Friday, October 16, 2009

Merciless Ministries

This is the first post in what is going to be a very long series. My reader Sean the Blogonaut sent me to check out Mercy Ministries website. There MM claims that they provide "hope and healing for to generations of desperate young women who are seeking freedom from life-controlling problems such as: drug and alcohol addictions, depression, eating disorders, unplanned pregnancy, physical and sexual abuse, and self-harm.

Our free-of-charge biblically-based program serves a diverse population of young women from various socio-economic backgrounds, aged 13-28. Many of the girls, who come to Mercy for help, are facing a combination of debilitating circumstances and have been in various treatment facilities with unsuccessful long-term results. We are committed to providing the young women we serve with the most excellent program services that allow them to recognize their self-worth and prepare them to reach their full potential. Our non-conventional approach to healing allows young women to permanently stop destructive cycles and prepares them to take hope out into their communities."

As the resident crazy person at ATAT, let me please appraise of you of the various data points.
  1. There is no quick and easy lifetime cure for addiction, eating disorders, depression, abuse, or self-harm. (There is a legal and safe solution to unplanned pregnancy, but you'd never guess it from their site.)
  2. A "non-conventional" approach can be thought of like alternative medicine: "Not proven to work or proven not to work.*"
  3. There is no one-sits-fits-all treatment protocol that effectively addresses the needs of abuse survivors, drug addicts, and bulimics.

It would be awfully nice if there were quick cures for those problems. Looking at this list, it looks like they're targeting girls like me for their program. I'm an abuse survivor of every category of abuse there is (mental, sexual, physical, spiritual/religious). My pregnancy with my son was most assuredly unplanned (although his eventual birth was delightfully anticipated by the end). I've suffered from eating disorder symptoms (everything from thinking "I'm fat" to extremely unhealthy behaviors: starving, over-exercising, abusing diet pills, abusing laxatives, throwing up - you name it. If it's gross and unhealthy, but effective at weight loss, I tried it.) I used to self-harm, but thankfully haven't done it in years and years now, and as a teenager I abused a lot of drugs.

Most people recover from these conditions, or regain control of their lives, within the context of their support community - friends, family, internet groups - rather than without any of these supportive elements, in a 6-month inpatient rehabilitation center. Therapy, support, time, emotional tools, and education on better coping skills (better stress management, healthy emotional releases, etc.) help people get better. It takes time and work, and there are slip ups. Secular programs don't promise to "permanently stop destructive cycles."

So, what is the program like? Can we get details on the treatment protocols and maybe information like - how many doctors/therapists are on staff? what are the counseling credentials? how many graduates return to destructive behaviors, or don't feel "cured" after 6 months in the program? what community resources are offered to these girls and women? does physical or sexual abuse occur on the premises, and what steps have been taken to prevent such a thing? These are important questions that you would imagine a girl or her parents might want to.

Well, a lot of this information isn't available directly on the website - it's on the application form. Okay, well how do I get one of those? First I had to give my name, email, address, and phone number. (I used 1122 Boogie Boogie Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94101 as my fake mailing address, and I use the phone number I had as a little kid, with a San Fran area code. What - doesn't everyone have made up data for online forms?)

MM requires people to provide personal information before they can get a link to the application form. (That's just weird, right?) Unlike a lot of youth residential facilities, Mercy Ministries is not used as an alternative to jail sentence for juvenile offenders, and they claim "No applicant can be sent to MM against her will or will enter the program without showing a sincere desire to change." I wonder how this applies to the girls who were there for unplanned pregnancy. I guarantee you, a desire for change (sincere or otherwise) is not really necessary. That baby's gonna come out eventually.

Or how about someone with depression? It's hard to desire anything when suffering from clinical depression. And while I believe the vast majority of people with eating disorders would like recovery, there is a lot of fear that recovery will just mean weight gain (and not the associated better coping skills and body acceptance that make weight gain an acceptable fate.) My initial gut suspicion, based on the repeated language about girls being properly willing to change (ex. "Applicants to MM should have a desire for help in a Christian atmosphere and should be willing to apply the principles of a biblical counseling program."), is that this group is preparing to blame their failure rate on the attitudes of their residents/patients, rather than on their "non-conventional approach."

The application must be filled out by the girl applying - "in your own handwriting" is underlined, which does make me wonder if they are discriminating against those with physical handicaps. I was an assistant in an office for a while, and one of the men I worked with had Parkinson's disease. Writing anything by hand was an extreme struggle for him, and the result was often illegible to anyone else. (I had no idea how to deal with this at the time, as the person required to type up his chicken scratch. I didn't want to be rude or inconsiderate of his disability, so I just guessed what he'd written, and typed that.)

