Dateline Texas

Taking Deregulation on Faith


Out to the west of Fort Worth, where Highway 80 grows car dealerships and the dealerships grow giant Texas flags, the old rural town of Weatherford has been infused with affluent folks from the city. “Growing with Tradition,” says its motto, and the hybrid culture stretches a couple miles out from the quaint clock tower courthouse in the town center; antique stores, Christian bookstores, and local banks are distributed across the grassland.

Steve and Lynnette Gray moved here in 1997 and bought a big log cabin in the woods. There, they started “A Place for Grace,” a foster home for kids whose parents can’t take care of them, often because the parents are incarcerated or otherwise incapable of making a living for more than one. The house is home to the Grays, their four kids–the youngest is 13–and six younger foster children.

A Place for Grace isn’t a typical “24-hour childcare facility” like the state-licensed Pythian Home a couple of miles away. Instead of being granted a state license, Grace was accredited by the Texas Association of Christian Childcare Agencies, a small operation that registered with the state in December 1998, under a law designed to encourage religious groups to provide social services and compete for the same funds as secular institutions. TACCA was a completely separate entity from the state; it performed its own inspections, it had its own funding, and it would only accredit Christian agencies. Part of George W. Bush’s push as Governor to promote “faith-based” providers of social services–like drug treatment, welfare-to-work training and juvenile homes–the alternative accreditation arrangement, along with other Texas initiatives, apparently serves as one prototype of the programs Bush and the Republicans have planned for the nation.

Contrary to popular perception, Bush’s executive order establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives didn’t focus solely on finding ways to fund religious social services like A Place for Grace. (In fact, religious organizations like the United Way have been getting government dollars for decades to run service programs.) Bush’s executive order, along with House Resolution 7 by Rep. J.C. Watts, aim to expand the number of providers operating under less stringent rules, especially child care, welfare-to-work, and drug treatment facilities. The president charged the new office with identifying “all existing barriers to the participation of faith-based and other community organizations in the delivery of social services … including but not limited to regulations, rules, orders, procurement, and other internal policies.” In other words, deregulation is the primary goal, just like it was while Bush was governor.

But some of the Texas experiments are already losers. TACCA shut down September 1 because the Legislature declined to renew the law allowing such accreditation agencies to exist. Besides that, the expected rush of religious groups to create such agencies–and to be accredited by alternative means–never happened. TACCA was the only one of at least three applicants to make it through the process, and became responsible for the accreditation of only eight childcare providers, seven of which lasted to the end. The vast majority of childcare organizations stuck with the usual state licensing process, even childcare agencies affiliated with religious groups–about one-fifth of the 10,760 such services in 2000.

Not that the usual way is necessarily superior. The Grays went through accreditation with TACCA not because they despise government intrusion or wanted to get away with religious instruction the state wouldn’t allow, but because they’d been frustrated with the workings of the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services. After 18 months of wrangling with the state of Kansas for temporary guardianship of a brother and sister in its custody, and at a cost of thousands of dollars, Lynnette says TDPRS’s Interstate Compact Placement Contracts office took too long to get through the paperwork that would let the two live with them legally. She says the process dragged on for months, and that even a check they sent its licensing office was lost. (TDPRS could not confirm the Grays’ previous application for a license or the fate of the check by press time, but Caroline Thompson of Interstate Compact Placement Contracts says long waits are the nature of the beast, because of the required family study and background checks.)

With paperwork already completed for the state, the process through TACCA took them about a month. The agency then set up A Place for Grace with a TACCA-accredited administrator with an education Ph.D. to satisfy state requirements. Now that TACCA is no longer, Lynnette and Steve are navigating the state process once again and will have to find a state-licensed administrator or close down their shop. That will mean a few changes of the secular variety. “We’re Christian and we want to instill in these children Christian values,” says Steve. “The kids are just not being taught what they need to function socially, academically, in every way.” Under the state rules, “if a child didn’t want to go to church, you couldn’t make him go to church and all sorts of other things.”

