Religious exemption allows some children’s homes to shield abuse verging on torture

Religious exemption at some Florida children’s homes shields prying eyes

In Florida unlicensed religious homes can abuse children and go on operating for years.

  • Almost 30 years ago, Florida legislators passed a law eliminating state oversight of children’s homes that claim government rules hamper their religious practices.
  • The Tampa Bay Times spent a year investigating more than 30 religious homes that have housed children in recent years across Florida. Reporters searched through thousands of pages of investigative files and interviewed dozens of former residents.
  • In a lengthy report, the paper says

    Today, virtually anyone can claim a list of religious ideals, take in children and subject them to punishment and isolation that verge on torture — so long as they quote chapter and verse to justify it. […]

    Although most drew few complaints, nearly a dozen have been hounded by allegations of abuse.

    State authorities have responded to at least 165 allegations of abuse and neglect in the past decade, but homes have remained open even after the state found evidence of sex abuse and physical injury.

  • The paper says that the religious exemption has for decades allowed homes to avoid state restrictions on corporal punishment.

In part two, the Tampa Bay Times takes a close look at Southeastern Military Academy — a military-style children’s home that is still open despite troubling complaints.

  • In the past decade, state officials have investigated an unlicensed military program run by the self-titled “colonel” Alan Weierman 24 times and found evidence that kids were punched, kicked, slammed into hard objects and choked to unconsciousness
  • Weierman is identified as a ‘Christian minister’ who has repeatedly crossed the line of abuse in his three decades running religious group homes in this state.
  • Regulators have tried to shut him down, and the Florida state license to operate his children’s home lasted only two years.

    Eight years ago, he lost a religious exemption that had allowed him to keep his reform home open without government oversight.

    So now he operates without any state-recognized accreditation at all.

    He has even had to answer allegations of sexual abuse and of failing to report abuse alleged by a girl at his facility.

    The facility staff engage in discipline that is harmful, DCF officials wrote in a report four years ago.

    The risk to children is high.

    Yet his home is still open and caring for a dozen boys.

    Still collecting $28,600 per child from parents.

    Still punishing kids in ways that trouble the state.

Times staff writer Alexandra Zayas points out the problem:

The Department of Children and Families can storm into licensed homes, order changes and remove children. But the department’s ultimate weapon — revoking a home’s license — is virtually meaningless.

Lose your state license and you can apply for a religious exemption. Lose that and you can register as a “boarding school.”

Each time, the process starts over. New regulators with different rules come to visit.

Each step down the regulatory ladder relaxes the standards required of a children’s home.

Or you can start out as a “boarding school” and skip the hassles of licensing and government oversight altogether. […]

When a group home that calls itself Christian can’t or won’t get a license, when it is chased out of another state for refusing oversight, or, like Weierman’s, when it fails to meet government standards, Florida provides a fallback:

FACCCA accreditation.

Florida is among a handful of states that legally recognize a religious exemption when it comes to licensing children’s homes.

By law, exempted facilities must register with the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, a nonprofit group that accredits homes. The association has long allowed homes to strike children with paddles, so long as they justify it with the Bible and pray with the child afterward.

Weierman surrendered his home’s state license on Feb. 12, 2001. The following month, DCF got a letter saying FACCCA had accredited his home.

Under FACCCA, Weierman was able to shut down direct access to the state’s child abuse hotline, which was created to dispatch authorities any time allegations are reported.

For three years, complaints kept coming, and in June 2004 FACCCA cut ties with Weierman. According to the Times FACCCA’s executive director later told police it was because the religious home had become a boot camp.

  • The paper notes that that Weierman is not — and has never been — a colonel. Not even close.
  • An entry at a blog titled, “Parents of Southeastern Military Academy (formerly known as Victory Forge),” also questions Weierman’s claims of having a Ph.D, Business Administration, Counseling and Psychology. According to the June, 2010 post:

    His LinkedIn page says he has a PhD in “Business Administration, Counseling, Psychology” from Southeastern Louisiana University. Combined PhDs are rare, and this one strikes me as particularly bizarre. Also, Southeastern Louisiana University does not have a doctoral program in psychology, they have an MA program only. The same goes for their Business program; no doctoral level programs, only two Masters level programs.

  • Weierman’s current LinkedIn profile lists his education as, “Ph.D, Buisness Administration, Masters Degree in Counseling and Psychology at VARIOUS” (yes, with business misspelled).
Alan Weierman, LinkeInd

Alan Weierman, LinkeInd

See Also

The Cult That Spawned the Tough-Love Teen Industry. That’s a sidebar to School of Shock, a Mother Jones exposé:

Eight states are sending autistic, mentally retarded, and emotionally troubled kids to a facility that punishes them with painful electric shocks. How many times do you have to zap a child before it’s torture?

The author, Jennifer Gonnerman, recently updated that story in New York Magazine: 31 Shocks Later:

Andre McCollins’s mother thought she’d finally found the right school for her son—one equipped to treat his behavioral and developmental problems. Then she took a closer look at that treatment.

More reports about Juvenile Boot Camps

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