New Bethany, Abuse, and the Far Right

by Courtney C Horne @FireezDragon

Recently, the Times Picayune has been running a long read series on the New Bethany Home for Girls.  I read it, knowing full well the feeling in the pit of my stomach that would result. New Bethany was for decades a horrifying prison masquerading as a school. The survivors of the abuse at the school have found each other thanks to the internet and through their sharing many have gained the courage to come forward about the physical abuse, neglect, mental abuse, and sexual abuse they endured during their time there. Many girls ran away and were returned to the school by local authorities. One survivor attempted to kill herself with a piece of glass while at the school and they simply bandaged her up. No visit to a doctor or hospital.

 

Amazingly the physical abuse isn’t really a new story. Reports of beatings at the school go back for decades and yet the school managed to stay open despite them. They loudly declared themselves to be “saving” troubled teens. They claimed that vicious beatings were merely “spankings.” And perhaps most importantly they cloaked everything they did in a veil of religion.

No one from the school has seen jail time for the abuse and to this day at least one person who spoke to the Times Picayune had the audacity to blame the victims and claim that they were merely spanking.

While being the most prominent in our part of the country, the abusers at New Bethany are hardly alone. Stories of terrible physical abuse in similar residential schools ran by religious organizations pop up in the news cycle with alarming regularity. There is a common thread throughout where the abusers loudly declare that they could not “spare the rod and spoil the child” and that the horrifying abuse was merely punishment.

This common thread links to something else I see popping up with alarming regularity- stories about conservative politicians writing bills about “parental rights.” Bills to protect spanking are a dime a dozen out of the far right of the GOP these days and I think this extreme interest in corporal punishment is enabling to places like New Bethany who undoubtedly view these politicians as potential allies. Every time someone from the far right pushes through an effort to “protect parents,” they make it a bit harder to root out abuse.

They claim to be “limiting government interference” in the lives of families but too often their zeal makes it harder to protect children from those who would abuse them in the name of “saving” their souls. Parental rights and freedom of religion are prioritized over the safety of children.

Two men in the Louisiana State Legislature have bills this year about “Parent’s rights.”

In the House, Representative Cameron Henry has House Bill 591  which seeks to add a state constitutional amendment declaring a parent’s “right to direct the upbringing, education, and care of his child” to be a fundamental right. This fundamental right language is the same language that made it difficult for Louisiana to prevent felons from owning guns when it was added with relation to gun rights. Undoubtedly, any child abuse case would become much harder to pursue in light of the fundamental right concept because all child abuse laws would be open to challenge to the state supreme court to see if they meet that new standard.  The nod to education in the bill could refer to useless home schooling and an effort to prevent public schools from teaching your children what you do not like (screaming that teaching your kid science violates your fundamental rights.) That same nod to education could however, help a place like New Bethany stay open.

In the Senate, Senator A. G. Crowe  has two bills on the topic. Senate Bill 308 is another “fundamental rights” constitutional amendment. The Senator’s bill goes further to say that parents have a fundamental right “to direct the upbringing of their children and that parents have the right to direct and to make decisions regarding where and with whom the child shall reside, the educational, moral, ethical, and religious training of the child, the medical, psychiatric, surgical, and preventive health care of the child, and the discipline of the child.” If the discipline of the child part of that doesn’t open up vast arguments by abusive parents that they were merely practicing their fundamental right, I would be shocked. This bill also seems to allow for troubling denial of health care to children with a much higher bar before the state could do anything about the neglect. With mentions of “moral training” and complete authority over where the child resides, it reeks of enabling places like New Bethany.

Senator Crowe didn’t stop his bill to put the religious beliefs of parents above the safety of children. He also authored Senate Bill 312. This bill is specific to parents of public school children and lists 9 “rights” for them. It has many troubling aspects but there are three that I think merit special concern. First is the right to “Inspect their child’s school records, including academic records, medical or health records, records of any mental health counseling, or records of any vocational counseling.” Undoubtedly the right to inspect mental health counseling records would give an abusive parent a tremendous amount of power. Second is the right ” To be notified when medical services are being offered to their child.” I doubt a public school in Louisiana would help a teenager get treatment for an STD regardless but this bill would enshrine in law the school having to tell a parent if they did. Imagine an abused teenager not being able to seek help for a sexually transmitted disease because the school will inform a parent who will beat the tar out of them. Or maybe even who gave them the STD and will try to silence them before they can report the sexual abuse. Thirdly the bill grants parents a right “To be notified before the school allows law enforcement personnel question their child.” This isn’t specific to the child being suspected of a crime. This particular line in the bill basically means that if an abuse victim reports, the police can not interview them about the abuse until after they have notified the abusers! The chilling effect this would have on abuse reporting is obvious.

I am sure Senator Crowe and Representative Henry believe that the state is “interfering” with parents and likely they feel like their faith is “under attack.” I am not sure that their belief’s sincerity matters to me. The people who ran New Bethany almost certainly sincerely believed that the vicious beatings and mental abuse they delivered were saving the girls at the school from eternal damnation. Those beliefs and the beliefs of the legislatures are not more important than the rights of children and teens to safety- both physical and mental.

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