About 30 high school-aged children continue to reside at River View Christian Academy (RVCA), a secluded, residential school facility in Shasta County, Calif., even after state authorities notified the facility it must either obtain a license to operate or shut down, Kevin Snider, an attorney for River View confirmed.
Instead of complying, the facility has remained in operation, and its owner, Phil Ludwig, is suing the state. He claims that a law that went into effect in 2018 that requires so-called private, alternative boarding schools get licensed by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) violates the organization's religious beliefs. The new law requires that caretakers at such facilities are trained in competency and sensitivity toward the rights of LGBT children in their programs. River View maintains that requirement runs counter to its anti-gay beliefs.
On 6 June 2019, lawyers for the activist law firm Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) mounted publicity for the case with a press release that accused the state of conducting a "Waco-style raid" and attempting to force River View to "change its beliefs or shut down." The press release prompted multiple Christian-themed websites to write their own versions.
Sensational headlines like "California Authorities Raid Christian School, Order it to Change Beliefs on Sex" prompted Snopes.com readers to ask whether the story was true.
The answer is complicated.
The state's case against River View is based on its investigative findings that the facility must be licensed to be in compliance with the Community Care Facilities Act, because River View operates a behavior-modification program. Even though River View has been in operation since 1993, a law that took effect in 2018 (SB 524) expanded the Community Care Facilities Act such that private alternative boarding schools must be licensed by CDSS, just like group homes.
Religious views aside, River View and its lawyers maintain that the facility is a private school, not a treatment facility, and as such it should be exempt from regulation by CDSS.
Here's a break-down of what we know.
The state's case against River View Christian Academy
On 8 September 2018, BuzzFeed News published a report that quoted former River View residents who detailed the program's harsh treatment of children. In the story, the women quoted recalled policies at the facility, formerly known as Julian Youth Academy, that barred them from talking to each other, touching or being touched by anyone. Children at the facility were also punished for being gay or demonstrating behaviors perceived as such.
Later that same month, the CDSS launched an investigation "in response to information it received" that the facility was violating state law by operating community-care facilities without a license, according to court documents.
On 18 January 2019, CDSS investigators, accompanied by California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers, executed an inspection warrant on the grounds of River View, located in the mountains of Whitmore, a rural, unincorporated community in Northern California. Per CHP, no violence erupted, and officers made no arrests during the raid.
CDSS investigators identified two programs in operation at the site: the River View troubled-teen program and a separate one for girls who had been victims of commercial sex trafficking. The River View facility, state investigators found, "functions primarily to provide treatment services, including a strict behavior program, and not education." All youth reported the site has no teachers who offer instruction or help with school work, "and that the 'school' is independent study online."
During the raid, children housed at the site reported to investigators maltreatment that included being placed on diets of only peanut butter and bread for "many months at a time"; confiscated belongings; and restricted and monitored communication with parents and peers, according to court documents. "Program staff control youth's ability to talk to or even look at peers, and there are 'restricted communication' or 'RC' times throughout the day," according to the state complaint.
Investigators also found that River View program staff monitor children closely, using hourly room checks and video feeds at night. They also store and distribute children's medication, including psychotropic prescriptions. Children are placed on a behavior system in which they earn points throughout the day, the accumulation of which allows them to advance through "levels."
The program is advertised to parents as providing rehabilitative services to troubled youth; that accepts children with histories of mental-health issues and addiction to alcohol and illicit drugs; and that also provides counseling and transportation to medical appointments, according to court documents.
CDSS is asking the court to stop the facility from continuing to operate, as River View has been notified they are operating in violation of the law and "have stated no intention to comply with or seek licensure from the state" and also "refused to cease all operations of the unlicensed community care facility.
Advocates push for new laws
In 2016, advocates from Los Angeles LGBT Center and Survivors of Institutional Abuse (SIA) successfully lobbied the California Legislature to pass SB 524, a bill that required "private alternative boarding schools" to be licensed as group homes. After being signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, the law went into effect in 2018.
The law requires that residential-care facility staff be trained in, among other things, "cultural competency and sensitivity" toward children in their care who are members of the LGBT community. It also bars "efforts to change his or her gender expressions, or to eliminate or reduce sexual or romantic attractions or feelings toward individuals of the same sex."
Prior to that, SIA Founder Jodi Hobbs said, these facilities were able to operate with no oversight whatsoever, and as a result, abuse and neglect of children, which sometimes resulted in death, would run rampant.
Hobbs was placed in a similar facility when she was 17 in San Diego and told us she still has nightmares about it, even at the age of 47. She now advocates for regulating the "troubled teen industry" — a network of facilities that take children from their homes and families and immerse them in strict programs in an effort to change their behaviors.
"I think any place that houses children should be overseen by someone in authority," Hobbs told us. "In many states that's not the case. These places are unregulated, and children are absolutely being abused in them. It’s called the 'troubled teen industry,' and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry."
