Senior editor Pamela Colloff talks about "faith-based" terminology, the Rebekah Home for Girls, and corporal punishment.
texasmonthly.com: How did you first become interested in working on this story? Pamela Colloff: This spring I read about a woman named Teresa Calalay, who testified before the Texas Legislature. Her son had been at the Lighthouse—one of the adult Roloff Homes—and was allegedly abused when he tried to escape. Calalay was urging the Legislature to not renew the law that allowed the Roloff Homes to come back to Texas. I started looking into the story. The more calls I made and the more I learned about the Roloff Homes, the more interested I became in DeAnne’s story and in the Rebekah Home in particular.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research was involved? PC: First, I researched Lester Roloff’s life by tracking down many years’ worth of old newspaper clippings and the out-of-print biography penned by his wife. For background on legislative action, I went to the Texas House and Senate and listened to the audiotapes of committee hearings and floor debates. I also interviewed legislators, members of the Texas Association of Christian Child-Care Agencies, attorneys, and Pastor Wiley Cameron at the People’s Baptist Church. Last, I tracked down six former Rebekah residents and interviewed them.
texasmonthly.com: When you talked with some of the former residents of the Rebekah Home for Girls, were they still angry? PC: Most of the women I spoke with had enough distance from the Rebekah Home to talk about their experiences with a certain degree of objectivity. But yes, they were very angry about what had happened to them. Many of them had experienced profound spiritual and emotional crises afterward. Some had trouble adjusting to life outside of the home, since they were so sealed off from society there. Some of these women are now mothers; they expressed their disbelief that their own mothers had taken them to a place like the Rebekah Home.
texasmonthly.com: What suggestions do you have for parents who are looking for a religious child-care institution for their child? Is there something they should look for that will tip them off as to what kind of discipline is administered? PC: Any child-care facility—religious or otherwise—that is operating in the state of Texas right now must be licensed by the state. They must open their doors to child welfare inspectors and must agree to comply by the state’s rules. Otherwise, the state can shut them down. An unlicensed home like the Rebekah Home, which was an anomaly to begin with, can no longer legally operate.
Beginning in January, parents can check on a child-care facility’s compliance history—that is, its compliance with the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services’ rules—by going to the agency’s Web site at www.tdprs.state.tx.us/Child_Care/Search_Texas_Child_Care.
texasmonthly.com: Do you believe corporal punishment should be outlawed in Texas schools and youth homes? Why or why not? PC: It’s my own personal opinion that the issue of corporal punishment should be left up to parents, not employees of schools or youth homes. It’s also my personal opinion that there are better, more constructive ways of teaching children how to behave.
texasmonthly.com: Punishment in schools has become a huge issue. Do you think the government and schools and parents have even come close to finding a solution as to what to do with troubled kids? PC: First, I think it’s important to define what we mean by “troubled.” Do we mean kids who have developmental problems, or do we mean kids who are rebellious? Either way, I think adults who work with these kids should have training in child development and any medical or psychological training that would allow them to better rehabilitate and/or counsel these kids. Religious groups that are opposed to state oversight of their child-care institutions—of which there are very few—rarely see such training as necessary. I don’t believe that severe discipline, administered by unlicensed counselors, is the best way to rehabilitate troubled kids.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think there is a growing popularity for “faith-based” schools and a “faith-based” philosophy in general? PC: Religious schools for children have a long and proud tradition. My article is more concerned with religious youth homes, and in particular, those homes that refuse to have state oversight. I think that religious child-care institutions are an asset to any community, and have always been popular. Those that have refused to submit to state oversight have never stayed open in Texas for very long.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story? PC: The more research I did into the Roloff Homes, the more surprised I was that then-governor Bush had pushed legislation that had allowed the youth homes to reopen. These homes had a long, contentious history with the state and are often referred to in past news clippings as “infamous” or “notorious.” Many teenagers over the years had complained of their treatment there. And yet, still, the governor and his staff pushed this legislation through.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the Rebekah Home for Girls will eventually reopen? Why or why not? PC: I don’t see the Rebekah Home returning any time soon. The only way it could reopen is if the Legislature decided to pass another bill allowing religious homes to exempt themselves from state oversight. Given the history of the Rebekah Home since 1973, I think that’s unlikely. However, I doubt that Texas officials in 1985—when the Rebekah Home was forced to shut down—ever imagined that it would reopen the following decade. So we’ll see.