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Christian girls' reform home closes after Times investigation

After years of allegations ranging from extreme discipline to rape, a Christian girls' reform home in the Panhandle is shutting its doors.

Lighthouse of Northwest Florida, in the tiny town of Jay, has returned all of its teenage residents to their parents, and at the end of the month, its bucolic 9.7-acre grounds will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

In October, the Tampa Bay Times reported allegations of abuse and mistreatment by recent residents, who recounted a system of control in which girls were tackled to the ground by their peers, sat on for extended periods of time and banished to the windowless "Room of Grace" for almost every waking hour for days, forced to listen to recorded sermons.

Head pastor Russell Cookston said his landlord — the home's founding pastor Michael Palmer, once accused of raping a student — made the decision to sell the property. Cookston attributed the closure, in part, to the financial impact the Times investigation had on enrollment.

"It's just really hard to deal with," Cookston said. "None of the staff were ready to go."

This is the latest in a series of actions prompted by the investigation, which set off a statewide crackdown on illegal boarding schools and a Department of Children and Families inspector general probe into the illegal transfer of foster kids and state dollars to unlicensed homes.

Lighthouse operated legally — though without regular inspections by state child care workers — because of a 1984 law exempting religious children's homes from licensing.

After stories about it and other exempt homes, the private, nonprofit group that accredits them, the Florida Association of Christian Child Caring Agencies, strengthened its rules to limit the amount of time a child can be kept in seclusion and ban the use of handcuffs and other mechanical restraints.

FACCCA executive director Bryan "Buddy" Morrow notified the state on Tuesday that the home ceased to operate at the beginning of this week. He said Lighthouse officials have no plan to relocate.

That detail matters to generations of women who now call themselves "survivors." The home has relocated before.

In 1985, in a gated compound in Ramona, Calif., Pastor Palmer took in troubled girls for reformation at Victory Christian Academy. He never got a license. In the years that followed, one girl died in a campus construction accident and others told state officials of a "Get Right Room" in which they were confined for days, forced to listened to recorded sermons.

The government raided the home, and ultimately, a judge ordered that Palmer apply for a state license or shut down.

Instead, Palmer moved to Florida, where the religious exemption allowed him to run his home without government oversight. As he ran the Florida home, he opened another in Mexico called Genesis by the Sea. In 2004, the Mexican government shut down that facility, voicing concerns about abuse. Former residents told the Times of frequent episodes of "flooring," in which girls restrained their peers on orders from Pastor Cookston.

Cookston, who denies the severity of the discipline, had no trouble finding a job after his days in Mexico.

In Florida, Palmer faced rape allegations from a former student. He was never charged, but turned over leadership of the Panhandle home to Cookston, who remained the head of what came to be called the Lighthouse of Northwest Florida.

Through the years, concerned parents asked whether Palmer was still involved, and Cookston assured them the pastor was not.

Palmer owned the property all along. John Roebuck, who will put it up for auction Feb. 28, said the aging pastor just decided he didn't want it anymore.

"He's selling it and hoping that some other ministry type would buy it and not necessarily continue it as a boarding school — maybe that, too, but something that would be God-driven," Roebuck said. "We've gotten quite a bit of interest."

Cookston told the Times on Wednesday that the sale came as a surprise, and that the Times investigation played a role. "Our lack of enrollment," he said, "that probably is what caused the landlord to do what he has to do. …

"My wife and I are going to take a long time to heal from this," Cookston said. "I'm going to ask the Lord what he wants us to do."

Meanwhile, as the news spread Wednesday, the Times received phone calls from former residents as old as 40 who said they had waited for years to see this happen. Jodi Hobbs, a former California home resident, helped start an organization called Survivors of Institutional Abuse to combat Lighthouse and programs like it.

She said she was a teenage "helper" under Palmer when she witnessed two suicide attempts. She said she had to restrain a girl who was trying to slit her wrists.

When told of the home's closure, Hobbs began to cry.

"It's a relief," she said, "to know that no other child is going to have to go through what I went through."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354.

Christian girls' reform home closes after Times investigation 02/13/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 4:25pm]
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