The Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Chicago-based organization, has operated the Indianapolis Training Center on the city’s Northside for a decade. Its Bible-based learning program has been praised as an example of how state and church can work together to help troubled youth.
But the Eyewitness News Investigators found shocking allegations of child abuse at the center. After we began looking into the allegations, the state Child Protective Services agency opened an investigation into the claims of abuse and confinement of children in a so-called prayer room.
This hidden-camera investigation was reported by Rich Reeve, photographed and edited by Bill Ditton, and produced by Kathleen Johnston and Gerry Lanosga.
At first glance, the Indianapolis Training Center looks like an ordinary conference hotel. But some say there are dark secrets inside. “They're not here to play,” Mark Cavanaugh, an ITC staffer tells a mother on hidden-camera video. “They're here because they've been disobedient, they've been disrespectful.”
He’s talking about young offenders who are sent to the center by the Marion County Juvenile Court.
Critics of the program here, however, have another view.
“This is sort of a shadow world where these kids almost disappear,” said John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
“There's sufficient enough abuse that if this were a secular institution, the Christian community would be screaming about what's going on there,” said Don Veinot, who heads a Chicago-area ministry called Midwest Christian Outreach.
Hundreds of young people from around the country come to the ITC – some sent by their parents, others by juvenile court – for a special brand of bible-based learning and counseling.
It's run by Chicago-area minister Bill Gothard, who oversees a $63 million evangelistic empire. The programs are controversial, but lauded by the likes of former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and juvenile court Judge James Payne.
“Their success rate, and their rate of completion with the young people, is an astounding rate given the kind of children that we send there,” Payne once said about Gothard’s programs.
But Eyewitness News has learned of disturbing allegations about the center, including routine corporal punishment - sometimes without parental consent - and solitary confinement that can last for months.
And just last week, Child Protective Services began investigating the center. That investigation involves Teresa Landis, whose 10-year-old daughter spent nearly a year at the center – sent there, according to Judge Payne, after she attacked a teacher and a school bus driver.
What happened next outrages her family and critics of the ITC.
The girl allegedly was confined in a so-called "quiet room" for five days at a time; restrained by teenage "leaders" who would sit on her; and hit with a wooden paddle 14 times. At least once, the family contends, she was prevented from going to the bathroom and then forced to sit in her own urine.
The girl, allowed to see her mother only three times, wrote letters urging Landis to go to church.
Landis and a friend agreed to carry an undercover camera into the ITC for Eyewitness News recently. Cavanaugh showed them where her daughter and other kids were confined.
“If I called it anything, I would call it a quiet room, because usually what they need most of all seems to be quiet,” he said.
But former students say it's called the prayer room, and amounts to solitary confinement. The room contains little more than a bed, a Bible and a table. One former student told Eyewitness News when he was there, it was equipped with alarms and a security camera.
“It’s not like nobody sees them, even all night long,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re up there at least a minimum of three times a day.”
After a hearing for Teresa Landis's daughter, ITC Principal Rodger Gergeni refused to answer questions.
“I'd rather not say a thing,” he said.
Later, on the phone, Gergeni denied allegations of abuse.
A judge Monday formally approved the girl’s release from ITC, which came last month. The CPS investigation was opened last week at the request of the Marion County Public Defender’s office, which learned of the Landis case from Eyewitness News.
Chief Public Defender David Cook said his office didn't know kids were being sent to the center.
“I’ve instructed all my lawyers to object to or advise against sending juveniles to that place,” he said.
“What happens now? My little girl gets to go home,” Landis said. “She doesn't have to go back somewhere where they do bad stuff to a kid.
Complaints about the ITC are not isolated. Websites and chat rooms devoted to the topic include hundreds of stories alleging abuse and confinement.
“In purely human terms, it's an appalling way to treat young people,” said the ICLU’s Krull.
He said it’s shameful that practices like corporal punishment and confinement at a religious institution would be endorsed by a state court.
“I think we knew it was bad, but not that bad,” Krull said.
When it comes to the ITC, the ICLU has a surprising ally: Veinot of the Midwest Christian Outreach, a non-denominational organization dedicated to defending the Christian faith.