The Texas Freedom Network, an Austin nonprofit that counters initiatives from the religious right, had a big hand in making sure the alternative accreditation setup didn’t survive this legislative session. They point out that two members of TACCA’s six-member board of directors ran homes accredited by the agency. And one of those facilities provides a prime example of what can go wrong. Roloff Homes, a collection of girls’ and boys’ homes run as boot camps for wayward youth, has had a long-standing fight with the state over its right to oversee kids. The homes have been the subject of allegations of brutality for decades, and in May 1999 a TACCA-approved Roloff home had its turn. Faye Cameron, supervisor of the Rebekah Home for Girls and the wife of Roloff Homes president and TACCA board member Rev. Wiley Cameron Sr., was convicted of a misdemeanor for unlawfully restraining a child. In fact, Cameron was banned from ever working or being present at any juvenile home in Texas–for duct-taping a girl’s wrists together and locking her in a room.

In the 1970s, Roloff Homes founder Lester Roloff led a standoff with the state by encircling a building with sympathizers, who linked arms as the TDPRS attempted to shut the place down for operating without a license. The state backed down that day, but Roloff still refused to apply for a license, arguing that the procedure amounted to an unreasonable breach of religious freedom. The homes eventually moved to Missouri to avoid regulation when the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t agree with their point of view. They only returned after then-Governor Bush signed the alternative accreditation law, which David Gibbs, Roloff’s attorney, lobbied for. David Blaser, future head of TACCA, and Wiley Cameron registered in favor of the law during testimony before the legislature.

Cameron recused himself from TACCA’s board when Roloff Homes’ accreditation was up for renewal this year. The renewal was successful, even though it came just three days after allegations of abuse of a minor at one of Roloff’s adult facilities. Justin Simons, 18, and Aaron Cavallin, 17, said they were tied together by Roloff supervisor Allen Smith and forced to run through the woods barefoot, dig a sewage pit for nearly 12 hours, and then jump across the new pit. Smith was convicted of a misdemeanor charge.(Although state law doesn’t require the adult facilities to be accredited, it does say that minors can’t be housed there.)

Paul Dodson, an attorney for Roloff Homes and some of its employees, says the incident occurred after Roloff staff discovered the two were planning on running away. “They were taken to the back of the property and were given a choice of being allowed to go and be reported, or taking the punishment Allen gave them,” says Dodson. According to Dodson, the two were tied together loosely and moved dirt at an existing pit.

Not surprisingly, critics charged that TACCA’s board created a mutually affirming atmosphere that only encouraged such behavior. What’s more, TDPRS, which required the agency to share certain records, told the alternative accreditor last March that no unannounced inspections had been reported, in violation of state law. (TACCA promised to remedy the situation quickly; it ceased to exist soon afterward.)

The deregulation of drug treatment facilities has followed a slightly different path. Used to be, drug treatment in the state was a specialized service requiring a license from the Texas Department of Health. Licensees had to have degreed counselors and medical facilities to deal with addiction via pharmaceuticals in order to use the “drug treatment” label. Another program favored by former Governor Bush, Teen Challenge, was lucky enough to have the rules changed to suit its preferences. In 1995, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse threatened to shut down the program in Texas because it hired counselors without social work backgrounds or state licenses, among other transgressions. Governor Bush kept the shutdown from happening, though, and convened a task force to find a way to accommodate such programs. “Teen Challenge should view itself as a pioneer in how Texas approaches faith-based programs,” Bush said to the conservative World Magazine. “I’ll call together people, ask them to make recommendations.… But Teen Challenge is going to exist… and licensing standards have to be different from what they are today.”

The legislative response was House Bill 2481, which passed in 1997. The law “exempt(s) from state licensing and regulation those faith-based alcohol and drug treatment programs which rely exclusively on faith to change lives.” Now “faith-based” groups wanting to be called drug treatment centers (rather than mere “drug education” centers) only have to fill out paperwork certifying nonprofit status and religious intent, refrain from offering medical services and put a paragraph to this effect on all their pamphlets. Such services are available only to adults. So far, there are 102 such religious “drug treatment” centers in the state.

The situation worries people like Mitch Sudolsky, director of Jewish Family Services in Austin, because people may mistakenly think these centers are equivalent to treatment programs offering withdrawal treatment by degreed, state-licensed counselors. Instead, Teen Challenge and other programs like it often hire graduates of their own programs as counselors, focusing on the “acceptance of Jesus Christ” as a major step toward overcoming addiction. Concerned about the president’s initiative, Sudolsky attended an August 7 talk at a Republican Club of Austin meeting given by Marvin Olasky, a UT-Austin journalism professor who was an early backer of Bush’s “faith-based initiative.” He asked Olasky whether he would prefer to be treated for drug addiction by degreed, licensed professionals or by people who had been through the gauntlet themselves. Olasky preferred addiction survivors, because he felt they had real, useful experience.