So first you have to turn on the application, including a recent head-to-toe photograph, insurance information, and medical records. Then, "You will be required to listen to two teaching assignments on our website. You will receive this web link when you call in for further instructions. You must submit a summary of each teaching and what these messages mean to you before your phone interview can be scheduled. Please be sure to follow all the instructions on the letter provided with the link." Finally, you'll have an hour-long intake phone interview, during which they require you to "be alone and free to speak". So, more instructions are coming, but you have to jump through multiple hoops to get it.

I am a firm believer in freedom of information. Obviously. I mean, I'm writing an embarrassingly honest tell-all book about my family (to the great consternation of several of them). I think information should be free, with obvious exceptions. You shouldn't have to go through several steps of revealing personal data (including medical records, which are extremely personal and should always remain personal under HIPPA law) just to find out what the program actually consists of. The real purpose of such a hoop-jump arrangement is to withhold information until someone has "earned" it. (Think Scientology and the secret OT III teachings - which are now public record, thanks to court cases.)

Someone who invests a lot of effort into getting "accepted" into the program, is more likely to ignore their own instincts once they arrive, and to do their best to follow group norms. Which, you know, cult leaders love. Many youth residential facilities operate and behave as cults; from what I've seen in the past day of snooping around, Mercy Ministries is one of them.

I found this great list of mind control tactics at Individually, each of these elements may be harmful; combined they are mind control.

  • Deception
  • Exclusivism
  • Fear and Intimidation
  • Love Bombing
  • Information Control
  • Reporting Structure
  • Loaded Language
  • Time Control
  • Relationship Control
  • Personal Identity Replacement
Okay, so let's take this list and apply it to Mercy Ministries.
  1. Deception - Mercy Ministries claims to be a free-of-charge program, but further digging within the application revealed, "I, ____ (print name), have read the above medical information and am aware of the required deposits... I also understand that the total of all medical expenses.. are my responsibility to pay in full."

    Okay, so it's free but it's still my responsibility to pay in full. (Kind of like Jesus' "free" gift, huh?) Mercy Ministries Survivors in Australia report that their Centrelink (Social Security) checks were submitted directly to MM, with only 5% going to the recipient. Charity Navigator reports Mercy Ministries in Nashville, TN has over $7.7 million in net assets, and took in $6.8 million in 2007 alone.

  2. Exclusivism - Since MM's home page stated that they're able to "permanently stop destructive cycles" of girls who have had no success in other (real) programs, I think we can assume there's a bit of exclusivity. This article Sean scanned in from the Perth Voice ought to make this a bit clearer. Also, in the interviews below you'll hear MM graduates describe being told, "No one else can help you. Only we can help you."

  3. Fear and Intimidation - Since they use exorcisms to treat eating disorders, drug addiction, (pregnancy?), and mental illness, I'm just going to leap to the conclusion that people living there feel fear and intimidation. I'm basing this on the fact that exorcisms are scary as shit, and because it's how I felt when I was sent to a religious cult for drug problems as a teenager.

  4. Love Bombing - Here's an article from a former Hillsong parishioner on the "love bombing" practice. Hillsong and Mercy Ministries are "partners" which Sean explains in this post here. Love bombing is simply making a new initiate or potential member feel overwhelmed with love and positive attention. Once they've come to rely or depend on this support and "love" it is yanked away, and withheld selectively as a means of gaining control over the "love bombed" person.

  5. Information Control - I think the application process has shown us that information about MM is very much controlled. Former residents verify that they were only able to see psychiatrists and doctors while in the company of MM staff (who were Bible students, not real therapists or doctors or anything like that).
I'll cover the remaining cult characteristics of Mercy Ministries tomorrow or later in the week.

For incredibly extensive coverage information, I recommend you do some follow up reading on Sean the Bloganaut's post here on Atheist Nexus. It's linkalicious.

You can also go to Mercy Survivors, which doesn't appear to have been updated recently, but has good information and links to the blogs of individual survivors. has a set of MM survivor story videos, and the history of the MM's false DMCA "take down" order.

Sign this petition to stop child abuse in residential facilities in the US. (Sign it even if you don't live in the US. More names is good, and I don't believe there are any legal requirements that a person must be a US citizen in order to sign a letter being sent to US congress members. The petition does not make any claims that signees are US citizens, or registered voters.) Thanks.

* This quote is from this video beat poem by Tim Minchin, which is awesome and totally worth listening to.

**Yes, I intentionally linked to the application as many times as possible. I don't like the idea that people have to give personal information (even if it's fake like mine) just to find out that this "free" program requires girls to cover "total expenses".