Faith-Based Homes on Trial

The bills that codified Bush's support for faith-based social services in 1997 were a reconciliatory step in the state government's long and often unfriendly relationship with faith-based programs. In 1979, more than a decade before Waco became synonymous with violent confrontation between church and state, inspectors arrived at a Christian children's home in Corpus Christi to encounter a human chain of 25 ministers blocking the entrance. The state agents were investigating numerous abuse allegations leveled at homes run by Lester Roloff, a fire-breathing preacher and exponent of "Bible-discipline."

Though the state backed down in that face-to-face confrontation, a legal battle dragged on in the courts until 1985, three years after Roloff died in a plane crash in East Texas. At the heart of the dispute was a 1973 law that mandated state inspections of all child-care facilities. Soon after the law was passed, Roloff placed his homes under the administrative auspices of People's Baptist Church, turning his court cases into church-vs.-state affairs. With the support of then-Gov. Bill Clements, Roloff's school won a lower court ruling. But the Texas Supreme Court voted to uphold the law and ordered the inspection in 1984, shortly after Clements was ousted by Democrat Mark White.

As attorney general, White had earlier represented the state in litigation against the school. With White becoming governor and the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear the case, the buildings in Corpus Christi were abandoned, and the operation Roloff had built was moved to Missouri. In 1997 the Roloff Homes returned to Texas and a much friendlier climate created by the state and federal faith-based legislation. This time the homes were licensed and accredited by the Texas Association of Christian Childcare Agencies, so far the only agency providing the "alternative accreditation" permitted under HB 2481.

In the three years since the homes have been licensed in Texas, they have been the targets of two allegations of abuse -- the first, in May 1999, just weeks after the homes reopened. At that time, the mother of a teenage girl living in the Rebekah Home for Girls (the Roloff Home for girls 17 and younger) reported that her daughter had been tied up with duct tape. Just months later, James Cavallin, 17, a resident at the Lighthouse home for men, a self-styled "Christian boot camp," made a sworn statement to the Nueces County Sheriff's Office that he had been abused by officials of the home, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Supervisors at the home had suspected Cavallin and another teenager of trying to escape and in response, roped them together and banged their heads together a few times, according to the statement. Then, Allen Smith, an employee of the home, forced the two boys to run barefoot through brush into the woods, hitting them with a stick when they slowed down. The boys were taken into the woods, according to the Caller-Times, where they were forced to dig in a pit, while school personnel looked on. "They threw dirt clods and rocks at us and they also threw empty cans," Cavallin's statement says. The statement also claims that on the cold March night when the incident occurred, Lighthouse employees urinated on the boys and threw ice water on them. At around 2am, after four or five hours of digging, the boys were told they would have to jump the pit if they wanted to rest. Justin Simons, 18, did so, spraining both ankles and breaking three toes. Smith was arrested in connection with the case, as was pastor and program operator Wiley Cameron, who refused to turn over the home's papers that were requested by the sheriff's office.

As disturbing as the accusations themselves is the apparent failure of the mechanisms set up by the state to prevent abuse in institutions exempt from state oversight. Little or no action seems to have been taken by the Texas Association of Christian Childcare Agencies after the abuse accusations at the Rebekah Home, although Texas Protective and Regulatory Services removed Faye Cameron, dorm mother of the home and wife of Wiley Cameron, for abuse and neglect. Wiley Cameron retained both his position at the Roloff homes -- and his membership on the TACCA board, which he did not resign until Simons' mother filed suit against the homes the following year.

"We are completely against abuse, of course," Rev. David Blaser, president of TACCA, told the Caller-Times. "But how to define it is for the courts to decide. If you see a baby going to the stream, drowning, and you get a rope and throw it to the baby and it gets the baby around the neck, do you drag it out of the water by the neck? Of course you do."

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