PICKENS CO., S.C. (WSPA) — Earlier this year in a 7News Original Report, we reported on the plans to open a group therapy home for troubled teens in rural Pickens County.
Some of the partners working to bring the camp to the Sunset area of the county from New York had told 7News the plans don’t call for bringing along controversial and questionable approaches to therapy.
Monday, former residents at Freedom Village sat down with 7News and said they don’t believe that promise and wanted to speak out with their stories and experiences at the New York campus.
They told us what they experienced at Freedom Village in the 1990s and 2000s was not therapy and they left worse off than when they arrived.
They even called the organization a “cult.”
However, the new leadership said they’re hoping to take this in a different direction in the Upstate.
Elizabeth Runge spoke with a 7News reporter via Skype Monday afternoon from her home in Summerville.
“I moved to South Carolina to get as far away from this place and just start fresh and new where I didn’t have all these horrible memories,” said Runge.
Runge said those memories she was trying to escape involved what she described as “mind control” and “corporal punishment.”
She said the memories came rushing back when she learned this year the evangelical campus she attended as a teenager was moving to the new state she now calls home.
“I feel led to speak out and tell people what’s really going on here,” she explained.
Runge is speaking out about Freedom Village, a fundamentalist program for troubled teenagers that could soon be operating on a plot of land in Pickens County.
She said her parents sent her to the New York campus when she was 16.
“I wasn’t really a bad kid. I didn’t do drugs or anything like that. My dad was just trying to get me on the right track,” she recalled.
Soon after she arrived, Runge said Freedom Village wasn’t what she expected.
“It was a very cult like atmosphere. There was a lot of fear mongering, a lot of control through fear,” she said.
Runge said that fear was instilled through what she described as “psychological manipulation” and isolation from family members.
She said she remembers being forced to carry piles of wood for long distances as punishment.
“I spent quite a bit of time on the wood pile. At one time I actually passed out,” she said.
Runge said she’s not the only one and there are others with similar stories, like Gabriel Gonzalez, who also spoke with 7News via Skype from his home in New York City.
“It was almost cult like as if he was almost God. If you questioned him you were questioning God,” explained Gonzalez.
Runge and Gonzalez are part of “Freedom Village Truth,” a group of approximately 500 members who have shared their experiences at Freedom Village.
“There was no counseling. There was no group therapy. or anything. It was just ‘this is the Bible, the word of God and this is the application,” Gonzalez said.
Jonathan Bailie, executive director of Hannah Grace Homes, the organization helping to bring the campus to Pickens County said the program here will be different.
Bailie said it will be a new direction with no corporal punishment, no hard labor therapy, or gay conversion therapy.
Balie sat down with 7News earlier this year to explain.
“We are looking for natural consequences, we’re looking for natural rewards. That’s the best way we believe to see these young people really achieve what they want to see when they grow up,” Bailie said.
Over the phone on Monday, Bailie said there’s good and bad in everything and said there have been far more former residents who had positive experiences than negative.
Runge and Gonzalez said they and others are working to protect other youth.
“Every single one of us is so scarred by what happened to us there that we think it’s important enough to interrupt our lives to try to stop this,” said Runge.
She and others have reached out to local and state elected officials to tell them their stories.
They plan to speak with reporters in Pickens County on August 1 in an effort to spread their message in the Upstate.
Bailie also explained that Fletcher Brothers, the pastor who operated Freedom Village for decades has stepped aside and the program here will not resemble the methods used in New York.
Their license is still being reviewed by the state with inspections to happen over the next two weeks.
The former residesnt expressed concerns the group will file for religious exemption and not face any oversight at the state level.
But, Bailie reassured 7News that even though the group home is privately funded it will face the same oversight as any state foster care program.