“We would consider that child abuse and clearly something that should not be happening in the Christian faith to someone who is not your child,” Veinot said.
Veinot has been chronicling Gothard's activities and teachings for years and plans to publish a book about them next month.
“His way of carrying out his ministry harms a great deal of people,” he said.
Asked about the allegations, Judge Payne responded: “Some of the things you mentioned cause me concern, and they're things I need to address.”
But he added that corporal punishment and confinement can be appropriate in residential programs. And, he said, the end result is what counts.
“What we're looking at is changed behavior,” he said. “The best outcome of that – the best measure of that – is not while the kid is in placement.”
Said Veinot: “Our concerns are the means. And if the means are appropriate, you'll still have some successes and failures, but it is never appropriate to abuse somebody into submission.”
Our hidden camera captured an emotional reunion for Teresa Landis and her 10-year-old daughter, part of a rare glimpse inside the Indianapolis Training Center, or ITC.
The camera documented how the ITC holds children in children in solitary confinement: “If I called it anything, I would call it a quiet room, because usually what they need most of all seems to be quiet,” staffer Mark Cavanaugh tells Landis.
A week after the encounter, and 10 months after entering ITC, Landis’s daughter was home for good.
“Them locking her in a prayer room, that was my main concern,” Landis said. “And them whipping her without my permission.”
She said her daughter was subjected to harsh treatments like repeated spankings with a wooden paddle and lengthy periods of isolation in this so-called prayer room. State authorities began investigating after Eyewitness News brought the case to the attention of the Marion County Public Defender’s office.
The complaints about the ITC's Bible-based counseling program aren't limited to the Landis case. WTHR has received calls from around the country from others recounting similar experiences. Among the concerns: the center’s close ties to the Marion County Juvenile Court.
Judge James Payne has sent several dozen juvenile offenders to ITC as an alternative to incarceration. But Eyewitness News has learned the court's connections to the organization run even deeper.
Court employees tell us everyone from magistrates on down are required to attend monthly character training sessions, sometimes at the center. The sessions are based on materials provided by ITC’s parent organization, the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles.
And there's more. Eyewitness News obtained this a document called “Ten Ways to Keep your Children out of Juvenile Court.” It contains Bible verses and is distributed in admissions packets by ITC. But it lists the author as Diane Bennett, a top juvenile probation official.
“It's a conflict of interest, clearly,” says John Krull, executive director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union.
Bennett is the same official who Landis said she complained to about abuse of her daughter. Landis said Bennett told her her daughter had to stay at ITC or go on medication.
Such close connections between a religious group and a public court are a concern to critics both inside and outside the court system. Chief Public Defender Dave Cook said he will oppose any future placements at ITC.
Says Krull: “No government money, no government influence, can go toward pushing people to worship in any particular way.”
Payne says there's nothing improper about the court's relationship with ITC and that his staff gets training from other groups as well. He says ITC gets no public funding for the offenders placed there.
“I think it is fair to say that we are advocates for the programs we use,” he says. “If we weren't we shouldn't use them.”
Critics say the ITC program is strictly religious, lacking basic educational and counseling components.
“I assume they do that,” Payne says, “but I can't tell you I'm specifically aware of what they do or how they do it.”
Payne also says the court doesn't force anyone to attend religiously-oriented programs. Transcripts of the counseling sessions for Teresa Landis, however, indicate otherwise. The sessions consist of Bible-reading conducted by a pastor who at one point tells the family:
“The court says that the parents need to comply with the normal procedure. You're here because that is the way the court does things. You come here because you're here to please the court."
“That's not the start of the slippery slope,” Krull says. “That's at the bottom of it.... Obviously there's an attempt to leverage people into making decisions to go to ITC.”
It’s an attempt Teresa Landis says split her family apart, and took her daughter out of her home for 10 months. Now she hopes her daughter can heal.
“It's going to take time,” she says, “but she'll be okay.”
Linda Pettigrew was just 16 when she was sent to the Indianapolis Training Center after arguments with her mother.
