Three face jail over abuse at an Alabama Christian boot camp
Alabama pastor ‘Bishop’ John David Young Jr, above, is due to be sentenced on February 22 for crimes committed against youngsters at a Christian boot camp.
According to this report, Young, along with two other defendants, were found guilty earlier this month on on multiple counts of aggravated child abuse at the Saving Youth Foundation, a bootcamp-style residential school in Mobile for troubled teens that was associated with Young’s Solid Rock Ministries church.
Aggravated child abuse is a Class B felony and comes with a sentencing range of 2-20 years per count.
Young’s biography says:
He is an anointed man of God with a unique gift to simplify and expound on the word in such a way that he is able to reach the highly educated, as well as a little child. He takes his assignment as an ordained Bishop very seriously, and cares for the people as a Shepherd for his sheep. His constant focus is to help people learn to live a victorious life through faith and prepare them for the coming of Christ.
The convictions were largely due to the testimony of five former students, who told the court about the physical and mental abuse they suffered at the school.
Despite multiple investigations by the Mobile County DA’s office, local law enforcement and the Alabama Department of Human Resources, it took officials five years to close down the school and another seven months to arrest the employees accused of the worst of the abuse.
On January 13, 55-year-old Young was convicted on five counts of aggravated child abuse. Two other school leaders, boys’ instructor William Knott, 48, and girls’ instructor Aleshia Moffett, 42, were convicted on three counts each of aggravated child abuse.
The prosecution built its case around specific instances of abuse involving isolation, handcuffs, and excessive exercise.
Keith Blackwood, Mobile County assistant district attorney said:
We were able to put in front of the jury a lot of good testimony and evidence about what these people were doing to these teenagers at the Saving Youth Foundation. The jury got to hear about the isolation chambers, kids being put in restraints for punishment and transport, and the excessive physical training over several hours with no breaks.
The five former students who testified at trial, now young adults, were all from out of state. Some have substance abuse problems, some have mental health disorders.
The Saving Youth Foundation operated without licence or regulation of any kind because Alabama laws allow church schools to operate free of state control. State law does not require church-affiliated schools to file any registration papers to let officials know they exist, how many students they have or who is teaching them.
Young originally opened a similar church-affiliated boot camp for troubled teens in Pritchard, Alamama called Restoration Youth Academy. Despite occasional investigation by local law enforcement, Young only closed the school in 2012 after being ordered to pay $27,000 in back rent to the city.
Within weeks, he reopened in Mobile, renaming the school and operating it under his church, Solid Rock Ministries. An investigation by the Mobile Press-Register in 2012 found that multiple school employees had criminal records.
Police raided Saving Youth Foundation in March 2015. Alabama DHR removed 36 children from two campuses – one for boys, one for girls – following allegations of child abuse and deplorable living conditions.
While Alabama does have a few basic reporting requirements for private schools, it exempts those that are church schools in every instance. Teachers don’t have to undergo background checks and schools don’t have to be inspected.
Blackwood said recruiting students from out of state is part of the reason these kinds of schools can operate without investigation.
It’s difficult for out-of-state parents to have a clear understanding of how their kids are being treated. If the schools are shut down, it can be an uphill battle to convict operators because prosecutors have to build a case around testimony from the students that are willing and able to come back to the state to testify.
These schools pop up all over the country and it’s the same sorts of people running them. They’ll open them as a quote ‘religious school,’ and there’s no licencing requirement in Alabama for them.
Their MO is to advertise themselves as something they’re not. The Saving Youth Foundation had a very sophisticated website where they advertised they had a full-time therapist on staff, full-time teachers.
Of course they had none of that. Their teacher was the janitor, and there was no therapy, period.
Blackwood told the jury that Young and his staff defrauded parents, charging them $20,000 a year for tuition. The staff supervised all communication in and out of the school so the children couldn’t tell their parents what was happening. If they did, they were punished.
That’s what it’s all about, keeping them here and cashing their cheques. They were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year keeping these kids down here. That’s a lot harder to do if you have local parents able to get in there and visit the facility.
During the trial, Knott was caught tampering with one of the witnesses. The young man, from Texas, was at the school for years and is still friendly with Knott. Blackwood said after the school was shut down and the boy turned 18, he went back to live with Knott:
Very often the abused will start to identify with their abusers.
One day during the trial, on a lunch break Knott called the former student and told him to water down his testimony. The student then took the stand and minimised the testimony he had originally given police, making the abuse sound less serious.
When the prosecution learned of Knott’s call, they “got to the bottom of it, and the witness ended up testifying again and was truthful,” said Blackwood.
It took a lot of people, a lot of resources for us to do this [trial], and the jury did the right thing in sending the message we’re not going to tolerate a fake school like this in Mobile County. We’re not going to tolerate people hiding behind a church or anything else in order to abuse kids.