Author Topic: Reform schools are winning in state courts  (Read 1194 times)

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Offline Anonymous

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Reform schools are winning in state courts
« on: February 16, 2006, 02:21:00 AM »
Reform schools are winning in state courts
By Matt Franck
POST-DISPATCH JEFFERSON CITY BUREAU
02/15/2006

They've been peppered with lawsuits and criminal charges, accused of abusing teens, and at least three of them have closed amid bad publicity and declining enrollment.

But Missouri's private teen reform schools are standing tall in courts across the state, with numerous dismissals of criminal charges and victories in civil suits. Even pastors who have closed their doors following abuse allegations say they're being vindicated in court.

The latest court rulings have cemented Missouri's reputation as a state where such teen programs can operate almost entirely free of government regulations. Consequently, hundreds of families across the nation continue to send their rebellious teens to the ministries for their strict breed of discipline.

The rulings also may have broader consequences, prompting the state to take a closer look at policies dealing with the emergency removal of children amid abuse investigations.

"Every criminal charge and civil lawsuit have fallen flat on its face," said Al W. Johnson, a Clayton lawyer.

Charges were dropped against Johnson's client, Nathan Day, recently in an abuse case involving Thanks to Calvary Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, 25 miles southwest of Rolla.

Day, who ran the teen ministry, was accused of felony child abuse for excessively paddling a student. But days before trial last fall, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Day joins several other pastors and employees of teen ministries who have deflected abuse allegations in recent months.

In December, for example, Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, near Patterson, prevailed in a lawsuit brought by several former students. The case marked the third civil suit against the ministry to fail in the past few years.

Meanwhile, Heartland Christian Academy, near Bethel, was awarded a $775,000 settlement from the state in December. The case stemmed from a raid on the school by abuse investigators in 2002 that a federal judge described as a travesty.

Lack of credibility

Oscar Stilley, an Arkansas lawyer who brought three unsuccessful suits against Mountain Park, said he's undaunted by the recent court rulings.

Stilley said the cases highlight the difficulty of proving in court abuse allegations involving ministries closed to the public. Also complicating that process, some say, is a lack of credibility among those who are making the accusations, given that many of the teens may have had criminal problems in the past.

Pulaski County prosecutor Laura Kriebs said she faced other obstacles in trying to convict Day of abusing students at Thanks to Calvary. Kriebs said because the school had closed and students had scattered all over the country, it became impossible to line up enough witnesses to build a case. Kriebs still believes that abuse occurred at the school.

But a lawyer who represents one of the teen ministries rejects such arguments.

"If there was truth to the allegations, I think they'd be able to prove them," said Steven H. Schwartz, a St. Louis lawyer who represented Mountain Park in its latest civil case.

Charles Sharpe, who owns and operates Heartland Christian Academy, goes a step farther, describing his critics as "evil." In winning a $775,000 settlement from the state, Sharpe said, Heartland has exposed the injustice behind the raid at the school.

"These people kidnapped 115 of our kids," Sharpe said. "That is an outrage."

The Heartland case drew national media exposure. At the center of the controversy were reports of students being paddled repeatedly, with some being forced to shovel waist-high manure as a punishment.

The case also focused considerable attention on Missouri's teen reform industry, which had been thriving for years. The ministries share a similar philosophy to rehabilitate troubled youths, relying on strict discipline, corporal punishment and tight controls on mail and other communications.

Missouri has long had a reputation for allowing the ministries to operate free of regulation on the grounds of religious freedom. The state not only cannot inspect the facilities but also can't keep a list of how many are open. However, the state has the authority to follow up on reports of child abuse, and has occasionally sent investigators to the reform schools. In some cases, ministries have relocated to Missouri from other states amid abuse allegations and more stringent regulations.

Families and many former students have continued to praise the ministries for rescuing them from drugs and rebellion. But other former students have sued, alleging abuse. And in some cases, their accusations have led to criminal charges.

On the whole, however, the accusations aren't sticking.

'Wake-up call'

In the case of Heartland, the ministry has successfully defended itself in court, and also has gone on the offensive against the state's child protection system.

Bankrolling that effort is Sharpe, an insurance tycoon who built Heartland with his personal fortune. Sharpe has said he has spent $5 million clearing his employees of criminal charges and removing their names from the child abuse registry.

But Sharpe considers his biggest victory to be an order by Judge Richard Webber, of the U.S. District Court of Eastern Missouri, restricting future raids at the school. Further litigation secured the $775,000 settlement with the state to cover Sharpe's legal bills tied to the court case.

The ruling chastised Lewis County juvenile officer Michael Waddle, who led the raid, for violating the ministry's constitutional rights.

Dave Melton, an attorney who represents Heartland, said the settlement essentially puts all investigators on notice that if they use excessive tactics, they could find themselves hit with a similar court ruling.

State officials say the implications of the settlement may be more limited.

Michael Buenger, Missouri's state court administrator, said the Heartland case does not change any state policy but rather underscores the need to follow it.

"I think it serves as a wake-up call that everybody has to be on the right side of the law," he said. "I think the standards have always been there."

Negative publicity

Heartland's enrollment has grown steadily in the past five years, with more than 200 students now attending from throughout the nation.

Other teen ministries have not fared as well. While they have generally prevailed in court cases, three of the teen programs have closed amid declining enrollment.

Critics of the ministries say the closures are a victory for former students, some of whom have started Web pages alleging mistreatment at the schools. Supporters of the reform schools say negative publicity has scared off parents who shop for teen programs online. Johnson, the lawyer who represented Nathan Day of Thanks to Calvary, said his client has been ruined financially by the criminal allegations against him, even though felony charges were dropped. The school has since closed.

"His career was destroyed by this," Johnson said. "He was forced into bankruptcy."

Sharpe said only his own personal wealth made it possible to fight the legal battles over Heartland. Sharpe said he feels for those who have shut down amid similar court battles.

"It's an awful thing to say that justice is green," Sharpe said.

Critics of the teen programs say they're not giving up. For several years, they've supported legislation seeking to regulate the schools. Meanwhile, at least two pending civil cases are once again asking the courts to equate schools' tactics with abuse.

Stilley, who said he has lost money in unsuccessfully taking on Mountain Park, said he still has some fight left in him.

"I'm not giving up," he said. "I have at least two to three years left in me."
« Last Edit: December 31, 1969, 07:00:00 PM by Guest »

Offline Oscar

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Re: Reform schools are winning in state courts
« Reply #1 on: February 21, 2018, 02:13:27 PM »
Here is a new article about Heartland Christian Academy:

Heartland, Missouri - A half hour special report