In her nine months there, she says, she experienced some hellish things, including one horrible instance of physical restraint by six grown men.
“They threw me to the ground and were holding my arms down and smashing my face into the floor,” she says. “Someone, one of the gentleman had his knee in my back and also there was a knee in my neck. I couldn't move....
“They got me to the point where they could put handcuffs on me. So they handcuffed me and shackled me, and they took me down to a room which they consider the prayer closet.”
Pettigrew also tells of numerous stays in solitary confinement, once for two weeks straight, as punishment for offenses such as cursing.
Her story isn't unique. Eyewitness News has heard similar allegations from people around the country who've spent time in the Indianapolis Training Center.
The man behind ITC – and its parent, the Institute in Basic Life Principles – is the 66-year-old evangelist, Rev. Bill Gothard. He presides over a far-flung, $63 million empire, with training centers across the U.S. and around the world.
Gothard's work is lauded by many parents and government leaders, including former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and juvenile court Judge James Payne. Payne has sent several dozen young offenders to the ITC.
“Generally we've been happy with the program,” Payne says. “The kids and the families who come out of there have been satisfied, they've been comfortable as they've left.”
Pettigrew, in fact, says Gothard's program helped her, although she denounces the use of force – a tactic she doesn’t believe Payne knew about. She’s convinced if the judge knew, he would have put a stop to it.
She also says when she told Gothard about being handcuffed, he apologized.
“He had no idea about these instances and he was completely shocked,” Pettigrew says.
Gothard told Eyewitness News he didn’t recall Pettigrew’s case, but denies such extreme force would be part of his program. He said discipline, including the quiet room and occasional spanking, is done under close supervision.
“We don’t focus on corporal punishment,” he says. “We focus on teaching and training.”
But others say the use of force stems directly from Gothard's philosophy of complete submission to authority.
“He is absolutely persuaded that he is teaching the truth and probably the only one teaching the truth into how to fix society,” says Don Veinot, head of the Midwest Christian Outreach.
Veinot is an evangelical Christian who's tracked Gothard's ministry for years. He endorses the use of faith-based groups in government programs – but not Gothard's. He says it borders on a cult.
“He has this idea that he can determine what you will do by staring into your eyes, and he calls it the light of your eyes,” Veinot says.
That mystical approach is harmful, he says, especially combined with Gothard's emphasis on obedience and his insistence on separation from those who disagree.
“It is probably closer to occultism than it is to Christianity, and really doesn't solve the kinds of problems that we're talking about,” Veinot says.
Gothard says his organization is the opposite of a cult, in that it draws people closer to their families rather than taking them away. He says because the Institute doesn’t charge the county for his services, it has helped save taxpayers as much as $3 million by taking juvenile court referrals for free.
“We’re there to serve the city,” he says.
Linda Pettigrew says she eventually worked through her problems. Today, she’s 23, happily married and working as a legal secretary. But when she was in the prayer room, she says, she often wondered: Did anyone care?
“I was honestly thinking – do they really have the right to do this to me? And with it being so isolated from the world, I wondered if anyone really knew they were being this physical.”
There’s new controversy for a Bible-based organization that runs a Northside youth training center. The Indianapolis Training Center is under state scrutiny after an Eyewitness News Investigation that documented allegations of abusive treatment of juveniles.
The center is run by the Rev. Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Life Principles.
But it’s not the only Gothard center where corporal punishment has created controversy.
The Institute also runs an orphanage for Russian children on the far-Eastside. And Eyewitness News has learned Gothard recently put a stop to corporal punishment here – after Russian government officials insisted.
We also learned that a number of staff members here quit in protest over the change in policy.
In a telephone interview, Gothard acknowledged ordering an end to the spanking. He said some former staffers quit because they felt they couldn't get results without it.
“We decided that was not the right thing to do, so we stopped that," Gothard said. "We are realizing there are other ways to do this."
Gothard did not offer any details. ITC officials previously noted that state law allows corporal punishment.
Gothard's Bible-based youth training programs, practiced at centers around the world, are praised by many parents and government officials. Juvenile Court Judge James Payne, for instance, has sent several dozen young offenders to the ITC, and says he’s pleased with the program.
