2016-07-27
Parents contract with faith-based programs for various reasons: They're believers, they can't afford other options or sometimes as a last resort. The two men Dale Knowlton hired to abduct his 16-year-old son showed up as planned at his home near Kansas City at 4 a.m. sharp. Because Knowlton was nervous, because he wanted the regrettable work over and done, he met the men in the middle of his yard, before they even reached his doorstep.

As the father greeted the near strangers who would take away his defiant and suicidal son, he felt crushed by failure. That it had come to this. That he really was out of options. That no one -- not therapists, not insurance companies, not the juvenile justice system -- gave him any choice but to have his son taken by force to a religious reform school across the state.

Knowlton had sought out the men from California after he first heard of "escort services" that do nothing but transport problem teens to treatment programs. He was relieved that the obscure industry could help but devastated to be one its clients. "It was the most horrendous decision of my life," he said

Several days and $2,500 later, he was letting the men in his home and going over the protocol they had discussed in numerous phone calls. He took them directly to his sleeping son, turned on the light, and repeated a rehearsed line that went something like: "Corey, I love you very much, but we both know that you need help. These guys are here to help you."

Knowlton left the house immediately, mainly because he was instructed to do so beforehand. But he also needed an exit from the protests and biting words he suspected would erupt from his son. "It's almost like you are witnessing your own failure as a parent," he said.

Within minutes, Knowlton and his girlfriend were at a restaurant, wondering about Corey and his five-hour car ride to Hope Baptist Church and Boarding School, in St. James, Mo. The torturous wait ended when one of the men from the escort service called to say Corey had arrived safely. By midday, Knowlton once again hoped that his son, who had seemed to fall through every crack in the system, finally would get some help.

He would keep that hope alive right up until Corey jumped through a window after being paddled by the school's operator, the Rev. Joseph Intagliata. The broken glass left Corey with dozens of stitches in his arms, hands and legs. The pastor is facing criminal abuse charges for excessively paddling Corey.

Knowlton is among the hundreds of parents who send their children to Missouri's religious reform schools from across the country. Here, the schools are unregulated and a few have a history of abuse allegations.

Many parents seek out the schools specifically because they offer a biblical solution for their child's behavioral problems. Those parents aren't interested in professional therapy, preferring to turn their kids around with a mix of tough love and doctrinal teachings. Nikki Cherry of Kingwood, Texas, sent her daughter to Mountain Park near Poplar Bluff, Mo., because she believed her teen would find the Lord and turn her life around. And that's exactly what she said happened.

But many other parents have little in common philosophically with the strict reform schools they pick for their kids. Administrators of the schools in Missouri say the vast majority of their clients do not share their faith. Several of those parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch say the faith-based approach was the right fit for their children and they have been delighted by the results.

But for others the religious reform schools aren't a first choice. They sign up with trepidation because they feel they have no other options. The parents occupy what mental health advocates describe as a no man's land when it comes to services for teens with behavioral problems.

The parents are turned away from the juvenile justice system because their kids have not committed serious crimes. Their health insurance covers only a few counseling sessions. Government mental health programs are no help, because they serve mostly children in state custody. And the parents can't get public schools to offer much more than a few special education classes.

So the parents go it alone, seeking out whatever programs they can afford, making compromises along the way. That's where Knowlton found himself two years ago when his son began what he describes as a sudden but sustained fit of defiance. At first, Corey missed curfews, then he began to steal from the family. Soon he stayed away all night and then for days at a time.

Finally, in two separate instances, he attempted suicide. Initially, Knowlton turned to his health insurance and was able to get Corey both inpatient and outpatient counseling. But his benefits ran out. Like so many other parents, he tried the family courts and state mental health programs with no luck. Then he heard of a pastor who operated a home for a handful of boys.

Knowlton, who has been a public school teacher for 25 years, opposes corporal punishment. But by the time he had placed Corey at Hope Baptist, he was willing to sacrifice that objection. He talked to Intagliata several times on the phone and deemed him to be a sincere man who genuinely wanted to help. "You hit dead end after dead end, and then there's this little beacon of hope, so you take it," he said.