“By dint of what the licensure process is about, you can’t be licensed and wet behind the ears,” says Sudolsky, himself a licensed clinical social worker. “You don’t just get out of school and start shrinking heads.” He believes the initiative is an effort to give an air of respectability to an unproven method of rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, the proposed federal law isn’t good enough for Marvin Olasky, the editor of World Magazine and Bush adviser who’s credited with hatching “compassionate conservatism.” He told the 100-plus audience at the Republican Club talk that H.R. 7, which passed the House on July 19, was so watered down that it was barely worth the trouble. This is despite the inclusion of a provision that can funnel federal money to religious social services by giving vouchers to prospective clients. The law is still insufficient, charges Olasky, because the Bush bunch eventually decided to drop direct funding of worship services and the like from H.R. 7. It now mandates that religious and secular activities be paid for separately and be recorded on separate balance sheets.

Particularly irksome to Olasky is a provision in H.R. 7 that allows participants to “opt out” of religious parts of treatment programs and forces the programs to provide a secular alternative themselves. In a World Magazine article, Olasky recounts the strategy to circumvent this problem suggested by an unnamed executive “close to the White House.” It works like this: A homeless shelter, for example, that holds religious sermons after dinner can offer its charges a choice between attending the proceedings or a more difficult option such as writing a paper. As long as separate books are kept for religious and secular parts of the program, H.R. 7’s requirements are satisfied.

So, how do the programs do? Teen Challenge itself boasts about a 1995 Northwestern University study reporting that 86 percent of its graduates said they abstained from drugs one or two years after the program. But it’s hard to compare a program like Teen Challenge, which can select its clients, to a public one that can’t, based on one study. The superiority of religious programs seems to be itself an article of faith among supporters; there isn’t any evidence that really backs it up. (The Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania, where the recently resigned director of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, John DiIulio, hails from, has research showing religious people deal with old age and sickness better, and that they’re healthier and drink less. But that says nothing about the capability of religious social services compared to secular ones.)

Once Texas law had changed, Governor Bush encouraged groups like Teen Challenge to take advantage of the situation, and upon becoming president he held the program up as a model for others. During Congressional hearings concerning “faith-based” programs, Teen Challenge’s director let slip that they’d successfully “completed” many Jews by convincing them to accept Christ.

While “faith-based” programs are supposed to pay for religious and non-religious parts of their programs independently, the wall of separation might turn out to be a bit porous in the real world. The American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed suit against the Texas Department of Human Services and Jobs Partnership in Brenham for allegedly proselytizing and buying Bibles with some of the $8,000 the welfare-to-work program got in state money under “Charitable Choice.” The program has since come to a halt, but the lawsuit continues. One example doesn’t prove a rule, but the possibility that groups wishing to gain converts may use state funds to do so is real.

The deregulation of drug treatment programs also allows religious programs an unprecedented amount of latitude in operations. Church-run social services were granted an exemption under Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Law to hire within their faith, but what was once reserved to education and poverty programs is now expanded to drug treatment. Under the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 welfare reform law penned by John Ashcroft, “faith-based” groups can already hire within a particular denomination of religion. Bush’s initiative not only supports this practice, but wants them to be able to fire people who don’t live up to that denomination’s tenets. The fear among TFN, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and other critics is that those tenets might include prohibitions against gays, unmarried mothers, divorcees, and others. An anti-discrimination amendment was added to H.R. 7 after the Salvation Army’s premarital celibacy policy raised concerns, but it was later removed.

Miguel Ferguson of the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work is reviewing 29 programs contrac
ed by the Texas Department of Human Services, nine of which are religious. The study looks at local initiatives in welfare innovation projects, welfare avoidance projects, and workforce preparation projects to find out if they live up to their claims, but its results probably won’t provide a better picture of how religious programs stack up against secular ones, says Ferguson. One reason is that only large, well-established groups like Catholic Charities, who can afford to pay for programs and be reimbursed by the state later, tend to apply for state funds for such initiatives to begin with. Regarding the distinction between these groups and secular community organizations, Ferguson says, “About the only difference you’re going to see is maybe a crucifix on the wall.” He declines to say whether one or the other is more effective, but says both types of service groups have similar goals and methods. “They believe it’s a superior service, not because they’re reaching into someone’s soul, but that they (clients) don’t have to go into a cold bureaucracy.”

Observer intern Chris Womack is a writer living in Austin.