“Their success rate, and their rate of completion with the young people is an astounding rate given the kind of children that we send there,” he says.
But the ITC is now under a state investigation for alleged abuse, including corporal punishment and confinement, the subject of an Eyewitness News hidden camera investigation. Former ITC residents like Linda Pettigrew told of being physically restrained and confined in a so-called quiet room for days on end.
“The discipline with them putting any physical force on any child, to force them closer to God, is totally not acceptable whatsoever,” Pettigrew said.
Gothard told Eyewitness News the ITC has stopped using corporal punishment. He initially declined to have his comments recorded. But in a second phone call he agreed, and disputed any allegations of abuse.
“We are not guilty of the things that are being spoken of here,” he said. “The law has been followed in every case, and we'll stand by that."
Gothard says his Institute has a long and successful history of helping youth around the world. He wouldn't answer specific questions about the ITC allegations.
“We have information to assure the people of Indianapolis that these reports are not accurate,” he said. “That we will come out with these facts and see this whole case brought to the light in the proper way.”
The Marion County Juvenile Court sent 17-year-old Natasha Zimmerman to the Indianapolis Training Center last year after a cocaine possession arrest.
She admits she deserved to be punished, but not this way.
“There were times I would just sit in there and cry because I thought I was never going to get out of there,” she recalls.
During her nine-month stay, Zimmerman says, she spent more than a month in solitary confinement. Her offense? Making eye contact with a boy.
“They said they were there to help me, and I don't think putting me in a small room for 32 days is helping me,” Zimmerman says.
And that wasn't all. Zimmerman says employees at the center deprived her of prescription medication she needed.
Her father, James Zimmerman, has hired an attorney to sue the ITC.
“To me, it just turned into a total nightmare,” he says.
Eyewitness News has reported cases of alleged physical abuse and solitary confinement at the ITC all week long. They include:
• A 10-year-old girl who says staffers hit her with a wooden paddle numerous times.
• A woman who says she was gang-tackled by grown men, handcuffed and confined alone for weeks.
• And the group's Eastside orphanage for Russian children, where spanking was banned recently at the insistence of Russian officials.
Zimmerman’s allegations add another dimension.
“Sometimes they'd bring me Tylenol, but they said you're body just needs to work through it, or they'd say pray about it,” she says.
Zimmerman suffers from endometriosis, a chronic, painful condition affecting millions of women. A doctor prescribed birth control pills, a standard remedy. But she says she never was allowed to take them.
“When I went in there they refused to give it to me, because they said it would give me thoughts of having sex or something if I took it,” Zimmerman says.
She says ITC also refused her prescribed painkillers when she had her wisdom teeth out.
ITC officials have declined repeated requests for interviews, but have denied wrongdoing in written statements.
The Indianapolis Training Center is under state scrutiny after an Eyewitness News investigation documented allegations of abusive treatment of juveniles.
Now the Indiana Civil Liberties Union is considering a class-action lawsuit against the controversial Bible-based organization.
ICLU Executive Director John Krull says the group has fielded numerous complaints since our investigation began.
“Our phones have been ringing pretty steadily,” he says. “Obviously what we've seen out there (are) some serious incidents that merit all kinds of follow-up and a serious in-depth investigation of what's going on.”
The ITC is a youth counseling center run by Chicago-based evangelist Bill Gothard. Some kids are sent there by their parents, others by juvenile courts here and elsewhere.
But some of those juvenile offenders allege abusive treatment there.
“There were times I would just sit in there and cry, because I thought I was never going to get out of there,” says Natasha Zimmerman.
Her father has already hired an attorney to sue the ITC. She says she was kept in solitary confinement 32 days and denied prescription medicine during her time at ITC.
Zimmerman’s is one of many similar stories now emerging from former residents at the center.
“My feeling both as a civil libertarian and just as a human being who happens to be a father himself – that’s no way to treat children,” says Krull.
ITC officials have refused on-camera interview requests, but deny any wrongdoing. They say the center follows the law.
