Evangelical treatment program gets $2.4 million from state


A former crack user says she kicked her addiction because she found Jesus at Minnesota Teen Challenge. A man says that God healed his liver after a prayer service at the Christian drug treatment facility. While its clients sing its praises – some claiming it saved their lives – should such an overtly religious program be receiving taxpayer funding? According to state records, MNTC has gotten more than $2 million from the state of Minnesota in order to run its faith-based chemical dependency treatment centers.

The overtly evangelical nature of the program raises questions about the constitutionality of the large amount of state money flowing into the program. Teen Challenge has received $2,388,947 in state funding since 2007, mainly from the Minnesota Department of Human Services, according to the state’s new Transparency and Accountability Project website.

Teen Challenge has been in the spotlight recently because of concerns about the separation of church and state – and, specifically, the program’s receipt of federal funding. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in June requesting the department halt federal grants to Teen Challenge.

“In providing these grants, the U.S. Department of Justice is unconstitutionally aiding religion,” the complaint read.

But while much attention has been paid to the program’s federal funding, its receipt of state funds has largely flown under the radar.

Chuck Samuelson of the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said the program has the appearance of running afoul of the constitutional principle of church-state separation. “Everything they talk about is about God in relation to the program,” he said. “That’s a lot of [state] money.”

Samuelson said ACLU-MN has been looking into the drug treatment center, but it’s difficult to prove whether Teen Challenge is misusing state dollars.

“We don’t have data that is supportable in a court of law,” he said. “What we don’t have is anybody with direct knowledge of the program to come forward.”

Eric Vagle, Teen Challenge’s communications director, acknowledges the religious nature of the treatment centers but says state money is kept separate from evangelical programming.

“The program services that are funded through the government are non-religious in nature, and while we do offer religious programming, it is not funded by government dollars and clients voluntarily choose to participate,” he said.

“It is important to note that a number of studies suggest that spirituality can play an important part of the recovery process for many people, and therefore most treatment programs have some sort of spirituality component to them.”

Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees the program differently.

“Teen Challenge is a program that should not be receiving state money,” he said. “It requires people who participate to convert to Christianity.”

Luchenitser says that the constitutionality of the program depends on the payment process through the state. He noted that court decisions have made voucher payments – state money given directly to the client to choose a treatment service – legal. Minnesota doesn’t use the voucher system and instead reimburses counties that pay Teen Challenge in a fee-for-service system. The state mechanism for that system is the Consolidated Chemical Dependency Treatment Fund (CCDTF).

State authorities conducted an analysis of CCDTF (pdf) in 2006, which described the payment structure:

The payment system is on a fee-for-service basis, but counties, within state-wide guidelines, determine which clients need treatment, and which provider will serve the client. Two thirds of all CCDTF admissions were referred by government social service and criminal justice agencies.

The report acknowledged that the county authorities who choose the treatment centers to provide services aren’t always looking at federal standards for treatment programs. Therefore, faith-based programs, such as Teen Challenge, don’t get carefully vetted.

County monitoring does not assure that certain Federal requirements regarding spending practices are met, and whether performance is adequately monitored. With the CCDTF accounting for 45% of the treatment market share, the county contract can be a powerful tool for change regarding providers that have not yet linked the most modern science to their program design and operation.

Because Teen Challenge is licensed by the state – and has been since 2001 – and is listed as a service provider for Hennepin County, the treatment center will continue to receive state funds in the future.

God is Teen Challenge’s treatment strategy

While MNTC’s Vagle says state funds don’t go to evangelical programming, most of the language about the program – coming from its managers, Web site and clients – references the transformational power of Jesus Christ, as opposed to chemical health and behavior therapy. A glowing review of the program by the Alexandria Echo Press tells of Carlos, Minn., resident Nikol Foss, who sought treatment for crack addiction. Her probation officer recommended Minnesota Teen Challenge, but she rejected the suggestion, saying she wanted nothing to do with a Christian drug program. She eventually relented and signed up.

“I was going to be tough,” she told the paper. “I wasn’t going to let Jesus into my life, but I’d take the treatment.”

