Cover Story

When push comes to shovel

State social-service bureaucrats accuse a small, rural religious school of child abuse, citing its disciplinary emphasis on manual labor and corporal punishment. In most cases, an overmatched, underfunded school would have to cave in. But Heartland Christian Academy is hardly typical. The school is bankrolled by an insurance multimillionaire who hasn't forgotten his rural roots, and "Pastor Charlie," as he's known, points to a record of success in helping steer some of the toughest wayward kids onto the straight and narrow. And he vows to use his vast resources to fight a battle other similar schools won't-or can't.

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

in Newark, Mo.-Something to keep in mind the next time you're enjoying a fresh, cold glass of milk: The average dairy cow consumes at least 80 pounds of feed each day-and produces 40 pounds of manure. Of course that's not the image that the dairy industry wants to project. The public side of the business is all spotlessly clean and bacteria-free. In northeastern Missouri, for instance, the Sharpe Land and Cattle Company is probably best known for its gleaming, stainless steel tanker trucks with "Jesus Is the Answer" emblazoned on the side. No one thinks about the more than 120,000 pounds of manure churned out every day by the company's dairy herd, one of the largest in the country. At least, no one used to think about it until earlier this summer, when a local prosecutor filed 68 counts of felony child endangerment charges against five employees of the dairy's owner. Suddenly, manure was on everyone's mind. The problem, according to prosecutors, was that 11 children from a nearby Christian school were ordered into the pit for several hours, standing in muck up to their chests. Officials at Heartland Christian Academy strenuously deny the charges. They say the children, as punishment for various offenses, had to shovel manure for 15 to 30 minutes at a time-a smelly but safe chore that would be instantly recognizable to anyone reared on a farm. That explanation was not good enough for juvenile officers, who mailed letters warning parents, "Your child is residing in an environment, which could be injurious to his/her welfare." Frustrated when all but three families chose to re-enroll their children anyway, juvenile officers fired off another round of letters. This time, they ordered select parents to withdraw their children, or else: "If you are unwilling to intervene and remove your child from this facility then I will file a petition in the Juvenile Court of Shelby County, and I will request an order removing [name of child] from the Heartland facility. In that event, future placement decisions would be made by the Division of Family Services and the Shelby County Juvenile Court." Such opposition from the local social-services bureaucracy could have spelled the end for the average small Christian school. But Heartland is hardly average. Not only does it enroll the toughest cases-drug abusers, dropouts, and delinquents of all kinds-but it also enjoys almost unheard-of resources. Charlie Sharpe, the school's founder and owner of the dairy, also founded Ozark National Life, an $8 billion insurance behemoth in Kansas City. He poured $20 million of his own money into building Heartland's state-of-the-art, white-brick campus on one corner of his 17,000 acres of land, and he expects to spend more than $100 million before he's done. "Pastor Charlie," as everyone calls him, is fighting back to protect his investment. He's less worried about the cash he has tied up in the physical plant than he is about his "investment in the lives of children." And he has a strong sense that he's fighting for other religious organizations that weren't blessed with a huge bank account. "They have no defense," he says. "This is what the atrocity is: To get fairness, you have to have money. That's wrong. I am offended to think that we, because we have money, can fight this. The little person out there that has nothing really has no hope. When 30 percent of the budget of a state goes to social services, they have awesome power to fight someone that maybe has a $25,000 a year income. And that's wrong." There's no pretty way to describe a manure pit. The one at the Sharpe dairy is a giant, L-shaped gash in the earth, perhaps 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep. Mounds of dark brown waste rise up here and there, and a wet-looking sludge coats the entire cement floor. A few hundred yards away lies the manure separator. Three conveyor belts jut out of the side of a white shack, dropping clumps of excrement from a height of about 20 feet. The solid waste is used as fertilizer, while liquid leftovers run down a concrete channel and into a foul-smelling lagoon. Officials at Heartland admit that children were sent to both locations to shovel manure after accruing too many "tallies," or demerits. Not that that was the only discipline teachers doled out. Students who misbehave may get anything from extra work hours in the cafeteria to three swats with a wooden paddle. Mr. Sharpe insists that Heartland could not do its job without strict discipline. Although some of its 250 students come voluntarily from nearby towns, juvenile court judges or parents at the end of their rope send the vast majority. The kids arrive rebellious and sullen, perhaps pregnant or strung out on drugs. After multiple suspensions from public schools or run-ins with the law, they may be presented with a final choice: Heartland or jail. At first glance, new students may wonder whether that was much of a choice after all. Boys and girls are housed not only in separate dorms, but on separate campuses 10 miles apart. Both sexes sit in the same classrooms, but it's girls in front, boys in back or vice-versa. They can't be in the hallways without a pass, can't dye their hair, and can't wear any jewelry except for watches and class rings. Class attendance is mandatory, church attendance is mandatory, work is mandatory. And, because their parents have agreed in writing to keep them at Heartland through graduation, new arrivals can expect a "sentence" of up to four years. As for the manure shoveling, Mr. Sharpe says he curtailed it even before the county got involved, and for a very simple reason: It wasn't working. Some kids saw the manure pit as a kind of pungent playground. One boy even jumped in and started the post-digestive version of a food fight. To Mr. Sharpe, the idea that shoveling manure could amount to child abuse is ludicrous. He was reared on a farm not far from here, and he wielded a shovel himself before going off to Kansas City to make his fortune. He suspects that beneath all their shocked rhetoric, the city-educated social workers also know the Heartland children weren't in any sort of danger. So why the 68 criminal charges against the school? "Our discipline is not severe," Mr. Sharpe insists in a deep Southern twang that betrays his rural roots. "The 'ficials want to project it as being severe, because Social Services doesn't want any discipline. That's why kids are in the shape they're in today. Our discipline is only severe to those critics who have