Meanwhile, the ICLU isn't the only group concerned. Eyewitness News has learned some county judges are also raising questions. In fact, the executive committee of the Superior Courts plans to meet Friday with Juvenile Court Judge James Payne to discuss the appropriateness of sending juveniles to the ITC.
Local judges took action today on the Indianapolis Training Center, the Bible-based counseling facility under state investigation after our hidden-camera report.
The executive committee of the Marion County Superior Courts summoned juvenile court Judge James Payne to an early morning meeting Friday.
“They asked me until the investigation to not allow any kids to go there, and I'll accede to that,” Payne said afterward.
But even as the judges were asking for a moratorium, Eyewitness News learned new information about the ITC’s ties to Payne’s court – now involving thousands of taxpayer dollars.
Over the past five years, Payne has sent several dozen juvenile offenders to ITC, an outreach of controversial Chicago evangelist Bill Gothard.
The judge says there aren't any children there now.
But ITC is embroiled in controversy over allegations of abusive treatment: claims of corporal punishment, lengthy periods of solitary confinement, and denial of prescription medicine.
A recently-released 10-year-old's case, part of our hidden camera investigation, sparked an investigation by the state child protection authorities. Since then, others have also come forward. Now, the judges speak.
Presiding Judge Cynthia Ayers says the executive committee is concerned about “the incident with that one particular child, the detention in the room, the paddling, and all the things that the Family and Social Services Agency is looking into.”
Ayers wants a halt to ITC referrals at least until the state wraps up its investigation.
This morning's meeting was behind closed doors, but we're told the judges also voiced concern about the juvenile court's close ties to Gothard's group.
Payne's employees are regularly assigned to character training based on materials provided by ITC’s parent organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles.
Sources say the judges want that training halted, too.
Late today, Eyewitness News obtained new evidence of the juvenile court's close ties to Gothard's organization. Payment vouchers from the Marion County auditor show the county has paid more than $5,000 over the last two years for character training services and materials supplied to the juvenile court.
Judge Payne has said he sees no problem with that training, although he says he does have questions about some of the other allegations and plans to meet with ITC about them.
The Indianapolis Training Center is under state scrutiny after an Eyewitness News investigation documented allegations of abusive treatment of juveniles. Now, in their first public comments, state officials say it's not limited to the case of a 10-year-old girl whose complaints of repeated paddlings and solitary confinement prompted the probe.
“It's very serious,” said Eric Vermeulen, deputy director of family protection for he state of Indiana. “It causes a good deal of alarm within our process as compared to other types of allegations made, and it begins to take on the characteristics of the need for a wider type of investigation.”
The investigation, according to Vermeulen, likely will include talking with other children assigned to the ITC by the Marion County Juvenile Court. Last week, juvenile court Judge James Payne agreed to temporarily stop sending children there after other judges raised concerns.
Although the probation department knew of the alleged abuse, it wasn’t reported to the state until Chief Public Defender Dave Cook learned of the case from Eyewitness News.
Vermuelen says it's a concern that the allegations were not raised by someone working inside the facility.
“You certainly have to have that type of concern at the top of the list,” he said. “Is there enough internal control at the facility to make sure these types of things are spotted quickly and that kids are provided safety in a quicker fashion?”
The Eyewitness News Investigators have new information tonight on the controversial Indianapolis Training Center. The Bible-based facility is under investigation for allegations of abusive treatment of juveniles there. Now, the Investigators discover the center previous failed to report an allegation of sexual molestation.
In late 1995, documents obtained by Eyewitness News show, ITC was aware a 14-year old girl made a child molestation allegation against another resident.
Under Indiana law, ITC had a duty to report any suspected child abuse or neglect. However, state Child Protection Services learned about the alleged molestation from a probation officer – not from ITC Director Rodger Gergeni.
The documents show Gergeni knew of the allegations but failed to notify authorities: “When asked if he had filed a CPS report, Mr. Gergeni replied, ‘No. Was I supposed to?’”
The woman who alleged the molestation told Eyewitness News that when she told Gergeni about it, he blamed her and put her in solitary confinement as punishment.