Experts in the field of adolescent mental health say they sympathize with parents, who often fear their defiant teens are threatening the safety of themselves and others. Parents "are absolutely desperate," said Vince Hillyer, who heads Missouri Boys and Girls Town, a licensed facility. "They are in a crisis and they can't think clearly."

Even if parents take the time to research treatment alternatives, they often come up dry. "I don't know of any good options for these parents," said Tom Kennedy, an Alton lawyer who helps parents fight for additional special education services from school districts.

A study published this fall in the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that over three-fourths of children who need mental health services are not receiving them. In many cases, parents--including some in Missouri--have actually relinquished custody of their children to the state so they can receive service.

More often, however, they turn to a booming teen behavior modification industry. In the past 15 years alone, hundreds of specialized boarding schools and wilderness programs have cropped up across the country. By some conservative estimates, at least 35,000 teens enroll in such programs nationwide. "I can't think of anything else in the area of education that has exploded so quickly," said Mark Sklarow, who heads the Independent Education Consultants Association.

Increasingly, parents hire education consultants to recommend programs. More often than not, they favor "emotional-growth" programs, which hire professional therapists. But the cost is prohibitive, often running well in excess of $5,000 a month. "Obviously, those parents who have more money have more choices in this area," said John McLaughlin of the Brown Schools, a Nashville, Tenn., chain of 33 emotional-growth schools serving about 1,500 children.

McLaughlin said many middle-income families mortgage homes and deplete retirement accounts to enroll children at expensive programs. Others turn to cheaper alternatives, such as shorter duration boot camps, wilderness programs or boarding homes that offer rigid structure but little or no professional counseling.

Ken Kaye, of La Verkin, Utah, heads what is likely the largest chain of such schools in the nation. The so-called World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools comprises a dozen campuses enrolling 2,000 students. The centers charge about half what emotional-growth schools charge. "I can't see it doing anything else but continuing to grow," Kaye said.

Still, the enterprise has long been the subject of various abuse investigations, including at offshore campuses in West Samoa and Jamaica that critics say were set up to avoid U.S. regulations. In Missouri, meanwhile, unregulated religious reform schools have stepped in to fill an unsatisfied need among parents like Knowlton.

If Knowlton had $5,000 a month for a professional residential counseling program, he would have spent it on his son in an instant. But he did what he could, rounding up the $1,100 a month that Intagliata charged to enroll a teen at Hope Baptist. "There was nowhere to go," Knowlton said. "At least he was willing to help."

Intagliata has repeatedly said he is innocent of the felony abuse charges. He said he paddled boys only rarely and with little force. After disciplining Corey Knowlton, he said, the boy flew into a rage and jumped though a window. Nearly all the injuries were from broken glass, though state records also cite deep bruising on the teen's backside.

Intagliata said he would proudly stack up his record treating teens against any state-run or state-licensed program. Several parents interviewed by the Post-Dispatch have praised the pastor's work. But the pastor said he realizes Corey was probably the wrong fit for his program. That's not to say Intagliata believes there were better options. "There are no other alternatives out there," he said.

Intagliata's reform school was initially barred from enrolling teens after the criminal charges were filed. He has since been allowed to reopen but has yet to do so. But Knowlton said that doesn't solve a thing. It certainly didn't help his son, who returned to his same destructive habits when he came home.

He said prosecutors and child protection workers have been eager for him and his son to help convict Intagliata of abuse.

But no one seems to take an interest in helping Corey. As a result, Knowlton said he's more frustrated by a broken behavioral health system than he is by the mistakes of a pastor who may have gotten in over his head. "I have no malice toward him at all," Knowlton said. "I have more malice for those that won't help Corey."

The father has worked to mend his tattered relationship with his son. Today, Knowlton said, he's on good terms with Corey, who is living nearby with a cousin and seems to be more stable.

But Knowlton knows his son still needs help. He knows the reform school left more than physical scars. He knows because on a long drive recently, Corey turned to his father and asked if the road trip was a trick. "You're not taking me somewhere again, are you?" Knowlton recalls his son asking.

"No, Corey, I'm not," the father said. "That was a mistake. I'm not doing that again."

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