some agenda other than helping kids." As he warms to his topic, he leans in conspiratorially, his white eyebrows knit. "It doesn't have anything to do with discipline. It has to do with power. A place like us, we take no money, we charge nothing to the parents, we don't ask their political stance, we don't ask their religious beliefs. We ask no questions other than, Do you need help? "It's all about the 'ficials not having control of the kids. This is what I believe. They do not have the control they want to have. We're not trying to hide anything. We're not trying to tell the 'ficials that they can't come here. They say they're interested in the children. Are they now? Because our children change, and they know their programs are a failure. Their kids keep coming back and back and back before the judges until they're old enough to go to prison. They go through every juvenile program all the way through their youth, then when they get old enough they go to prison. We say this: You're not going to see many of our kids in prison." Results or no results, the Heartland case has once again mobilized critics who view religious groups as unlicensed, unregulated amateurs. "We think whether or not an agency is affiliated with a religious organization, there needs to be some oversight," says Ruth Ehresman, policy director at Citizens for Missouri's Children, a statewide advocacy group. Heartland, like other faith-based programs in Missouri, operates largely beyond the reach of the state government. In the interest of separating church and state, Missouri law specifically exempts religious schools, camps, and residential treatment facilities from much of the oversight that their secular counterparts must endure. That means the government has little or no say in such crucial matters as personnel, curriculum, and discipline. And Missouri is not alone in granting such leeway to religious organizations. Nine states have enacted sweeping religious-protection measures similar to the short-lived Religious Freedom Restoration Act the U.S. Congress passed in 1993. Supreme Courts in six additional states have issued rulings that likewise provide near blanket protection to religious groups. Finally, numerous other states have, like Missouri, exempted only specific types of faith-based programs, such as group homes for older children. Not surprisingly, every alleged abuse or mistake at an unregulated religious facility elicits new appeals for government oversight. "We've had legislation proposed for a number of years but have never been able to get it passed due to the influence of religious conservatives in the state," laments Ms. Ehresman. "I would hope [the Heartland case] would be an incentive to re-think that legislation." Though it's rarely discussed, the financial stakes are high for the secular service providers. In 1998, the Missouri Department of Social Services estimated that every child in a residential treatment center cost taxpayers $41,532 per year. With 18 children entering state-sponsored programs every day, the cost quickly becomes astronomical. Missouri spreads hundreds of millions of dollars a year through a vast childcare network that includes foster parents, group home leaders, case workers, juvenile officers, drug counselors, psychiatrists, and so on. As with public schools, funding is a function of enrollment: Every child who defects to a church-sponsored program reduces the demand for professionals paid by the taxpayers. Even more than finances, however, social-service bureaucrats are deeply worried by the ideology of places like Heartland. "They use methods of discipline that are demeaning to kids," Ms. Ehresman says. "I think it's never appropriate for kids to be paddled, forced to eat unappetizing foods, made to stand in manure-those are unacceptable forms of discipline." She charges that religious do-gooders like Mr. Sharpe are "uninformed" and "not schooled in psychology or therapeutic issues.... They have sort of a simplistic approach that once the young person gives his or her life to Jesus, that's the turning point." Gilbert Kliman, medical director at the Children's Psychological Health Center in San Francisco, doesn't believe in paddling, either. But unlike Ms. Ehresman, he has personally visited Heartland and interviewed more than 50 of the children there. The results of those interviews, he says, are "astounding." "I've never seen a therapeutic facility where I thought the results were as good," he says bluntly. "It's rather shocking to see this facility under attack when it is clearly a benevolent facility.... None of us in the team of evaluators advise or support the use of corporal punishment, and most especially with disturbed children. But we do have an open scientific mind, and we have to report that the positive results are quite remarkable, which we believe has to do with the spiritual component. Because there is such a high moral and spiritual reason for the punishment, the children seem to accept it in a nontraumatic way." The insurance tycoon invited Dr. Kliman, who stresses that he is "not of the faith of Pastor Sharpe," to perform a full audit of the Heartland program. He says Mr. Sharpe granted him access to every student, every teacher, and every file on the campus-a potentially risky concession, given that Dr. Kliman has testified against numerous faith-based youth programs and helped to close down a facility in Washington State. "I put a pastor away for several life sentences, and there are several others that I'd like to put away," he says. "But this is something completely different, and I find it very refreshing." Indeed, Dr. Kliman's strongest reprimand is directed not at the school, but at state officials who forcibly removed some of the students. "Discontinuity of care for fragile children is one of the most serious traumas," he says. "Rather than the abuse being what's going on at Heartland, we feel the real abuse may be the removal of the children" by the authorities. Barbara Johnson Lovelace isn't about to let that happen to her son, Jacob. Still feisty and spry at 80, Mrs. Lovelace says Jacob's life was "brutal" before she adopted him four years ago. A birth mother who rejected him, an adoptive father who beat him, a series of group homes, and social-service workers who overmedicated him-Mrs. Lovelace says it was hardly a surprise that Jacob was uncommunicative, unteachable, and sometimes violent. Since enrolling in Heartland two years ago, Jacob's progress has been "miraculous," according to Mrs. Lovelace. He has made friends, caught up to his grade level, been weaned from prescription drugs, and learned to control his temper. Still, after the manure-pit incident, county officials forbade Jacob from living on the campus with his alleged abusers. But Mrs. Lovelace vows she won't be deterred. "School will start the first of August, and I intend for that little boy to be there," she says, even if she has to drive him 15 miles every day in her old blue Chevy. "Heartland is an ideal place for youngsters. Look at the shape this little boy was in when I got him from Social Services. I'm not about to hand him back to those people."

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