christina.
At the end, when you wrote about the phone call you got from your dad and he said he was sorry made me cry uncontrollably. I’m so glad that you got that validation before he passed. I wish that for every one of us girls. I absolutely admire your bravery for writing this book. Thank you for being so strong in your journey while writing this and thank you for giving us a voice.
Statement of Danielle TenBrook
It was January 26, 1985, my dad, his girlfriend Barbara and myself were heading off to San Diego, Ca. where I was about to become the newest enrollee at Victory Christian Academy (AKA Victory Home for Girls). I asked for this. I begged for this actually. My parents were in the middle of a nasty divorce and I was their latest pawn, I wanted out and away from them. I begged my dad for months to send me to boarding school, anywhere away from the drama and hate of my family. Little did I know what I was asking for. You hear ‘boarding school’ and you think of plaid skirts, bad food and late night bonding with the other girls. I could deal with that, I was looking forward to that. Some sort of normalcy where I could be me, be safe and go to school all at once.
The warning bells started ringing when we pulled up to a little white house with a cute red roof and an eight-foot fence lined with barbed wire surrounding the place. WOW! Crazy from the word go. What kind of place was this? My dad looked at me and said, “Just try it, if you’re really that unhappy I will come get you in a month.” Right; not happening. The Palmers made sure of that. You see, they opened the door to the little white crazy house with open loving arms; looks can be deceiving. Mrs. Palmer smiling and being so sweet.
They were going over paperwork and I started crying and told my dad I didn’t want to stay. I begged him to find a different school or take me home. Someone came and got me, I can’t remember who; it was a woman, I remember that much. She convinced my dad that we were just going to look at the dorm so I could see how much fun this was going to be. I was sobbing at this point, my dad telling me to check it out and if I really didn’t like it he would take me home. I didn’t see my dad again for 6 months. This woman took me to the laundry room, shut and locked the door. She was telling me how bad my clothes and hair stank. All the sins of the world needed to be washed off of me. I was locked in this room while she was putting my clothes in the washing machine. Mrs. Palmer poked her head in to say my dad had left and I was to follow the rules now. I fell to the floor crying. I had been left, abandoned. He promised me he would take me home. My heart hurt. My whole body hurt. I wanted to die. I remember being told to quit acting like a baby and they gave some ugly tent dress looking thing to put on. They searched my suitcase and put the clothes of the world in a bag for when I was released.
I was then led into the back yard to what was supposed to be the garage. They had converted it to a dorm. I remember the blue carpet and bunk bed surrounding the walls. Wooden bunk beds along the walls and a row down the middle. They handed me to my “Buddy” and told me I was not to talk to anyone else for the next two weeks. (This later changed to a month, and then 2 months). There were all kinds of other crazy rules like I couldn’t talk about home or my friends, music (unless it was gospel). I was to forget my life from before and learn to live this new way. To “Let Go and Let God”. Whatever that meant. I wanted to go home. I then had to take a shower with my “Buddy” standing in the bathroom to make sure I didn’t try to kill myself with the razor, which by the way was later taken away when another girl did try to kill herself. They never took her to the Dr.; they just put ointment on it and wrapped her wrists. She was then ridiculed in front of all of us during worship.
Ms. Judy was our Dorm Mom. She was a nice scary lady. She loved us. She was the only positive I remember. Don’t get me wrong, she was hard on us but you could tell she wanted us to really learn to love God and trust Him. She wanted us to change and have better lives. You see, little did I know at the time that I was begging to go to boarding school that this was actually a Reform school. An unlicensed reform school where Brother Palmer abused his power. It wasn’t until recently, while reading the accounts of some of the other girls, that I thought, “why wasn’t this as traumatic to me as to the others”. It was horrible, but life at home was worse. No wonder my dad was ok leaving me here, him and Bro. Palmer could be related.
I remember watching Brother Palmer tear apart someone in what was supposed to be worship. I don’t ever remember being taught that God loves us; I remember being told that we were all whoremongers and sluts. He used guilt and shame to try and change us. We were taught that it was only by our works that we would be rewarded. The only way to survive in this place was to learn the game. Learn to get by unnoticed. I remember one day, I had been promoted to laundry duty. I was able to be trusted to sit in the laundry room and do my school work while running the washer and dryers. I hung the sheets outside to dry and the wind took them and blew them in the dirt. I had to start over. My punishment was to write 500 times “I will not let the sheets fly into the dirt.” These were called demerits. For every 3 demerits you received you had to run a lap around the yard. This rule later changed to every 1 demerit. The rules were always changing. Most of them were unwritten. You just had to know them.
One night we all go the flu. 20 some girls, all with the stomach flu. It was a horrible night. One of the girls didn’t make it to the restroom and got sick in the hallway. She was given 3 demerits for that. And made to clean it up herself, all the while still throwing up. Again, no Dr’s were brought in. We were all given Orange Juice with Castro Oil in it to clean out our systems. The next morning it was breakfast as usual and we had to eat everything on our plates. Oh, yeah that reminds me of the powered milk, nasty stuff. We never did have real milk. Every meal was powered milk and if someone new was in the kitchen they could really screw it up.