But it didn’t work out that way. “I decided that if I accepted Jesus, it was going to be better, so I accepted Jesus,” she said. “I was happy immediately.”

Pastor Rich Scherber, executive director of the program, used similar language when he took Minnesota Teen Challenge’s message of healing to the Minnesota State Fair this summer. During a live show there by Christian talk radio station KKMS, he spoke of the “perfect storm” last fall when the economic recession reduced donations and a scandal involving Tom Petters wiped out a foundation that supported a large chunk of Teen Challenge’s programs.

“God has helped us. I mean, we are operating in the black, not in the red,” he said. “That’s what Teen Challenge is all about. God is working miracles at Teen Challenge.”

Scherber said that Christian teaching is one of two keys to Teen Challenge’s success: “Number one, the Christian approach,” he told KKMS listeners. “That’s by far… The Bible says that any man that be in praise, he’s a new creation, old things are passed away, behold all things are become new.” The other key Scherber says is the fact that the residential treatment lasts longer than the typical 28-day program.

Scherber brought a number of current and former clients on the KKMS show to tell their stories of transformation through Jesus Christ.

Jim, who had a history of abusing alcohol, heroin and pain killers, said, “We have healing [prayer] services at Teen Challenge and God healed my liver.”

“He came into Teen Challenge and God healed his liver,” said Scherber. “What the doctors have said is that he is a walking miracle.”

The KKMS host chimed in to say, “God has blessed the socks off this guy!”

Heidi, a current client at Teen Challenge, also claimed that finding God at Teen Challenge helped her kick a cocaine and heroin addiction. “I was at a low point… and ended up going to a secular drug treatment program,” she said. “When I came out I started using again. It didn’t do what Teen Challenge did for me.”

She continued, “I know now that it’s for [sic] this time, this time that I’m at Teen Challenge. I’m learning about God, I’m learning about Jesus.”

“I know that I have victory in Christ. Thanks to Teen Challenge I’ve been learning about God,” she said.

Virtually every testimonial on the program’s Web site by current and former clients of Teen Challenge say they kicked their addictions because of God, and a number say they converted to Christianity while in the program. For example, “Craig,” a current Teen Challenge client, said, “When the [District Attorney] recommended Teen Challenge, he told the judge he was tired of sending me to jail, because I came out worse every time. But Teen Challenge isn’t just a drug program. It’s a discipleship program. Because of Christ, I have new heart… and I don’t ever want to hurt people again.”

Directors and staff members aren’t shy about calling the program a ministry. Kirk Noonan, news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel, the official publication of the Assemblies of God, spent a weekend at Minnesota Teen Challenge in November 2007 and described the religious curriculum of the program (PDF).

In the television room we gather for the nightly devotion, which is part pep talk, part town hall meeting. With Bibles in hand we hear a devotion. This is perhaps one of the most important routines the residents are developing. “Staying in the Word will keep you grounded,” a staff member tells us. “Having a daily devotion is critical to your success both in here and after you graduate.”

Noonan writes that every Sunday, Teen Challenge clients sing in the Minnesota Teen Challenge choir. They are required to, since “every resident is a member.”

“The choir’s chief purpose is to share the ministry of Teen Challenge and gain support for the program,” Scherber told Noonan. “When we go out and sing, people see good fruit and they want to invest in this ministry. Nearly 85 percent of our budget is raised by the choir.”

The choir’s music is overtly Christian with a style that “varies greatly, ranging from contemporary gospel songs such as, ‘This is How it Feels to Be Free,’ to worshipful hymns like, ‘I Was Made to Worship You.'”

“We license faith-based organizations all the time”

The state did not respond to the Minnesota Independent’s requests for details about how taxpayer money is being spent by Teen Challenge and how the state vets and licenses chemical dependency programs.

But, in 2004, state officials talked to the Star Tribune for its coverage of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives and his push for charitable-choice initiatives, including Teen Challenge.

“We license faith-based organizations all the time,” Donald Eubanks, director of chemical health for the state Department of Human Services at the time, told the paper. “We do not dictate treatment philosophy at all. We make sure that when people choose that form of treatment that they are aware of what they are getting.”

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