Gergeni did not return our phone call seeking comment. He has declined repeated requests for an on-camera interview.
John Hamilton, head of the state’s Family and Social Services Administration, said he was unaware of the previous investigation.
“I would be happy to look at the case and go over it with you,” he said. “I haven't done that yet.”
Because it's a religious organization, the ITC is not regulated by the state. But juvenile court judges like James Payne have sent dozens of young offenders there as an alternative sentencing option.
Since our investigation, Payne has agreed to a moratorium on sending juveniles there pending the outcome of the state’s review.
Hamilton, meanwhile, says children shouldn't be sent to unlicensed facilities at all.
“We recommend that children be sent to licensed facilities,” he said. “I think our view is if you send a child to an unlicensed facility you have to have some extra oversight.”
Over the last two weeks the Eyewitness News Investigators have reported alleged abuse at the Indianapolis Training Center, a Bible-based counseling center for troubled youth.
Tonight, the Investigators have a broader look at the nationwide ministry that runs the ITC.
The training center is under state investigation for allegations of corporal punishment and solitary confinement. Now a city official says she, too, felt mistreated at the facility.
Nancy Taylor, a city council member in Hayden, Idaho came to the ITC two years ago with 11 others from Idaho. She was looking forward to what was billed as a simple character training seminar.
Instead, she and some of the other officials said, it was three days of religious indoctrination.
“There was more and more and more religious content, scriptural references, prayers, discussions of ministry, God,” Taylor said.
In letters to her hometown newspaper and to Mayor Bart Peterson, Taylor enumerated her complaints, including:
• Being subjected to constant marching and religious music.
• Seeing young women serving drinks and cleaning up while young men ate dinner with guests.
• Women officials being instructed to be submissive to their husbands.
“I saw youth that were being brainwashed and manipulated into submission,” she wrote.
Taylor also said attendees were locked in and couldn't leave without permission.
“It's trying to get people to buy into something under false conditions,” she said. “That's not truth and honesty. That is a lack of character.”
Taylor's training began with a talk by controversial Chicago-area evangelist Bill Gothard. Secular and religious critics of his organization say he mixes church and state and puts too much emphasis on authority.
“The result of that is an unquestioning allegiance to Bill Gothard's teaching rather than to the Bible, and that becomes dangerous,” said Don Veinot, director of the Midwest Christian Outreach.
Gothard sits atop a $63 million religious empire called the Institute in Basic Life Principles. In addition to Indiana, it operates in Michigan, Illinois, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and California. It also has ministries in eight other countries, including an orphanage in Russia.
Gothard's work has the support of prominent officials like former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who helped dedicate a log cabin counseling program for troubled youth in that state.
“We ask God and his people to help this state and all we do become a place where people have their lives changed,” Huckabee said.
Pastor Rubin Fields counsels families of children sent to the ITC by juvenile courts. Fields says he follows Gothard because Gothard follows the Bible.
“I believe the work that is being done is one of the greatest blessings to America that's going on today – to the world, not just to America, but to the world,” he said.
Gothard's principles – things like compassion and patience – are ones anyone would endorse. But critics say in practice, they dictate everything from medical advice to how to behave and dress to what music to listen to.
Above all, critics say, there's a blind submission to the authority of husbands, government officials, and Gothard himself.
“They have bought into this basic premise that Bill Gothard represents God in a way that nobody else does,” Veinot says.
Since 1998, Gothard has also worked to instill his principles throughout society through the International Association of Character Cities. It promotes character training, beginning with government officials.
“It's good for the country, it's good for our city and it's good for our families,” said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard, who used the group’s materials. He says there’s nothing religious about the training and expressed surprised on hearing of Gothard's connections to it.
“Many of the character traits are the same traits you'd see in all the well-known religions, but in terms of religious influence or training, no, not at all,” he said.
At the ITC and other Gothard programs around the country, however, religion is emphasized – and praised by many families.
We've made repeated requests for an on-camera interview with Bill Gothard, but he has yet to agree. We did speak with him on the phone. He denied that there is any abuse at ITC and says his organization has helped millions of people around the world.