Half way through my stay we moved to Ramona Ca. I just recently found that the building was an FBI bunker. Cement walls, very few windows and it was here that they added the GR room, or the “Get Right Room”. This is for girls who were out of line and not conforming to the rules. Luckily I avoided that room, but I know it was horrible on those that had to go in. I remember the day my “Buddy” went home. We had a “Victory” party for. She was reformed and sent with all the tools needed to live a successful life…think again. She came right back 3 weeks later all drugged out and looking like death. She spent 3 days locked in that room.
I felt sorry for so many of these girls who came in high as a kite and addicted to God knows what. They were forced to act properly and follow the rules while they were sick from detoxing. There was never any love or compassion. Very cold.
We had Bible Memo daily. This was the time of day when we would break up into groups to memorize bible verses. If we didn’t get them memorized then we were given demerits. We also had quiet time on our bunks. We couldn’t do anything but read our Bibles or write letters home. Sometimes you could take a nap, but if you were sleeping too much you would go back on Buddy system. We were to write 2 letters home a week. These letters were read before they were sent out and if you wrote anything negative you would have to rewrite it. Also, we were given 1 ten minute phone call a month after the first 3 months. Ms. Palmer or one of the other dorm moms would listen in and if you started asking to go home or saying anything inappropriate they would disconnect the line, and you would be given demerits. After 6 months, if you had been well behaved you were given a 1 day pass to spend the day with your parents. Then again at 9 months. If you were really good you got to spend the night out with them. Since my parents were divorced I got 2 visits each time. I guess they figured by then you had been pretty much brained washed and knew the rules and consequences.
There are so many other stories about my year in VCA, but they all dance around the fact that this was/is an unhealthy environment that does not promote healing. This environment does not promote true reform. It teaches lies and deception, manipulation. Teens are rebellious for a reason and it is a family issue. We were not taught how to live life and how to grow, how to forgive or even how to be forgiven. We were demoralized and invalidated. Stripped of all dignity. I thank God that I am who I am and that I don’t have any lasting scars from that 363 days of hell. It was January 24, 1986 when my dad came to get me. I vowed to never go back.
MU: What are you currently doing to inform the public about reform schools?
SE: I am the Director of the International Survivors Action Committee (ISAC). ISAC is a 501c3 charity and our mission is to expose the potential dangers of privately owned behavior modification programs for teens. We investigate facilities and make information such as court records, legal documents, sworn statements, and news articles available to the public. ISAC also maintains a "watch list" of facilities accused of abuse or fraud as well as "warning signs" to help parents avoid potentially harmful facilities.
MU: What changes would you like to see with these reform schools?
SE: Every reform school, as well as all other behavior modification programs, must be regulated at the state level. And these regulations must be standardized throughout the nation. As it stands right now, a program owner who has difficulties with one state can simply move to another. There must be no exceptions for faith-based programs. Where children are involved, there is always the potential for abuse. It is irresponsible to declare a particular person or school honorable and trustworthy simply because they follow the word of God. Part of such regulations must include a requirement of credentialed teachers and therapists, no "peer" counseling where children are in charge of other children, and an education plan certified by the Department of Education.
MU: What inspired you to get involved?
SE: I "graduated" from Straight, Inc. Straight was a nationwide chain of drug treatment centers that operated from the late 70's until the early 90's. Physical and emotional abuse was common. Food and sleep deprivation, forced exercise, unwarranted and brutal physical restraints were standard procedure. The staff was not qualified. While I was in the program, there were several sexual assaults and even an attempted murder. Instead of taking action against the attackers, the victims were punished, by staff members who told them it was "their fault." I know what the kids experience in these programs because I too, have lived it.
MU: Have you heard of FACCCA? (Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies). If so, what is FACCCA's role in allowing reform schools to stay open?
SE: Yes, I have heard of FACCCA. FACCCA provides a false legitimacy to these schools. I believe most parents, upon hearing that a particular school is accredited by FACCCA, assume that FACCCA is some type of regulatory agency. Nearly every parent I have spoken to never thought to investigate FACCCA and was surprised to learn that the organization is not overseen by the state of Florida.
MU: Do you have a web site people can visit to learn more about your work?
MU: What would you say to a parent who is considering placing their teen in an
unlicensed reform facility that forces religion and uses solitary confinement as a means to rehabilitate?
SE: I would tell that parent to not consider such a facility under any circumstances. I would also remind that parent that if they treated their child that way at home, they could quite possibly face charges of child abuse.
MU: Do you think that the victims suffer long-term emotional damage?
SE: Absolutely. The typical survivor of these reform schools and programs like them really struggle in life for quite a few years following their release. The abuse causes them to have very low self-esteem. They feel "lost" because their years of isolation in the program have left them unprepared to deal with life beyond the walls of the facility. Drug and alcohol abuse is common. Many survivors have little or no contact with their families. They have trouble holding steady jobs. Stable intimate relationships are rare. As adults, many victims need professional counseling and a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not uncommon.
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