Some FACCCA-accredited homes take a gentler approach: no corporal punishment

Published May 15, 2013


Young boys wind up at the Gator Wilderness Camp School because they lash out in anger or run away from home.

They must survive outdoors on this private property off a dirt road in Punta Gorda, building their own huts, cooking their own food. Every Sunday, they are required to go to chapel.

But, unlike more than a dozen other Christian children's homes examined by the Tampa Bay Times, children here do not complain of abuse or neglect.

Director Gregg Kanagy does things differently.

No corporal punishment. No threats or name-calling. No confinement or shackling.

Boys who live here tour the facility first and stay only if they agree to it.

Kanagy's program and other religious children's homes like it are fundamentally different from the troubled homes uncovered by the Times in a yearlong investigation:

While all of the programs fall outside of state standards because of a religious exemption, many still ban the use of corporal punishment and extreme punishment techniques.

Kanagy, who has a master's degree in education and is certified to teach emotionally and mentally handicapped students, said paddling kids does not work.

"Corporal punishment is about external controls," he said. "We're about internal controls."

Kanagy said he avoided a state license so he could require his campers to attend a chapel on Sundays; he doesn't want them to be able to opt out. "We always stick together as a group."

He does not use the reduced oversight to punish boys for every little mistake. "It's not about performance," he said. "It's about them being able to get to the point where they can talk about the hurts in their lives."

New boys are treated the same as the others.

If one boy punches another, the group talks it out, and if that takes time out of their fishing trip, they deal with it.

A boy once ran away and climbed a tree. He wasn't shackled or secluded for days. The boy decided he wanted to cut down the tree, so he wouldn't have to look at it and remember. So they did.

The camp did not always work this way. Under other leaders in 2008, a 15-year-old who had mouthed off was laid on by a 220-pound counselor for three hours. Other boys witnessed and participated in the restraint.

State investigators verified the incident and found such treatment was not unusual at the camp. The director at the time was charged with neglect, but died before trial. The counselor pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, contributing to the delinquency of a minor; he got probation. The school closed.

"My guess," Kanagy said, "is there was some pretty unhealthy group culture."

Kanagy reopened the home in 2009 after pledging a change its rough tactics. Since then, the state has not had to respond to a claim of mistreatment.