By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY — When Prichard Police Captain Charles Kennedy walked into a religious camp for troubled teens in Mobile County in 2011, he found a naked boy huddled in the center of a tiny, 6-by-8 isolation room.
The child was being punished for “having an attitude,” the program manager of the Restoration Youth Academy told Kennedy that day. The manager, William Knott, had planned to keep the child unclothed in the isolation room for several days.
Kennedy traveled to the camp outside of Mobile in October of that year, stirred by a worrisome phone call from a nervous mother who had sent her child to the religious camp for behavioral therapy — at a cost of more than $1,000 a month.
This account, and several others similar to it, pushed Rep. Steve McMillan, a Republican from Bay Minette, Alabama, to introduce a bill in the Alabama House that would give the Alabama Department of Human Resources the power to regulate, and potentially shut down, these currently unregulated, undocumented fundamentalist Christian boot camps.
The Republican-dominated House, in rare show of bipartisan, voted Thursday to approve that bill.
If the bill passes the Senate, DHR will have the teeth needed to license, inspect and potentially shut down facilities like the Restoration Youth Academy that operate under the auspices of being a faith-based behavioral or therapeutic camp — when in fact they operate like a for-profit receptacles for parents who are worried about their child’s behavior or sexual orientation.
Several members of the team running RYA were convicted of child abuse in January and sentenced to 20 years in prison. But it took five years for Kennedy to get the program shut down, and many more like it are likely still operating in Alabama, purportedly “rehabilitating” children sent to the camps — largely from out of the state.
“It has taken years to get somebody to realize how serious the situation is,” McMillan told APR. “We didn’t even really know they were there. They weren’t registered, and nobody really even knows how many we’ve got.”
McMillan said he is pushing the bill at Kennedy’s request after years of struggling to track down and shut down camps like RYA. Under existing law, law enforcement has little power to enter the undocumented facilities without prior cause, which left Kennedy and other law enforcement officers like him with few options on how to deal with the camps.
“It was a mess,” McMillan said. “It was awful.”
HB440 would prohibit any facility like this from operating without a prior registration approval from the state’s DHR and would give DHR and law enforcement the power to raid camps that aren’t appropriately registered, along with the power to inspect camps that are.
The 25-page bill establishes minimum legal requirements for operations of any religious, faith-based or other profit or nonprofit counseling, therapeutic, behavioral or educational facility that houses children for more than 24 hours.
“We tried to come up with something that would cover the bad guys and the good guys, but wouldn’t be unreasonable,” McMillan said.
Other camps like the Restoration Youth Academy have popped up around the country, developing a network and playing “whack-a-mole” when officials come snooping-in. They often charge fees as high as $5,000 a month, often promising to rehabilitate children with Christian therapy.
It’s hard to track which program is run by whom because they will quickly change names if law enforcement gets too close to their operation. McMillan said some of the boys who were kept in the camps said they would be moved to other nearby camps if outsiders came around.
Several programs like RYA have attracted national media attention from outlets like ABC’s 20/20 and Newsweek Magazine. Many of the kids sent to the camps, like Lucas Greenfield, were dumped there by parents who were unhappy with their sexual orientations.
Greenfield, in an interview with 20/20, described leaving RYA in 2015 after being found in a raid that year that shut it down.
A few months later, he ended up in another religious boot camp in Alabama after returning to his mother’s home in Naples, Florida. His mother, disgruntled by his sexuality, sent him back to another camp on the Florida-Alabama line where his treatment was no better.
Greenfield said he was abused by extremist pastor Gary Wiggins at the Blessed Hope Boys Academy. When he arrived at BHBA, Greenfield — fed up with his trips through several conversion camps — told Wiggins he was gay and refused to comply with Wiggins’ attempts at gay conversion therapy.
Wiggins allegedly told Greenfield that he was “going to get the demon out of him and make him straight,” according to Greenfield’s account.
According to local media reports, Wiggins and others who ran the extremist boot camp would lock the kids in closets, withhold food and force them to exercise for hours. Other allegations of emotional abuse, sexual abuse and rape have also been reported at camps like the BHBA.
The Alabama Department of Human Resources shut down Wiggins’ camp late last year after removing 22 boys ages 8–17 from the camps, many of whom claimed they had been victim of abuse. The camp, which was operated by Seminole Baptist Church, was only shut down after a neighbor called the local sheriff, who then contacted DHR.
The wasn’t on any state records and wasn’t licensed or inspected by DHR.
It took nearly five years from Kennedy’s first encounter with RYA to get it shut down, and more than a year for the Blessed Hope Boys Academy to be shut down. While Knott, the ringleader of the RYA, was sentenced to prison time, Wiggins has yet to be charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing.
Several Republicans did vote against the bill on Thursday, citing concerns that it would infringe on the religious liberty of Christian camps that aren’t malicious like the RYA and BHBA.
“I understand that we’ve had a few instances where some entities like this run things poorly and did some very bad things, but the idea that the government is going to be regulating faith-based, even church organizations is problematic,” said Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, who voted no on the new regulations.
Henry said he was concerned churches that operate Celebrate Recovery and other alcohol and drug rehab programs might be affected by the legislation. But according to the bill, programs that don’t house children for more than 24 won’t be affected by the regulations.
Recreational church camps, like Camp Sumatanga and Shocco Springs retreat, won’t be affected by the bill either. Henry wasn’t convinced, though.
“This is an example of classic overreach due to a problem that occurred in a few institutions,” Henry said. “This is the government getting involved in our faith-based and church entities, and I was astounded at how many Republicans voted yes on it.”
The disagreement over the bill led to some confrontation on the House floor between members of the House Republican Caucus, but ended up passing nonetheless with 78 yeas and 13 nays.
Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, a former police chief and vice chair of the House Republican Caucus, said she was passionate about the issue and believes it is a good bill.
“It’s unfortunate that some religious ministries aren’t what they claim to be,” Rowe said. “We spend a lot of times defending the rights of the unborn, but these children who are sometimes forgotten and displaced from their families, we need to dedicate the same amount of care and concern to their lives and their rights.”
The bill now heads to the Alabama Senate, where it will be carried by Sen. Vivian Figure, D-Mobile.