In January 1990, Deirdre Sugiuchi was 15 and on a plane to the Dominican Republic. She was fed up with her dysfunctional home life in the Mississippi Delta and had persuaded her fundamentalist Christian parents to send her to boarding school. They chose Escuela Caribe, a “Christian therapeutic residential boarding facility” in the Dominican Republic run by the American religious organization New Horizons Youth Ministries.
“I thought Escuela Caribe would be a way to escape abuse,” Sugiuchi tells Newsweek. She would quickly come to learn that she was entering an institution where physical and psychological abuse was in the curriculum.
In a harrowing new documentary, Kidnapped for Christ, filmmaker Kate Logan captured the scene at Escuela Caribe in 2006, years after Sugiuchi departed the school. Logan, who was a 20-year-old junior at an evangelical Christian university in California at the time, had intended to make a short film for her senior project of a “heartwarming story about troubled, underprivileged kids” who were at Escuela Caribe to “work through their issues.”
“I quickly realized that this was a whole different story,” she tells Newsweek.
Sugiuchi experience fifteen years earlier paints a picture of a consistantly abusive institution allowed to thrive unreported for decades. By her second day at the school, Sugiuchi’s image of a nurturing Christian boarding school was shattered when her “house father” made her perform exercises for hours.
“According to him, I had ‘an authority problem’ at home. 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 wrote on a website dedicated to collecting the stories of survivors of the school. “We had 24-year-old male house fathers in a house full of teenage girls. I had a house father that used to watch me change clothes. I was constantly either being abused or seeing people be abused,” she tells Newsweek.
Swatting, or being struck on the rear with a wooden paddle, was among the disciplinary practices at the school, along with a “quiet room” where students deemed particularly insubordinate would be isolated for days with only a thin mattress. A system of points based on obedience kept students on different levels, and low-ranking students would be forced to ask permission to perform any task, and supervised at all times by higher-ranking students, including in the shower, Sugiuchi says.
“When I was there, at 17, I was a high ranker, and it was my job to make sure [low rankers] were properly washing their private parts in the shower. I had to make sure they soaped. That was how I spent my senior year,” she says. Phone calls to parents were recorded, and written letters were monitored. “They would do anything to keep you there.”
Escuela Caribe was one of many “behavior modification” schools operating with little regulation all over the U.S. and overseas. Many of the students were sent to Escuela Caribe because their parents had determined that they were misbehaving. Many of the girls who wound up there had been sexually assaulted and were acting out at home following the trauma, according to Sugiuchi. Others arrived with anxiety or depression, or learning disabilities that made them “difficult” teens at home. Still others were there because they were gay, and had come out to their parents, who didn’t approve.
Logan’s film, which premieres on Showtime on Thursday, follows her growing realization that the school was using brainwashing tactics and harming children. In one scene she puts the camera on a girl who has been standing facing a wall for over an hour as some sort of punishment.
As her disillusionment with the sunny facade of the school grows, so does her determination to help one kid escape. She focuses her efforts on David—who is only identified by his first name—a 17-year-old honors student from Colorado, who was applying to theater scholarships. After coming out to his parents as gay, he was dragged out of bed by a belt strapped around his waist and put on a plane to the Dominican Republic.
“My mom said something along the lines of ‘I could never love a gay son,’” David says in the film. “They were just basically finding any way possible to, you know, fix the problem, change it.”
Logan interviews Cindy Hundley, a counselor at the school, who claims that the school doesn’t engage in any “reparative” therapy to attempt to alter students’ sexual orientations, but that “through counseling” the students do come to “understand” that they are straight.
“How do we deal with kids that come down and say they have homosexual issues—or even claim to be bisexual? We really don’t even look at that. A lot of our kids have been hurt sexually by people. So many, as we have gone through counseling, we’ve come to understand that the reason they have come to enjoy the same-sex relationships is because they couldn’t trust the other sex. You have to get down to the root. Many of our kids go, ‘Oh, I’m so glad that I’m not a homosexual,’” Hundley says.
Meanwhile, David is falling apart.
“I am a U.S. citizen. I should be free by my 18th birthday. But, no,” he says. “I am going to need some major counseling.… I feel like I am going to crack.”
Logan describes herself as having been a “very enthusiastic and committed evangelical Christian” when she began filming Kidnapped for Christ. Now, she identifies as agnostic, “mostly because I find myself no longer being able to believe that I have found the absolute truth and that all other religious convictions are wrong. This kind of thinking contributed to what happened at Escuela Caribe, and to countless other abuses in the name of religion,” she says.
Along with Michael C. Manning, a former Disney star, and Lance Bass, the former N’Snyc pop star who both serve as executive producers on the film, she is pressing for the passage of U.S. Stop Child Abuse in Residential Programs for Teens Act of 2013, in promotional materials for the film. The bill, which was referred to a committee last year but has yet to be introduced in the House or Senate, would take steps to regulate against neglect and abuse in residential programs like Escuela Caribe.
In 2011, Escuela Caribe and New Horizons closed, transferring the property to another Christian ministry called Crosswinds, which reopened the school under the name Caribbean Mountain Academy. At least five staff members from Escuela Caribe remained employed at the school after the transition, though Mark Terrell, the CEO of Crosswinds, tells Newsweek they have all since moved on to different jobs. He maintains that they were vetted extensively before allowing to remain. “I don’t really care what anybody thinks. I think they’re good people.”
Terrell is frustrated about the backlash he has received in connection with the old school. “It’s tragic what happened there,” Terrell says of Escuela Caribe, but maintains that it has nothing to do with his new school. “We have asked every single detractor to come see our school. You know how many have come? Not one. There are people who want this story to go on because it helps them professionally.”
Gay students, he says, are never accepted into the program based on a parent’s problem with their orientation. “We’ve had children that are gay, we’ve had parents that are gay. Our attitude is that we are supposed to love them and respect them as we would anybody else. My best man at my wedding was gay. I love him dearly,” he says.
But Sugiuchi isn’t sure if she buys it. “I don’t believe that you can have the same fanatics from before and be such a different institution,” she says.
Sugiuchi is now 40, and working as a school librarian in Athens, Georgia, while she is writing a book about her experiences in Escuela Caribe. Its working title is Unreformed.
“It’s crazy now, I have this total normal life. I’m a school librarian, I have a husband,” she says. I’ve only started coming out to people in my hometown and telling them what happened to me. They can’t believe it, because I’m so normal.”