Kidnapping of American teenagers is tragic and always newsworthy. For years now American teens have been forcefully removed from their homes and sent to behavior modification schools in the name of God. The parents are the ones who allow it, and filmmaker Kate Logan explains one process in her award winning documentary Kidnapped For Christ. The documentary film won the Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah. Among 5,000 films submitted to the festival it was one of eight documentaries chosen to showcase.
A boarding school for troubled teens near a mountain community of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic (DR) called Caribe Vista (Escuela Caribe) is owned by a US based evangelical ministry to mentor troubled youth and teach them life skills for success. The school's teaching methods were controversial among governments. The original site being in Haiti and that government forcing them to relocate from Haiti to the DR. In 1974 the Haitian government asked for immediate deportation of forty-three Caribe Vista Youth Safari staff and students. The ministry was cited for failure to renew expired visas and other concerning reasons. The Haitian government wanted no part of their questionable reputation. The school moved to a temporary location in the DR and then to a 30-acre location where Logan filmed her documentary. This campus housed roughly forty-five students.
Pastor Gordon Blossom founded the school in 1971 and developed its program known as "Culture Shock Therapy". Later the school was run by New Horizons Youth Ministries out of Marion, Indiana. They referred to the school as a "Christian therapeutic residential boarding facility". The therapy was described by many of the former students in the 1980s as abusive. Logan documents testimony of former students recalling the range of abuses each encountered: forced labor, repetitive exercise, striking the Gluteus Maximus with a wooden paddle called "swats", extreme isolation and various forms of emotional abuse.
Logan, a sold-out evangelical young adult, attended a Christian University in California where she was making a short film for her senior project. Logan did not know about the controversial nature of the school and did not initially engage in reporting on the school during her seven week shoot in 2006. She thought that her subject was a heartwarming story about troubled, underprivileged kids who were at the boarding school to work on their personal struggles.
Once on location, Logan realized that her originally planned narrative would be nothing like the story she would need to tell. Concerned. She realized that he film footage could be confiscated at any point during her stay. Logan carefully maneuvered the filming of her subjects and its facility. She knew every piece of her film footage could be used as evidence to expose information she was uncovering by chance. Her plan now was to save lives.
She was deeply troubled when confronted with David's story while filming on location. David soon became the focus for her documentary. She was compelled to help at least one kid escape. She hoped David would be the lucky one.
A much loved 17-year-old honor student from Colorado, David was applying to collages that offered theater scholarships. When he bravely shared with his parents that he was gay, almost immediately his life was altered. He was removed by force from his home and put on a plane to the DR because his conservative faith-based parents could not handle the fact that their son was gay. Without taking the time to love him and try to understand his sexual journey thus far, they shipped him off for someone else to fix him. They made little effort to get to the root of David's conversion. “Here today, gone tomorrow” was a comment made by one of his close friends. His absence was a shock to many. It was out of character for David to vanish.
In addition, Logan shares Deirdre Sugiuchi's experience of abuse when she was a student in 1990. Unlike David's arrival to the school, Deirdre asked her parents to send her to a boarding school to escape her dysfunctional home life in the Mississippi Delta. She thought it was her way out of the abuse encountered at home.
Sugiuchi's dream of entering a safe environment was shattered on her second day of school. According to her house father (barely ten years older than herself) he was going to rid her of authority issues stemmed from home. She writes on a website dedicated to survivors of the school, "He made me do bear crawls, pushups and duck walks. He had me hold my arms out balancing books until I cried from pain." She tells in a Newsweek interview, "We had 24-year-old male house fathers in a house full of teenage girls. I had a house father watch me changes clothes. I was constantly either being abused or seeing others being abused."
Escuela Caribe is only one of many "behavior modification" institutions operating without proper regulation. Sadly, account after account proves much deeper abuse happened after admission to such a program. Logan and two of her executive producers of the film (Michael C. Manning and Lance Bass) are pressing for the passage of U.S. Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2013. The bill was referred to a committee last year. They hope for an introduction in the House or Senate to regulate against atrocities documented in Kidnapped for Christ.
Logan's documentary can be seen on Showtime beginning July of 2014. The film is now touring film festivals around the country. It's a sad commentary on so many levels. It's a documentary worth viewing. To be challenged not to look for absolute answers to fix a depraved world but look for opportunities to love on victims caught in the miry clay of life. The official documentary website offers avenues for involvement. Blessings on your efforts!