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Lawsuit opens a window on faith-based addiction treatment

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The few dozen people holding signs and rainbow flags outside the Hilton Garden Inn last Saturday knew their target: Phil Robertson, bearded patriarch of the Duck Dynasty family, who was scheduled to begin speaking at any minute. A Bible-belt icon, Robertson is also known for such gems of insight as his 2013 comment to GQ that vaginas have "more to offer" a man than another man's anus. "I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I'm saying? But hey, sin: It's not logical, my man. It's just not logical."

Emily Withnall, who organized the rally, said that "deeply homophobic comments" like these prompted her and others to stand outside the hotel in the dark to convey the message that "love is love."

While the demonstrators were well versed in Robertson's views, they admittedly knew less about Adult and Teen Challenge, the group that invited him to Missoula. At $50 a ticket, the event served as a major fundraiser for the local nonprofit's faith-based treatment program for women with substance-abuse issues. Its small live-in facility in Missoula is part of a national network of more than 200 so-called Christian recovery centers.

"What I have read about them is that what will pull you out of addiction is God in the morning, Jesus in the afternoon and the Holy Spirit at night," said Sydney Cook, another demonstrator.

That description may not be an exaggeration. According to a recent civil complaint filed in Missoula County District Court, the center takes its faith very seriously—so seriously, in fact, that a former employee claims she was fired for not praying hard enough for a client experiencing severe drug withdrawals.

Jean Starr had been working as Adult and Teen Challenge's counseling coordinator for a little more than a year when a new "student" arrived at the facility in February 2016. Staff expected the student to be difficult, given that she had previously been in two lockdown rehab programs, and was ill on arrival, according to the complaint. Starr claims she was instructed by Adult and Teen Challenge Executive Director Jan Henderson, who was apparently out of town at the time, to gather what staff was present that day to "pray over" the student. Starr and one other staffer went to the woman's room and did so, but it didn't seem to have much effect. By the afternoon, she was complaining of nausea and pain and was visibly shaking. She was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with severe withdrawal symptoms before being returned to the Adult and Teen Challenge facility. At Henderson's direction, Starr continued praying with the woman that night and the next morning.

Demonstrators outside the Hilton Garden Inn said they were protesting an event featuring Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, who has made anti-LGBTQ remarks. The nonprofit that hired him to speak, Adult and Teen Challenge, uses prayer and other faith-based approaches to drug-abuse treatment. - PHOTO COURTESY DAVID EVANS, UM SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM
  • photo courtesy David Evans, UM School of Journalism
  • Demonstrators outside the Hilton Garden Inn said they were protesting an event featuring Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, who has made anti-LGBTQ remarks. The nonprofit that hired him to speak, Adult and Teen Challenge, uses prayer and other faith-based approaches to drug-abuse treatment.

The student walked out of the center later that day.

The suit alleges that upon the executive director's return the following day, Henderson fired Starr "in a screaming rage," saying "she was neither spiritual enough, nor had she followed directions in regards to praying with the student." Starr is seeking damages for wrongful discharge.

Approached by a reporter at the Hilton event, Henderson said she was too busy to speak with the Indy. She did not return subsequent calls for comment by press time. The organization has denied Starr's claims in a court filing.

As the case continues, a recent program graduate tells the Indy that she witnessed other extreme religious practices at the Missoula site. Amanda DeLong lived at the Teen Challenge facility for more than two years, first as a "student" completing the program for drug addiction, then as an intern and employee at the center-operated thrift store. She recalls one staffer showed students an instructional DVD about speaking in tongues. "She told some of the women, if you can't speak in tongues, you're not Christian," DeLong says.

DeLong says that in some cases medication was withheld until students allowed staffers to pray for them. What bothers her more, however, is what she describes as lack of training for some center staffers, which she claims led them to be "borderline emotionally abusive" with students. DeLong is now in school pursuing a Licensed Addiction Counseling credential, and says she has slowly come to learn how the practices she experienced at Adult and Teen Challenge didn't match the guidelines she's now reading about in her textbooks. She says she quit her job at the center's thrift store in 2015.

"I just couldn't watch the women go through what they were going through anymore," she says.

Back at the Hilton, Withnall herself got a taste of the center's emphasis on prayer. She explained that she had emailed Henderson to give her notice about the demonstration. Henderson sent a polite email back.

"She signed off by saying she would pray for us all," Withnall says. "Basically implying that being gay is something you can pray away."

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