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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Christian facilities assured parents their troublesome teenagers would receive a much-needed, faith-based rehabilitation if they simply handed over custody and paid a hefty fee. Instead of making things better, though, the Christian ranches became a hotbed of physical and emotional abuse that left the kids far worse off than when they entered.

That was the case at the “Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch and Boarding School” in Missouri. It also occurred at Agape Boarding School in the same state. Just last week, a former dean at Agape was charged with abducting a child and sending him to a different Christian school.

A lot of this happens because religious boarding schools are unregulated, relying on their religious label to win the trust of unsuspecting families.

And now the former residents of Trinity Teen Solutions and Triangle Cross Ranch in Wyoming, which housed girls and boys, respectively, are speaking out against the treatment they received at the hands of the Christian family behind both facilities after state officials declined to take their complaints seriously.

Tyler Kingkade of NBC News spoke with a number of the victims and summarized the legal issues facing these ranches:

What girls encountered once they got there, according to 22 women who spent time at the ranch as teens from 2007 to 2020, was a nightmare of hard labor and humiliating punishments that left some injured and others with post-traumatic stress disorder

In recent interviews and court filings, the women described injuries to their hands, legs and feet, including cuts, frostbite and in one case torn ligaments requiring surgery, from hauling heavy metal pipes to irrigate fields and carrying bales of hay they said weighed over 50 pounds. The girls built barbed wire fences, dragged carcasses of dead animals into a pile and were driven around the county to clean churches and recreation centers, they said. 

The state has confirmed numerous regulatory violations over several years, finding that the ranch made teens box each other as punishment and tried to interfere with government investigations. One former Triangle Cross Ranch resident said staff members branded his arm in the shape of a cross in 2012, leaving a lasting scar

“Trinity is a bunch of fear-based activities and punishments that were supposed to teach you something, but all they taught you was how to be scared of everything,” said Carlie Sherman, 23, who grew up in Illinois and was sent to the girls’ ranch when she was 13, and again at age 15.

Much like church, instead of lifting people up, the leaders relied on fear, isolation, and obedience. Angie and Jerry Woodward (who founded Trinity) and the family of Angie’s father Gerald Schneider (who founded Triangle) deny any wrongdoing—no surprise there—but their excuse is that the purported abuse at the Christian ranches was simply part of the “therapeutic process.”

For more than 15 years, former residents have been filing formal complaints with the Wyoming Department of Family Services, only to have them ignored. Even when girls were not allowed to use the bathroom or boys issued threats of suicide or violence against others, state officials allowed both facilities to continue operating, showing just how little oversight and regulation there is. Even though state inspectors are supposed to visit at least once a year and speak with residents alone, that almost never happened, according to some of the victims, and even when it did, staffers were present to monitor what was being said.

This passage tells you everything you need to know about how seriously Wyoming officials took their jobs:

The department said in a statement that it has a hotline available for children to report maltreatment in facilities. Former ranch residents said they didn’t have unmonitored access to a phone

There’s a staggering amount of abuse and potential criminal violations in the NBC News account. It’s hard to read and even worse when you realize how many victims there have been, hoping to get the attention of anyone in power, only to be cast aside by virtually everyone in their lives (with few exceptions).

There is some hopeful news, though. A lawsuit against the ranches is ongoing. And many of the victims have found each other through TikTok and other forms of social media. They’re doing everything in their power to warn other families to avoid these Christian ministries at all costs. What they really need, though, are government officials willing to pass laws requiring regulation and oversight of facilities like these even if they’re religious in nature.

Christians like the people running these places cannot be trusted to police themselves. Given the choice between helping people and hurting them, far too many people choose the latter option, believing that their faith alone gives them permission to mistreat everyone under their care. Politicians have been all too eager to let them get away with it.

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