‘Kidnapped for Christ‘ follows the stories of several American teenagers who were taken from their homes and sent to an Evangelical Christian reform school located in the Dominican Republic. The school is run by Americans and is advertised as a “therapeutic Christian boarding school” whose mission is to “help struggling youth transform into healthy Christian adults.” In reality, this school employed classic brainwashing techniques to break down and rebuild young minds.
This film addresses an issue that very few Americans are aware of, but that has impacted the lives of millions of adolescents and families for nearly half a century – the rise of inappropriate and abusive treatment in the troubled teen industry. All over the US and abroad, so-called therapeutic boarding schools, boot camps, and wilderness rehabilitation programs take in teenagers with a wide range of issues and use unsafe and often harmful tactics to reform them. Using political connections, religious affiliations, and substantial amounts of money, many such camps and schools have committed inappropriate and abusive acts behind their guarded walls for decades with impunity.
Anticipatng the WORLD PREMIERE of ‘Kidnapped for Christ‘ at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival we profile the film’s Director Kate Logan. Be sure to catch ‘Kidnapped for Christ‘ on Friday, January 17 and Wednesday, January 22, 2014 in Park City, Utah
Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Kidnapped for Christ’ at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival – HERE
How did you first come across this subject? Were the issues you explore in your film personally important to you before you began development?
I first heard about Escuela Caribe when I was living with missionaries in the Dominican Republic after having been evacuated out of Haiti due to civil unrest. I met some young teachers and councilors from the school and hung out with them a few times. They portrayed the school as an alternative therapy program for runaways, gang bangers, and drug addicts – the kinds of kids who were on the brink of death or prison. I thought – ‘what a great idea, to take troubled kids abroad so they can learn about another culture and gain new perspectives while they are dealing with their issues from back home.’ It wasn’t until after I got permission to come back and film for a summer that I started to see how the students were really treated.
I expected to explore what it was like for troubled kids to learn about a new culture together, since traveling and learning about different cultures was so important to me growing up. What I discovered, however, was that these kids weren’t there to learn about the Dominican, but rather they were there to be broken down and re-built in the image of ‘the program.’ It became less of a heartwarming story about kids getting their lives back on track, and more of a story about kids whose lives were being torn apart. As the daughter of a psychologist, and a devout Christian, I was horrified by the way these students were being treated in the name of therapy and Christianity. I felt an obligation to do whatever I could to help tell the stories of the students I encountered.
How did you find the subjects who would ultimately be interviewed for the film? Were any reluctant to talk about their experiences? What kind of access, if any, did you have to Escuela Caribe itself?
We had unprecedented and for the most part unrestricted access to film at Escuela Caribe for a total of 7 weeks. We were allowed to interview any student or staff member we wanted; however, as we started to ask more probing questions our access to students did get somewhat restricted.
It was very difficult to get authentic interviews with students because they were all afraid of getting in trouble for saying anything negative about the school. We had to both deflect the staff who were always looming and silently communicate to the students that we were on their side and wouldn’t get in them in trouble. Most of the time, the students we interviewed gave very scripted stories about how the program had saved their lives. I didn’t blame them; they could have easily gotten in huge trouble if they said anything else.
Luckily, we did talk to a few students who were able to be honest with us on camera. One was David, who had only been there for 5 weeks and was still desperate to talk to someone about what he was going through. By some miracle we convinced the staff members over him to let us interview him in a room alone so he felt safe to talk to us. Another student in the film, Tai, was a rare student who just did not seem to care if she got in trouble for talking to us. I remember trying to tell her that if she needed to lie to avoid getting tin trouble it was ok, but she was basically just like “I don’t care, I’ll tell you how it really is.”
In addition to the students, we also interviewed several staff members, and most of them were surprisingly open with us about the allegations of abuse the school had faced. We also found a former staff member who had broken ranks with the school and was willing to speak about the abuse she personally witnessed while she worked there. Her interview, along with some former students from years past, truly revealed how long this systematic abuse had been going on.
How old is this practice in the U.S.—how long have parents been committing their unwilling children to harsh reform schools in the name of religion? How many American youths wind up in institutions like this every year?
It’s hard to say definitively how long this has been going on or how many victims of these programs there are because residential programs for teens have never been regulated or monitored by the US government. In general, these types of behavior modification programs for teens have been popular since the 50s and really took root in the 80s during the Regan administration and the “war on drugs.” As far as how many American children have been sent to dangerous reform programs each year, there are no solid numbers, but a good estimate would certainly be in the hundreds of thousands, taking into account that there are hundreds of programs in the US and abroad, all of which typically enroll hundreds of teens each year.
Did you ever encounter any former students who defended Escuele Caribe’s practices, or their parents’ decision to send them there? Have you found former students who repaired their relationships with their parents after leaving Escuela Caribe? And have you ever learned of parents who regrettedtheir decisions to send their children there?
Yes, there are some former Escuela Caribe students who still feel that their time there helped them. I’m sure there are many reasons why one student would assess their experiences differently from another. I think some students were really in a lot of trouble at home and Escuela Caribe, as bad as it was, at least offered them an opportunity to get sober, avoid jail, and finish school. However, for the majority of students I’ve talked to, no matter why they got sent there, they left with emotional and physical trauma that haunts them throughout their lives.
I do know several former students who were able to repair their relationships with their parents after coming home. For the most part, these were the same former students whose parents also regretted their decision to send their child to Escuela Caribe. Some parents had no idea how punitive the school really was, they just thought they were sending their kid to a Christian boarding school. Other parents were so desperate to help their child that they had blinders onto the many warning signs that Escuela Caribe was dangerous.
I’d say that most former students I’ve gotten to know simply never talk about Escuela Caribe with their families, finding it either too painful or just not worth the ensuing fights. Of course there are also many whose relationship with their parents was damaged beyond repair and they remain estranged from their parents.
What is your advice to people who want to put an end to this kind of brutal treatment? Is legislation an answer? (New Jersey, for example, just banned gay conversion therapy.) Promoting awareness? Activism? What is the way forward?
I think that both awareness and legislation are equally important in putting a stop to these abusive programs. Awareness is critical for a couple of different reasons. One, the more people know about how these programs operate and the dangers they pose, the fewer parents will send their children to them and less communities will tolerate them operating in their towns and states. Two, the more people consider this an important issue that needs to be addressed, the more likely it will be for regulations to be enacted to hold these programs accountable. If no one knows about or cares about an issue, it’s unlikely our lawmakers will do anything about it.
As far as legislation, I think it’s an important first step to holding these programs accountable and stopping abuse that is currently going on. Here are the two quick steps we are suggesting people take to help enact legislation that would regulate residential programs for teens:
How you can support the “Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act.”
1) Contact your member of Congress and tell them why it’s important to pass this bill.
2) Contact U.S. Representative John Kline, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and ask him to bring the bill up for a vote in the U.S. House.
We are going to have links and sample letters on our site for people to send soon.
How did Lance Bass get on board? In what ways did he impact the project?
Lance Bass came on broad after talking about the project with one of our other Executive Producers Mike C. Manning. He felt strongly that this was a story that needed to be told and an issue that was important. He’s been very helpful in fundraising with us and bringing attention to the film in ways we couldn’t have done without him.