Reading Time: 3 minutes

If all you knew about a “treatment” center for teenagers struggling with addiction or other issues was that it was Christian-run, the red flags would go up almost immediately. Those kinds of groups have a horrible track record of helping people because they’re more interested in shoving Jesus in kids’ faces and forcing them to adapt to an Old Testament-style regiment than following any kind of best practices as established by experts in the field.

Maybe the worst example of that is an organization called “Teen Challenge.”

For more than a decade, we’ve seen politicians give that group taxpayer funding even though religious conversion is at the heart of what they do. In 2008, Teen Challenge received four separate earmarks from members of Congress “for a total of $600,000.” Overall, though, they’ve received “tens of millions of dollars in state and federal grants” in large part due to Republicans in power bending over backwards to give them cash.

Now, in a jaw-dropping piece in the New Yorker by Rachel Aviv, we’re getting a better look at what goes on behind closed doors.

Aviv explains how, in 2011, a rebellious teenager named Emma Burris was essentially grabbed from her home against her will (after her adoptive Christian parents agreed to it) and taken to a Teen Challenge location in Lakeland, Florida.

It was a prison. That’s putting it generously, really. This was torture. She couldn’t have physical contact with other people for weeks. She was prohibited from speaking to anyone except two “mentors.” And if she ever even spoke about running away, then two more months would be added to her fifteen-month stint.

It got worse:

For talking, Emma and several other girls were placed on “Relationship Restriction.” Pairs of students who display “unhealthy behaviors” are told to act as if the other were dead. They must stay several feet apart, and eye contact is forbidden. Cambrie Elle Hall-Senn, one of Emma’s classmates, told me, “Relationship Restriction was often used to keep girls who were openly gay — or presumed gay — from communicating. It was like their preëmptive strike.” McKaila Aguiar, who was sent to the Lakeland Teen Challenge because she’d had a relationship with a girl, said that the directors told her homosexuality was “a detestable sin” that would prevent her from finding love and fulfillment.

Besides the bigotry inherent in just about any group run by conservative Christians, students who were sent to these places rarely had any access to mental health professionals. And they didn’t even need to be sent there at all:

Some students told me that they were sent to Teen Challenge because their parents worried that they were gay. One girl said she was sent to a Teen Challenge in Disney, Oklahoma, because her family disapproved of her dating a boy who wasn’t white. Others were sent for forms of rebellion or distress that arose from childhood traumas.

Aviv spoke with former residents and staffers, all of whom relay similar stories about the cruelty that took place in these centers — cruelty which some of them actively participated in when working there. Maybe we would have heard about these stories earlier, but victims were banned from speaking to family members outside of a monitored 15-minute phone call once a week during which topics of conversation were written down in advance.

It won’t surprise you to learn that many of these forms of torture were based on random Bible verses.

During Emma’s stay, she realized she was pregnant, but even then she couldn’t get any real help. Abortion wasn’t an option, but it’s not like anyone at the center helped her get through the pregnancy. Emma was pressured to attend gym class just weeks before giving birth, and then she was forced to give the baby up for adoption without fully understanding the ramifications of that.

There’s no happy ending to the story. The organization still exists, and there’s just an ever-increasing number of traumatized teenagers who finally get to leave. Unless conservative Christians decide they oppose this form of torture — by speaking out against it, by refusing to give the group any money, by condemning everything they do and everyone who runs the operation — this isn’t going to stop. All the more reason everyone else should at least educate themselves about what these organizations are like. We can’t count on members of the cult to push back against it.

(Image via Shutterstock)

Avatar photo

Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.