Texas authorities have arrested two people connected with Roloff Homes, facilities for troubled teenagers ushered into the state by Gov. George W. Bush as a model in his ongoing experiment to encourage faith-based alternatives to government social service programs.
The arrests came after several teenagers complained of abuse at one of the Christian juvenile facilities, including frequent beatings and what one called "sadistic" punishments severe enough to land him in a hospital.
The two people arrested were an official of Roloff Homes, and the supervisor of the Lighthouse, a facility that is part of Bush's "bold new experiment in welfare reform." The overhaul is a centerpiece of his governorship and his image in the presidential campaign as a compassionate conservative.
Bush is widely considered responsible for bringing Roloff Homes back into the state as part of his plan to "rally the armies of compassion." Five years ago, the organization pulled out of Texas after running into difficulties with the state attorney general.
"Governor Bush believes the care of children is a sacred trust and any allegations should be taken seriously," spokesman Mike Jones said yesterday. "He believes there should be an exhaustive and thorough investigation, and if any of the allegations are confirmed, our protective and regulatory services should take all necessary steps to protect the young people in that facility."
Nueces County sheriff's deputies arrested Allen Smith, 42, supervisor of the Lighthouse, and charged him with unlawful restraint, a felony, on Friday. Justin Simons, an 18-year-old from Georgia who was living at the Lighthouse along with 40 others in March, has told authorities that Allen roped him to another boy and made them run through the woods barefoot and dig in a sewage pit for almost 12 hours, among other allegations.
In interviews and statements to authorities, several other boys have confirmed Simons's story and complained of similar abuse by Smith and other workers at the facility.
Wiley Cameron Sr., who heads Roloff Homes, also was arrested for failing to turn over records to the sheriff's office, but was released the same day. Smith was released on bond this weekend.
"The law in Texas gives caretakers the right to use reasonable force to discipline and keep order," said Grant Jones, a former district attorney who is representing Smith. "These two fellas were trying to run away and my client responded to the threat."
The faith-based movement is often described as encouraging partnerships between government and religious institutions. But the Texas experiment operates on somewhat the opposite principle.
Bush's idea was to make room for church-based programs that were wary of government oversight. Laws passed in 1997 at his urging allow faith-based child and juvenile care to operate with minimum state involvement. An alternative accrediting agency, in this case the Texas Association for Christian Child Care Agencies, acts as a buffer between the state and the Christian youth homes, which receive no state money.
TACCA, as it is known, is supposed to inspect the facilities once a year and make sure they meet minimum requirements. But child welfare advocates worry that given Roloff's controversial history, that level of oversight would be insufficient. They are also concerned because Cameron is on the boards of directors of both TACCA and Roloff Homes.
Popular radio evangelist Lester Roloff founded the homes in the 1970s and made them the focus of his "holy war" against the state. When teenage girls complained of being whipped and denied food, he refused to let the state inspect the facilities. After a showdown with the attorney general, Roloff Homes left Texas in 1995.
By then, Roloff had died in a private plane crash. But fellow preacher Cameron took up the cause. With encouragement from Bush, Cameron lobbied heavily for the 1997 laws and agreed to return to Texas only if they were passed.
Theresa Calalay, Simons's mother, said her son had a few minor scrapes with the law, including speeding tickets and a street fight that police broke up. She sent him to the Roloff facility hoping he would "find himself and find God, and learn to be a man," she said Sunday at her home in Conyers, Ga.
Upon hearing her son's story, however, "I felt sick," she recalled.
Simons said he had been tied to another boy and made to run through the woods, and that he'd stood in a pit of sewage while other boys threw things at him. Simons alleges that one of three supervisors told him that if he wanted to take a break from digging, he would have to jump over the pit. By then, exhausted, he missed, and broke three of his toes and sprained both his ankles.
"I still have nightmares about it," Simons said.