The institutions "tear you down to build you back up in the way they think you should be," Hobbs said. They do so with "very severe treatments" that are "trauma-inducing." Children in such programs sometimes die preventable deaths due to neglect from staff exercising what they believe to be "tough love," Hobbs said.
In 2011, a resident who returned to what was then Julian Youth Academy as a staff member was arrested after the body of her mummified newborn baby was found at the campus. Jessica Nicole Bradford, then 23, was accused of starving the infant to death and hiding her in a closet. She was convicted of murder in 2014.
At the time, Dionne Lake who was also a former Julian Youth Academy resident, said the infant's death was the result of the facility's severe tactics and psychological conditioning, telling the local newspaper Record Searchlight that, "They have such a lifestyle up there of hiding things and hiding people's issues and hiding this and that, that now look what's happened. She said to police she killed her baby, hid her baby after she killed it, and it's because she didn't want it to affect her lifestyle."
"It's totally illegal and abusive"
Another former Julian Youth Academy resident who asked us to use the pseudonym Erin Amodeo, and who lived there from 2005 to 2007, told us her parents sent her to the program when she was a severely traumatized teenager. Amodeo was a run-away who had been the victim of sexual assault. But the program did not help her, she said. Instead, it left her with emotional scars that required therapy.
Amodeo, who is now 28, told us that the program is designed to establish absolute control over children. Communication with parents is strictly monitored, and staff heavily regulate relationships with peers. Amodeo described gaslighting by staff that "erased my memory and replaced it." After leaving the program, Amodeo began crying uncontrollably whenever she was alone, and didn't know why, so she sought the help of a professional therapist. She recalls having to ask her older sister to verify her own memories of growing up with domestic abuse.
"I seemed like a well-behaved kid when I got out" of Julian Youth Academy, she said. "But I cried myself to sleep for years, thinking I was a terrible person and thinking everything was my fault."
Discipline often included things like "no talk" or "no touch," and that would be written on children's name tags, she told us. "No talk" meant all forms of communication, including eye contact. Often children would be forced to write "lines" or repetitive sentences. She said she witnessed staff discipline children by forcing them to run laps, and if they didn't do it fast enough, they would have to start over.
"I think the most extreme thing that I saw was, people would just be on their bed in their pajamas, and there would be a staff member monitoring them. Every single meal would be vegetable broth, vegetable sticks and plain toast. Every meal, that’s all they got," she said. "Then they would end up taking away blankets, sheets, and then the mattress" so that the punished student was only sleeping on wood.
In her time at the facility, Amodeo said she saw about five to seven children receive that kind of discipline. "They looked like people who had given up hope. They're just lying there, not doing anything. These people looked like they broke in the sense of, instead of cooperating, they just gave up on life."
Amodeo told us she believes the program constitutes child abuse. "They hurt people. Just because it’s not physical doesn't mean that it’s not pain," she said. "It's totally illegal and abusive."
RVCA sues the state of California
River View's defense has been taken up by Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), an activist law firm that represents clients pro bono "in the defense of religious freedom, parental rights, and other civil liberties," according to its website. The firm also "[protects] parents' fundamental rights to educate and discipline their children and providing valuable resources to aid parents when Child Protective Services is threatening to remove children from the home." (The Southern Poverty Law Center designates PJI as an anti-LGBT hate group.)
We asked Snider, the PJI attorney representing River View, why the law firm's press release described the state's January 2019 raid as "Waco-style" given no reports of violence. He said it was because law enforcement drove up to the secluded facility in a convoy that alarmed people who saw it. "They had a staging area of 18 vehicles," he said. "It alarmed the community. It’s a small town."
However, both the PJI press release and a state court filing obtained by BuzzFeed indicate that authorities believed firearms were present on campus, and that CHP officers were there to provide security if that were the case. The state's filing further indicates investigators obtained a warrant because River View staff had refused to let them on to the property.
Snider filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state's Community Care Facilities Act violates River View's religious rights. "The theological position of the school is conservative," the lawsuit states. "Specifically as it relates to human sexuality, it holds a hetero-normative view of relationships. Sexual relationships are confined to a man and a woman who are married to each other."
It also alleges that the state is wrong in its finding that River View should be licensed as a group home because its primary function is a school that teaches a Christian world view.
"The primary disagreement between the state and the school is that under the Community Care Facilities Act a boarding school that uses behavior-based services falls under the jurisdiction of the state," Snider told us in an email. "That term is undefined. The school does not use mental health-based methods for helping troubled teens. Instead, as a Christian school, the institution provides a biblical world view in its instruction and mentoring, along with a structured environment. When a religious ministry uses spiritual components in its approach, under the First Amendment the state lacks jurisdiction under the legal doctrine of the separation of church and state."
Snider said the state was wrong to downplay the role of education at River View and called its evidence "hearsay."
"The Community Care Facilities Act was recently amended to apply to 'private alternative boarding schools' which provide 'behavior-based services,'" Snider said, adding, "I fear that RVCA is simply the first school that the state will go after in the months to come."